January 23, 2013

D-III Reaps Benefits From D-I Early Recruiting

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

For as much consternation that is caused by the early recruiting currently done by Division I coaches, it has produced the unintended consequence of aiding Division III programs. "I hope they continue to do what they're doing," said Paul Cantabene (above), head coach at Stevenson.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Steve Beville coaches a club team during his free time. He's best known as the coach at Cortland, which has made four trips to the NCAA Division III men's national championship game and won one title in his six seasons with the Red Dragons. But Beville also runs the CNY Arrows. It's your standard club outfit — practice intermittently, play in some tournaments and get an opportunity to be evaluated by premium college programs.

It's an interesting role for Beville because it puts him on both sides of the recruiting spectrum. With Cortland, he's the one enticing top players to his school; with the Arrows, he's one of the gatekeepers standing between interested coaches and a prospective student-athlete. In his latter capacity, he receives emails, phone calls and texts from coaches throughout the NCAA strata.

Not too long ago, Beville received a text from a Division I head coach that chilled him.

The coach had an interest in one of Beville's players for his recruiting class of 2016 and wanted to get the prospect on campus as soon as possible.

"I wrote him back and said, 'Are you kidding me? He just turned 15 two days ago," Beville said. "'What are you doing?'"

Beville has no doubt the player in question is good. And could be Division I good. What Beville has trouble understanding is how a young man entering the most formative — and turbulent — years of his life could be targeted for college enrollment.

Why are we even having this conversation?

"He said, 'That's what's going on. If we don't do it and we don't have these events' — and they are completely unofficial visits, so nothing is paid for — 'he'll go somewhere else,'" Beville said. "'We want to bring these guys in now and see how our campus is at an early age. We're not going to squeeze them.' I said, 'What do you mean you're not going to squeeze them?'

"This is getting crazy."

Crazy, but very much a reality. And as spooky as it might sound, the coach who contacted Beville could soon be considered a Johnny-come-lately in the Division I recruiting cycle. Several current freshmen — players who have been evaluated mainly on the club circuit before they've played their first high school game — have made verbal commitments to Division I programs.

"Every day the landscape changes," Salisbury coach Jim Berkman said. "A year ago we were talking about sophomores, and now we're talking about freshmen committing."

There has been a lot of hand-wringing within the lacrosse community about the continual creep of the recruiting cycle, US Lacrosse included. But in reality lacrosse is just coming into line with many other intercollegiate sports. The highest level of the sport seems to straddle two worlds: that of the tight-knit clique that believes lacrosse is a sport unlike any other and that of the high-paying, high-pressure nature of contemporary Division I athletics.

Even with all of the angst generated by shambling down the path of no return in Division I, there is a subset of NCAA lacrosse that watches the events unfolding with something slightly less than trepidation.

"I hope they continue to do what they're doing," Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene said.

* * *

At first blush, the trend of Division I programs seeking the verbal commitment of barely post-pubescent boys wouldn't seem to register on the Division III level. But the expedited recruiting timeline does impact the non-scholarship ranks. It takes some Division I teams out of the hunt for the player who makes his mark in his junior or senior year, also known as the "late bloomer."

"We'll get a kid who may have been smaller as a freshman and sophomore in high school, and now came into his own and had a great late junior year," Stevens coach Gene Peluso said. "The Division I teams already have their classes in, so this is someone we can go after. It does benefit us in a way. I talked to a Division I coach the other day and he said they're done with 2015s. I said you've got to be kidding me. Done! We're at an event and he says he can't even look at the 2015s. It's crazy.

"I told my assistant coach this summer, 'We've got to keep our eyes open for the guys where there is no room for at Division I, because there are so many players,'" said Roanoke coach Bill Pilat (above). "Somebody in Division III is going to get an unbelievable guy. He might only stay for a year or two, but he'll be amazing and we want that to be us. It's going to happen."
© Roanoke Athletics

"At Stevens, where we want to steal the guy who has Division I ability and talent, that door opens up for us because we know when go and talk to that kid, a lot of his Division I options have sailed already. At that point, we can move in and really show him the benefits the of an education and lacrosse career at Stevens."

Added Washington College coach Jeff Shirk: "We see it all the time, where really good kids who develop their junior year get overlooked by everyone, and all of sudden there are no more homes left at the top tier. So they start looking at D-III. I think it really benefits us."

With Division I programs filling out their recruiting classes earlier, Division III coaches now think strategically when they attend camps and tournaments or invite prospects for a campus visit.

"I told my assistant coach this summer, 'We've got to keep our eyes open for the guys where there is no room for at Division I, because there are so many players,'" Roanoke coach Bill Pilat said. "Somebody in Division III is going to get an unbelievable guy. He might only stay for a year or two, but he'll be amazing and we want that to be us. It's going to happen."

"Take the kid who was in my office today, for example," Berkman said. "He was looking at Salisbury, High Point, Georgetown, St. John's and UMBC. We're trying to get those kids, the juniors, on campus, so they can see that going to Salisbury is better than going to any of those mid-Division I schools. Better facilities, chance to win, cheaper to go to school even if I get a scholarship."

In addition, there are players available who might not be late bloomers, but would rather wait for their turn for a shot at a powerhouse program.

"Some of these kids don't get on the field until they are a senior, and they play on travel teams," Ithaca coach Jeff Long said. "I'm recruiting some of them right now."

"All of us Division III coaches are out on the circuit, and there are still a bunch of great kids who aren't committed," Middlebury coach Dave Campbell said. "Ten years ago, that wouldn't have been the case, but now there are so many good players that there are plenty of guys for us to go after. And there are late bloomers who develop during their junior year, and for a lot of them that's their first opportunity to play varsity lacrosse. They get a lot better, they have grown a few inches and they turn out to be the Division I-caliber athletes that we're looking for."

For a lot of Division III coaches who have seen over time how young men mature, the push by Division I coaches to seek verbal commitments so early seems bizarre. Not only do they take themselves out of the hunt for late bloomers, but they also take a huge gamble on basic human development.

"What a kid does at 14 and what a kid does at 17 is totally different," Union coach Paul Wehrum said. "At 14, their minds may not be totally attuned to the academics. By junior year, that light bulb should have gone on. It's the summer between the junior and senior year that is the critical one. Sophomore year, you have your eyes in the stars. Junior year, you start focusing on what you want to do with your future. Everything changes very suddenly for a kid."

"It's always been that junior-senior summer. That was the huge point," Pilat said. "It used to be that way for everybody. I don't know how it shifted from being that way, because there is no way to look at a freshman and know how they are going to pan out. You might get a superstar that is so fast and is bigger than the other kids, but I just can't project that. We like to see hair on the guy's legs before we start recruiting them, and maybe on their chin."

The late bloomer has always been a big part of recruiting at the Division III level, even prior to the new Division I recruiting model. But late bloomers were thought to be those players who came into their own as juniors or seniors in college, not high school. Regardless, there has been another product of the recent recruiting trend: players who want to transfer from Division I to Division III.

Not all of them verbally committed too early, but coaches say there has been a spike in transfer requests due to early recruiting.

"It helps us with Division I transfers," Cantabene said. "We get a lot of kids who went to certain schools and when they got there, the grass wasn't quite as green as they thought it would be."

"We have gotten a lot of interest from D-I transfers," said Shirk, who coached for four years at Division I VMI before coming to Washington College in 2010. "This is my third year here, and we probably had a handful, five or six, in my first two years. This year, we probably had 12 to 15 guys interested."

"I know I'm definitely getting more emails from kids who went to the Division I level and it wasn't what they thought it would be, or they signed when they were a junior or younger," Pilat said. "There is a definite increase in that. In fact, we have four D-I transfers coming in right now, and some of them are good players. They are coming for different reasons, but I definitely see it as changing."

"As a Division III coach, I've definitely seen that trend," Campbell said. "That hasn't changed how we're doing things. I know every institution is different in how they handle transfers, but you can see it within our league. You're seeing more D-I transfers popping up on NESCAC rosters. I would definitely say that's very different from five or 10 years ago."

Transfers have added another dynamic to the recruiting process for Division III coaches. Now if they are recruiting a player who decides to chase his dreams at the Division I level, they'll keep the door open for future considerations.

"If a kid has a chance to go D-I or D-II and get some money, I normally encourage them to go there," Long said. "But I do say that if it doesn't work out, I want to be the first guy you call back from a transfer perspective. I would never discourage the D-I opportunity. The D-I guys are pretty good about offering it to guys they know they want. There aren't too many guys they are taking drastic advantage of and then getting rid of kids. I haven't run into that very much, personally. But if they got there and became disillusioned with the situation, maybe he'd want to come back to a school like Ithaca."

"If a kid verbally commits somewhere, we pull off him and we just say, 'We wish you the best, and if it doesn't work out, let us know,'" Pilat said. "You do get the 'let-us-know' phone call or email maybe once or twice a year, but I think it's going to increase."

Division III coaches are not only in the catbird seat in terms of late bloomers and Division I transfers, but there also could be a third type of student-athlete coming onto the radar: the de-committed.

"We have gotten a lot of interest from D-I transfers," said Jeff Shirk (above), who coached for four years at Division I VMI before coming to Washington College in 2010. "This is my third year here, and we probably had a handful, five or six, in my first two years. This year, we probably had 12 to 15 guys interested."
© Kevin P. Tucker

"We've got a kid who was accepted this fall and he just resurfaced this summer," Peluso said. "We said, 'What are you doing? We thought you were all set and done.' He said, 'Yeah, last year they told me I was, but then in the late spring they told me that they are going at a different direction at my position.' Now the kid resurfaced, and he's good. We think we've got a good one. He said, 'This may be the best thing in the world that happened to me, because now I'm where I think I should be. I'm going to get a great education and play at a high level of lacrosse.' But he was bummed. He thought through his entire junior year he was verbally committed."

"It happens every year," Campbell said. "I always plan on hearing from some kids going into the summer of their senior year. That's just part of the process. Things change. Coaches change. There are a lot of different factors. It's unfortunate, but a verbal commitment is exactly what it says it is. It's non-binding on either end, and I'm not sure if that's going to change."

* * *

So with all of these Division III programs profiting from their decisions, what is driving the Division I coaches to keep reaching younger and younger into the talent pool? From a Division III perspective, it is not dissimilar to what happened with the rise of early-decision admissions 20 years ago.

When a Division III student-athlete submits an early-decision application — which is typically due Nov. 1 rather than Feb. 15 — he is bound to attend that school if accepted (with some exceptions, such as financial aid).

Roanoke's Pilat didn't like that system, but eventually he had to sacrifice his beliefs and come in line with the herd — or be left behind.

"I fought early decision for a long time because I didn't think it was right," Pilat said. "I thought kids should take their time and that was in the fall, and visit the school their senior year. I was always holding off. But I had to give in because I had a kid sitting here and he would say, 'Well, School X wants me to go early decision and you didn't even mention early decision. Does that mean that they want me more than you do?' 'No, no, we really want you, but I would say that I don't believe in early decision and you should take your time.' Now the early decision thing is key. So if you can't beat them, you join them. You have to.

"These D-I guys, it's the same boat. If you're competition is finding a sophomore, and you're not communicating with that kid, you're going to lose him to your competition."

"Whether I agree with it or not, it doesn't matter," Cortland's Beville said. "There are no rules in place that are prohibiting them from accepting verbal commitments or forcing the hand of these kids to make a verbal commitment as a ninth- or 10th-grader. The more teams that do it, the more of them are going to jump in there with their classes. Because they'll feel if they don't do it, the other guy is going to have a leg up on them. It's getting worse; it's not going to get better."

That explains the situation from the coaches' perspective, but they still need a dance partner. Players just starting their high school careers — and perhaps more importantly, their parents — are often willing participants in the early verbal commitment process. While this arms race of sorts is a mostly Division I phenomenon, it has muddied the concept of Division III for a lot of players looking to play lacrosse in college.

Unlike the scholarship realm, Division III programs don't do verbal commitments. While they may have a database on younger prospects and maybe even a folder of those who have expressed interest, the recruiting process doesn't really get going until the end of a player's junior year in high school — when there are at least six semesters of grades and test scores that provides an admissions office with enough information to give the coach a read on the candidacy of a specific player.

"We've had seven or eight guys who are 2014 guys who tried to verbally commit to us this year," Peluso said. "I've got to laugh at them a little bit and tell them to pump the brakes. It's to the point where we've had a couple of families push real hard to verbally commit to us, and in both the cases the students haven't even taken their SAT tests. It certainly reeks of putting the cart ahead of the horse in some situations, but it is a product of what is going on."

"You can't do anything until the financial aid information comes through," Long said. "It's impossible for me to tell a student how much money he is going to get until they get their financial aid package. I can't even call over there and talk to them because of the rules. It's a tough situation. I feel bad for some of these kids who are getting cornered into these decisions either by their parents or their coaches or their club coaches without going through the recruiting experience."

Many Division III coaches acknowledge they have received letters of interest from eighth graders, and the volume increases among freshmen and sophomores. Part of it can be chalked up to a generation of proactive teens who want to get on a jump on their future. Technology plays a role, too. A 15-year-old can send a blast email to 60 coaches in a matter of seconds to put himself on the radar.

Still, early recruiting shoulders much of the blame.

"People are panicking now," Berkman said. "They see all these other kids going. There was another kid who was in here today, and he wanted to commit to Salisbury and I said, 'I can't tell you if you're getting in. You don't even have an SAT score yet.'"

"I've discussed it with a lot of Division III coaches in person-to-person conversations, and we're pretty much saying the same thing," said Cortland head coach Steve Beville (above). "We think it's wrong from a philosophical standpoint that kids are being squeezed to commit as 15- or 16-year-olds."
© Darl Zehr Photography

"We get a lot of kids who will say, 'My buddies are going to Hopkins and Syracuse,' and they feel that pressure to make that decision because all of their buddies are making that decision," Cantabene said. "They kind of feel left out or they want to say that they made the decision, not knowing that you have plenty of time and you have to pick the right school."

"A lot of it is parent-driven," Beville said. "They see it as a big status thing to go to a cocktail party and tell their peers that my kid just committed to Syracuse. He's only a 10th-grader, but hey."

"Parents are spending a lot of money for club and travel teams," Drew coach Tom Leanos said. "They are sitting on the sidelines during the summer and they are talking a lot. I'm sure if you're a sophomore or junior at Boys' Latin (Md.), Calvert Hall (Md.), Gilman (Md.) or a school like that, there are discussions after somebody makes a commitment. And their friends are running on the same midfield line and they haven't committed yet. 'What's the matter with me?' There is no question that is taking place."

Said Shirk: "We've gotten emails before from juniors who say, 'I'm looking to commit. Do you have room left in your recruiting class?' We're sitting here saying, 'We watched you play and we like you, but this is the first conversation we've had with you, and you haven't responded to any of our emails.' But all of a sudden, they've got five or six kids on their high school or club team who have committed, and they are sitting there thinking, 'I have to commit, I have to commit.'"

So what advice do coaches have for players who may think Division III is the right spot for them?

"You need to get here on campus first and research the academic offerings," Beville said. "You need to meet with me personally. You need to visit some other schools and make an educated decision before you come here or before you decide to commit to here. We want to wait until that student-athlete is really sure that this is going to be the place for them."

For Shirk at Washington College, there is a five-point checklist that he gives every recruit he communicates with. The list, in order: education, school size, location, lacrosse, student body.

"What surprises a lot of kids is lacrosse is fourth is on the checklist," Shirk said. "The guys who have come to either VMI or to Washington who haven't been happy and looked to transfer, it had nothing to do with lacrosse. It had nothing to do with the education. It's almost always size, location or the dynamic of the student body."

"I never want to limit a student-athlete's search to just our school," Middlebury's Campbell said. "I tell them to go out and see as many schools as they can, and if you decide to end up at our school, it's because it was the perfect fit; it's not because we rushed the decision. Not all coaches are in the same position to do that. We all have different pressures, and I don't judge coaches as they go through their process. It's great that we're able to do that at Division III.

"I hope we're getting guys who are a better fit because of it. I hope they are choosing our school for the right reasons, and they've had enough time to think about it. I don't know if a 16- or 17-year-old is thinking about all of the right reasons when choosing a school. But I think the longer they have to make the decision and the older they are will allow them to think about more than just lacrosse to pick a school."

And in a non-scholarship environment, there will always be a gap between how student-athletes are handled at Division III versus Division I.

"These kids are flipping the buck at the Division III level, so that's why we don't cut any kids we actively recruit," Cantabene said. "We're not just selling our lacrosse program. We want them to have the skills to be contributors in society.

"Even though my [school] president loves to win, his big goal for us is to make the players better over four years. Division I coaches have that pressure to win right now. The price of corn has gone up considerably. If they don't win, they're finding new coaches. We like to say we're family here. When one of our kids isn't successful early on, we're there to help them be successful, and we're in it like a family so they can be great people. If you don't turn out to be a great lacrosse player, so be it. We're still not cutting our losses just because you didn't turn out to be a great player. We're still going to work with you. We not just going to say, 'See you later.'"

* * *

A case can be made that Division III coaches and programs prosper because of the actions of their Division I counterparts. But even with the benefits, early recruiting is universally reviled.

"I've discussed it with a lot of Division III coaches in person-to-person conversations, and we're pretty much saying the same thing," Beville said. "We think it's wrong from a philosophical standpoint that kids are being squeezed to commit as 15- or 16-year-olds. I don't think it's right, but there are no NCAA rules or USILA rules that prohibit Division I coaches from squeezing the kids to commit at an early age or early in their high school careers. So I don't blame them."

"I even think the Division I guys will tell you that it's a little bit of a crapshoot," Peluso said. "My first year as a coach, we used to go out and watch kids play in April of their senior year and get them in before May 1. The process is so accelerated in the sport of lacrosse that it's getting to a point of lunacy."

"I'm more worried about the families," Wehrum said. "I've been around for a while, and it used to be that the high school coach would reach out. Now the kids are reaching out as freshmen and eighth-graders. It is putting too much pressure on the kid at an early age."

"These kids are way too young to be making these decisions for themselves," Long said. "Hopefully they've hit puberty when they've made them."

It does not appear the recruiting protocol will change anytime soon. Given the chance to establish their own guidelines, Division I lacrosse coaches have been unable to reach a consensus during several division-wide meetings on the topic. In lieu of that, the only other policing agent would be the NCAA, but the governing body for college sports has moved toward deregulation of recruiting.

While they may have personal reservations, this won't necessarily be a bad thing for Division III coaches and their teams.

"There aren't a whole lot of negatives," Cantabene said. "It's helped our program to get where we are because of what they are doing. Like I said, I really hope they continue to do it. It opens the door for us to get a lot better players and top players to transfer in."

"I hate to be a pessimist, but I only see early recruiting going bad," Shirk said. "And unfortunately, when it goes bad, it helps us in Division III."

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