Mikey Connell — the son of a former local soccer legend — has signed a national letter of intent with the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
The Steinbrenner High standout is the son of former Tampa Bay Rowdies star Mike Connell.
The 6-foot-1 midfielder will be coached at the Division I college by Derek Marinatos, who’s in his sixth year as UNF’s head coach.
Connell signed his national letter of intent with UNF on Feb. 3, two weeks after ending his high school soccer career.
While Connell had a few other college offers, he decided on UNF after meeting with the coaching staff and visiting the campus.
The three-time All-County selection is relieved to have the recruiting process behind him.
“It was a very stressful process,” Mikey said, “because you’re always thinking about where you are. If a school doesn’t offer you, you’re thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m running out of time; signing day is coming up.’ Once I committed, it was easy going into the (soccer) showcases and just focusing on playing, and not worry about attracting coaches to my style of play.”
He will be joining a team which has finished over .500 for three straight seasons. The university became an even more attractive option for Connell after one of the team’s players, midfielder Alex Morrell (of Lakeland), was drafted 22nd overall in the 2016 MLS (Major League Soccer) SuperDraft.
“That was a big factor in my decision,” said Connell, who hopes to play professional soccer after he finishes college. “The fact they can produce those type of players gives me an opportunity to prove myself on that big stage.”
His father noted it was important to “put (Mikey) in the hands of someone that will take him to the next level.”
“Certainly, the coaching staff there understands the challenge of preparing players and delivering players to the professional ranks, which was very important,” Mike said.
This past season, Connell was one of the most productive players in Hillsborough County, scoring 26 goals and dishing out 19 assists.
“While he’s been a very, very good high school player, everything resets and now (he’s) going to go and have to do it again,” Connell’s father said about playing Division I soccer. “The fact that he has the opportunity to improve himself at this next level is all you ask for. Now, it’s up to him to go and understand the challenge.”
Throughout his illustrious high school career, Connell said he’s become more confident in his abilities, which is highlighted by his attacking style of play, and his penchant for facilitating scoring opportunities for teammates.
“I feel like I see things that most players do not see,” said Connell, who helped guide Steinbrenner to a district championship in 2014 and a regional championship in 2013. “I’m left-footed, so that’s a unique characteristic. I can take people on with the ball, I can score goals, and I can assist.
“I’ve really tried to hone my game into an all-around kind of player over the past few years.”
His father, a 10-year veteran of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, agrees with that assessment.
“He’s very confident receiving the ball and holding the ball when he has it. He doesn’t panic under pressure,” Mike explained. “His strongest asset is his vision of the game, the creative side of the game.”
Additionally, Mike said his son has become a “better leader of his teammates” since he started playing for Steinbrenner.
“He’s seeing the game on a bigger scale. …Just maturing with the game and the expectations of a bigger, stronger, more physical game,” Mike said.
Mike believes his son has the talent to play professionally, but adds there’s “still a lot of development to come.”
“There’s the right of passage to ‘fight the fight’ against everyone out there that may have that (professional) ambition,” Mike said. “Certainly, had he grown up in the soccer environments of South Africa or Europe, he would be further along.”
In addition to playing for Steinbrenner, Connell also plays for the Tampa Rangers, a club soccer team directed by his father.
The opportunity to be instructed by someone who’s played professional soccer for over a decade has been a key to Connell’s development.
“He’s the biggest impact on my life, coaching wise,” Connell said about his father. “He’s been my main coach since I was 11 when I was on his club team, and he’s been coaching me on my own whenever I started walking.
“He’s definitely been the biggest influence in my life on the game of soccer,” he said.
Published March 23, 2016