Ryan Zanelli chooses higher education over a high-profile football program

Ryan Zanelli passed for for 3,180 yards and 42 touchdowns last season at La Habra High.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Ryan Zanelli and his father, John, have a budding rivalry.

Ryan committed to attend Pennsylvania, where the La Habra High senior will play football for the Quakers, announcing his decision on Twitter earlier this month. His father also attended an Ivy League school, spending his collegiate years in New York City at Columbia.

“He was obviously talking Columbia to me and always talking trash,” Ryan said of his father. “He loves it there, but I kind of wanted to do my own thing, I guess you could say.”

Penn was one of the first schools involved when Ryan’s recruitment increased this winter. It pitched him on an Ivy League education and, in March, offered him an opportunity to play quarterback. A week later, Zanelli spent part of his spring break visiting the campus nestled in the heart of Philadelphia. He found more than he anticipated.

“Going there really opened my eyes,” Zanelli said. “When you think Ivy League, you think all education, not really a whole lot of football. But they really do invest in their football program in terms of people from the top to the bottom. Obviously, the education is really important, but football like still ranks as a priority there.”

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound lefty always dreamed of being a quarterback at a Power Five conference school. Penn sold him on its combination of football and education. Zanelli loved what he saw from coach Ray Priore’s program, but was also impressed by the internship opportunities and found the Wharton School, where he plans to study business, very appealing as well.

Zanelli had to weigh the value of an Ivy League education versus a free education. Ivy League institutions do not offer athletic scholarships, so high school prospects that are invited to play football have to decide whether it is better for them to shoot for a prestigious degree or to take a full-ride scholarship at a less prestigious school with stronger athletic competition.


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The three-star prospect, per the 247Sports composite rankings, had offers from other Ivy League schools, Liberty and a couple of FCS programs in the Patriot League. Zanelli was also pursued by a handful of Mountain West programs after throwing for 3,180 yards and 42 touchdowns last season, but he didn’t wait around for an offer to a more prestigious football school.

“I had some opportunities for full scholarships,” he said. “It was just at the end of the day, it’s an investment, right? Wherever you go, it’s an investment in your future. And my whole family thought that going to that type of school is a worthwhile investment for your future, so even though they don’t give athletic scholarships, the opportunity to get an education from that school outweighed it in the end for me.”

Finding familiarity

Moving nearly 2,700 miles from home for college can be a daunting endeavor. Zanelli is comfortable he’ll fit right in. The Quakers have 13 Southern California natives on their roster, including senior Nick Robinson, who played at San Juan Capistrano JSerra High and talked to Zanelli on his visit.

“That was really comfortable for me,” Zanelli said. “Having kids kind of from where I’m from and hearing them talking about how much they love it. It definitely helps because going to a new place, wherever you go, it can be scary. You’re leaving home and stuff, moving a six-hour flight away into a city, it can be a little different, but having people there who’ve been through it and give you advice and stuff is definitely a big thing for me.”

A little more comfort will be only a state away for Zanelli. His favorite target, Clark Phillips III, who caught 54 passes for 1,210 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, is verbally committed to play cornerback at Ohio State.