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Birmingham Brother Rice's Mackenzie MacEachern turned down an opportunity to play in the North American Hockey League so he could return to Brother Rice for his senior season and help the Warriors pursue a state title. (Oakland Press/VAUGHN GURGANIAN)

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HOCKEY: MacEachern looking to lead Brother Rice to state title WITH VIDEO

Brother Rice senior hockey player Mackenzie MacEachern has committed to play for the Michigan State Spartans. (Oakland Press/VAUGHN GURGANIAN)

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It wasn't all that long ago that the best players scoffed at the idea of playing high school hockey. Junior leagues and elite travel programs were the only way to go if a player wanted to land a college scholarship.

Well, that has changed to some extent. High School hockey has come a long way in the past 10 years. It's not uncommon for some elite and many other AAA players to suit it up for their high school teams.

And college hockey recruiters are taking notice.

Sure, many of the most sought-after players are lacing it up for their AAA programs and playing 60-80-100 games a season. But some are playing right in their own back yards.

Birmingham Brother Rice's Mackenzie MacEachern recently committed, verbally, to play for coach Tom Anastos at Michigan State University. A year ago, this might have been a pipe dream for the high-scoring forward. But after a standout junior season which saw him earn first-team all-state honors in Division 2 and co-MVP honors in the Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League, he put himself on the radar of nearly every college hockey program out there.

And his play since then, alongside other high school hockey players in the Michigan Development Hockey League this past fall, helped the Spartans in their decision to make him an offer.

"I don't think the interest came, really, from last year. I don't think they respected that," MacEachern said of his breakout junior season. "They thought high school hockey was kind of a joke, just like other people, but if you come out and see us you'll see it's really not a joke. It's just as good as anyone out there."

High School hockey certainly isn't going to attract a lot of college scouts on its own, but the decision of some of the elite players to stay and play for their high school teams just might attract those scouts to attend a few games here and there. MacEachern's decision to forego playing in a junior league he was drafted into the North American Hockey League last spring and come back to his high school team for his senior season was a rarity among elite 16-17-year-olds.

"(Mac) is a very special player, for sure," said his coach, Lou Schmidt, who said that in his nine years at Rice he's never had a player offered a scholarship and then return to play for the Warriors. "He blossomed last year and has continued to get better. He has drawn a lot of scouts to watch him play. I think what ended up happening is some of the other colleges realized that they might want to get in on (him). The top programs get first choice, so as it kind of trickles down, some of the other schools have to make a decision as to whether or not they're going to try and grab some of these top players before the Michigans and Michigan States get to him.

"Michigan State's got some very smart scouts and coaches over there and they know what they're looking for and they see potential. And Mac is loaded with potential."

Physically, MacEachern is a hockey specimen. He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 180 pounds. Skill-wise, he's got everything a big-time college program is looking for. And considering he's in just his second year on the varsity team, he still has a lot of room for growth.

"He's not only getting better, but he can get a lot better, too," Schmidt said. "(MSU) saw something in him that they felt was worthy of a scholarship. Clearly, they do get to pick from the best players and they considered Mac to be one of those guys."

Many insiders expect MacEachern to be drafted in one of two United States Hockey League drafts this spring, with some feeling he might be drafted in the first of the two, the "Futures Draft" in April.

MacEachern will then try out for the team and if he makes it, will play junior hockey until he's ready to join the Spartans.

But until then, he'll be lacing it up with the Warriors, who are looking to get back to Compuware for a shot at avenging last year's loss in the state championship game. Coming back to Brother Rice, rather than playing in the NAHL, was a decision both he and his parents, Ron and Pam, were comfortable with.

"Most players in my situation probably would have left their school, left their team, but I decided to stay with my family, finish my four years at Brother Rice, and play with my hockey team," MacEachern said. "You go to school with them, you play with them, you see them pretty much everyday and just build this friendship, this brotherhood as we call it at our school. It's a lot better than travel.

"Everyone says that high school hockey can't compete with anyone out there, but I've had the opportunity to play against AAA, like with high school all-star teams and we were right there with them. This is probably the best place to be."

That's music to the ears of Schmidt and the Warrior faithful. MacEachern is one of the favorites to win this year's Mr. Hockey award. He's scored 25 points in his team's first 10 games and has his team ranked No. 2 in Division 2.

"We're happy, clearly, for our team and for our program but I think it's good for high school hockey," Schmidt said. "He's been a leader on this team. He's clearly got his scoring touch. But I know Mac well enough, he's a competitor. I think he wants to win a state championship. We got really close last year, and I think that's one of the things that's driving him."

MacEachern won't disagree with that statement.

"Our goals are obviously to win a state championship," the Warrior captain said. "Even though we lost (15 players to graduation), we're good. We started off slow but now we're developing and we're about to roll. I can't wait."

Jason Schmitt covers high school hockey for The Oakland Press. Email him at jason.schmitt@oakpress.com, read his "In The Zone" blog here and follow our high school hockey coverage on Twitter @MIPrepZone.

Oakland County Power 10

1. Catholic Central

2. Cranbrook

3. Brother Rice

4. St. Mary's

5. Lake Orion

6. Clarkston

7. Farmington Hills Unified

8. Novi

9. South Lyon Unified

10. Waterford Mott

- Jason Schmitt

Last Updated: 2/24/2012 9:45:45 AM EST

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