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Nikolas Menendez blossomed early in his Culver career and became a team leader.

Nikolas Menendez Named Midwest Boys' Player of the Year

June 20, 2024
Jonah Rosenblum
Culver Academy (Ind.) Athletics

Before Nikolas Menendez earned a reputation as one of the nation’s top defensemen, he turned heads on Culver’s campus.

Before the Eagles senior started rising recruiting lists, Menendez caught coach Jon Birsner’s eye with a more subtle — but equally impressive — achievement.

As a freshman, Menendez didn’t make Culver’s prep team, the one that faces top teams from all over the country, instead playing for varsity. That’s not uncommon in an incredibly deep program. What was completely out of the ordinary was what happened next.

“He was on our ‘B’ team as a freshman when he first came in, and I told him at the end of that year, ‘You’re the most improved player in our program, I think you can really play this game at the next level,’” Birsner said. “One year later, as a sophomore, he’s starting for us, and the rest is history there.”

Menendez never stopped rising.

As the 2023 season progressed, he started guarding the opponent’s best player. As the 2024 season drew closer, the Duke commit was named the second-best recruit in his class.

As a senior, the newly named USA Lacrosse High School Boys’ Midwest Player of the Year defended as well as anybody in the country, holding some of America’s top attackmen in check while racking up caused turnovers and ground balls.

“It’s a cool story,” Menendez said. “Everyone who goes to Culver is surrounded by, still, the best of the best, so they can put in the work and then see results on the field.”

Menendez doesn’t mince words when talking about the beginning of his lacrosse career at Culver.

“Freshman year going in, it felt like I couldn’t do anything right,” Menendez said. “I couldn’t catch the ball, I couldn’t throw the ball.”

Surely, Menendez is exaggerating? Nope.

“The senior class, they threw the ball a lot harder than I was used to,” Menendez said. “When I say I couldn’t catch the ball, I couldn’t catch the ball from the very beginning.”

Even as throwing and catching became routine, guarding Culver’s best was a serious challenge. Surrounded by an endless array of talented players destined for some of the top college programs in America, Menendez’s eyes were quickly opened.

“I think that was the first time that I realized, ‘OK, this is serious,’” Menendez said. “I’m surrounded by players going to college for the sport, and it’s not something you can take lightly. So that’s when I kind of realized, ‘OK, this is what makes Culver different.’”

Nikolas Menendez
Nikolas Menendez caused 33 turnovers in 2024.
Culver Academy (Ind.) Athletics

Nikolas Menendez

School: Culver Academy (Ind.)
Year: Senior
Position: Defenseman
2024 statistics: 33 CTs, 48 GBs
Also considered: Gus Bell, Benilde-St. Margaret’s (Minn.); Nolan Hartl, Forest Hills Central (Mich.); Khalif Hocker, St. Xavier (Ohio); Tommy Janowicz, Upper Arlington (Ohio); Luke McNamara, Rockhurst Jesuit (Mo.); Lachlan Moffatt, Detroit Catholic Central (Mich.); Dillon O’Rourke, Hamilton Southeastern (Ind.); Cash Papadelis, Brother Rice (Mich.); Jake Struck, Olentangy Liberty (Ohio)

He hit the weight room, putting on maybe 25-30 pounds of muscle by his sophomore season.

He also worked hard on his footwork and “started taking practice as serious as I could.”

“Through consistency and the hard work, it slowly started to pay off,” Menendez said. “I was able to start practicing with them and not be a drill killer and start doing better on 1-v-1s — and then everything started stacking up.”

By the end of the year, it was clear Menendez was ready for the big stage.

“It’s not the same schedule as the prep team plays, but you’re still going against 18-year-old seniors in high school, and he’s out there as a freshman just making play after play,” Birsner said of Menendez’s year on the varsity. “His confidence finally settled in, and he started to put on more weight and he started to grow.”

Menendez didn’t grow up playing lacrosse. Football and baseball were his primary sports with basketball sprinkled into the mix. Football and baseball, however, are dramatically different sports.

As time went on, it became clear the pace of football suited Menendez. Baseball, not so much.

So, when a neighbor suggested Menendez give lacrosse a try going into the fourth grade, he was game.

“At that point, I was so ready,” Menendez said. “Even if I didn’t enjoy my time, I was just ready to get away from baseball, and luckily, I loved it. I loved the pace of the game. I loved the physicality of it."

Menendez originally played attack, just like his neighbor, then shifted to the midfield. A couple of years down the road, he found a new position and a new love for the game. When one of the Team Illinois defenders was running late due to traffic, Menendez, then going into eighth grade, filled in for his club teammate.

Defense had always captured his imagination on the basketball court and the football field.

It turned out lacrosse was no different.

“It wasn’t like I started off with it,” Mendendez said. “It happened because one of our defenders wasn’t there, and so I was able to just finally find the passion for the sport and take it seriously and just enjoy hitting people and not getting hit.”

A defensive-minded player like Menendez isn’t worried about taking on the nation’s best players.

He relishes those opportunities.

“Going against guys in practice like Aidan McDonald, all those guys, they’ve helped me not really worry about how big a guy is, how fast a guy is, because I’ve been going against all different types of players and strengths and weaknesses,” Menendez said. “I was definitely excited to get after it against the best guy on the opposing team. I wasn’t too worried about it.”

This season, Menendez guarded some of the nation’s best players, holding stars like Hill Academy’s Colin French (Lehigh), Gonzaga’s James Gardiner (Maryland) and Western Reserve Academy’s Jared Maznik (Harvard) in check.

A lot of teams might send myriad defenders flying at top-notch opponents like Gardiner. The Eagles trusted Menendez.

“We kind of let Nikolas be on an island 1-on-1 because we trusted that matchup always,” Birsner said. “We’re a big team defense team, but for Nikolas, we always game plan that kind of look away and not have to worry about him because he’s going to win that matchup almost every single time, and we’re going to be a better defense because of it.”

Menendez played his role to perfection. He played lockdown defense, but he also knew the right times to leave the “island” and go for a steal, trusting his fellow defenders to have his back.

“[It’s] going out there, playing freely, not thinking too much, just playing, because we know what the other team, what they’re going to run, the tendencies of the other team’s best players,” Menendez said. “Just being able to go out there and be a great team defensive player is going to help my team be better rather than if I was to just focus on my guy and only my guy.”

The results were magnificent, as Menendez had a team-leading 33 caused turnovers and an equally impressive 48 ground balls.

“You rarely see a defenseman at the high school level check every single one of those boxes; you rarely see that at the college level,” Birsner said. “To have them all and to have been able to display it on the highest stages against the best players has been great to see.”

Culver boys' lacrosse.
Culver finished 14-3 and atop the Midwest Region.
John Strohsacker

Final Midwest Region Top 10

1. Culver Academy (Ind.), 14-3
2. Olentangy Liberty (Ohio), 23-1
3. St. Xavier (Ohio), 20-4
4. Rockhurst Jesuit (Mo.), 18-2
5. Detroit Catholic Central (Mich.), 21-3
6. Upper Arlington (Ohio), 19-4
7. Trinity Louisville (Ky.), 17-1
8. Hamilton Southeastern (Ind.), 15-4
9. Lake Forest (Ill.), 22-3
10. MICDS (Mo.), 17-5