August 27, 2014

Raising Red Flags on the Club Lacrosse Circuit

Seven Points for Parents

1. Beware the recruiting racket.

2. Seek the best experience (and not necessarily the best team).

3. Ask the right questions.

4. Respect boundaries.

5. Support your kid's team in a positive fashion.

6. Beware the burnout factor.

7. Encourage your kid to play multiple sports.

Adapted from the March 2014 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse to start your subscription.

by Justin Feil |

Editor's note: This article was adapted and updated from the March 2014 edition of Lacrosse Magazine. Related: Early Recruiting and the Club Lacrosse Conundrum

In July 2013, with the summer lacrosse season in full swing, the sport got the sort of publicity it did not need.

It made Deadspin.

The popular gotcha website published an alleged email exchange between a Maryland-based club coach and the parents of a Landon (Md.) School player who was leaving for another club team. Their son, they wrote, was "unhappy and very demotivated to play. We as a family think it is time we make a change."

The club coach responded with vitriol, a horrifying snapshot of someone who believed he wielded the power to shape the player's future.

"I will speak to coach [Rob] Bordley and college coaches immediately and make sure they know they are getting a quitter who is ungrateful and soft who can't take criticism... You have no clue how this lacrosse world works. Wow. You have really screwed him."

In the days leading up to a game between his club and the player's new club, the coach sent a final email with the threatening tone: "Your former teammates and coaches, who hate you now, can't wait to get a piece of you."

The player had just finished eighth grade.

Landon, where Rob Bordley coaches, and the family of the player had no comment for Lacrosse Magazine. The club coach did not return emails seeking comment.

Message boards and blogs widely criticized and condemned the exchange. It intimated that club coaches — who may be more concerned about their bottom line than players' best interests — could dictate where their sons and daughters end up.

And some will prey on that fear.

"There's no memory in recruiting," Hofstra men's coach Seth Tierney said. "Every year, there's an all-new set of ninth- and 10th-grade parents coming through recruitment and don't know the potholes. There's always new people in and new clubs in it."

Early recruiting has only increased the pressure parents feel to find the right club. For example, the boy who left the aforementioned club committed to Virginia before he had even played a high school game.

"A lot of what's happening in terms of college recruiting is flipped to the club scene because college coaches can go see an awful lot of kids in a confined space," Boys Latin' (Md.) coach Bob Shriver said. "There's not much communication with us. A lot of what we do is we're secretaries. Since college coaches can't call kids they need kids and parents to call them. A lot of times that request goes through us."

A common anxiety among parents is they will pick the wrong club, miss out on the best coaching, fail to go to the top tournaments or showcase events and hamper their kids' ability to play at the highest level in college.

Jim Stagnitta has been on every side of this kind of courtship — as a Division III coach, as a Division I coach, as a recruiting consultant and as a parent. Now an assistant coach at Penn, Stagnitta was the head coach at Division III Washington & Lee for 12 seasons and at Division I Rutgers for 10 seasons. His son, Matt, is a rising junior midfielder for Montgomery (N.J.) High who committed to Johns Hopkins in 2013.

"There are 60-70 blue-chip kids that everyone is all over. That's never going to change," said Stagnitta, who also has coached Major League Lacrosse's Denver Outlaws. "Then there's everybody else."

Coaches say there are good lacrosse opportunities in college for those who want them, but getting a Division I scholarship is a dream that less than one percent of them will achieve. Never mind a full ride.

"There's no memory in recruiting," Hofstra men's coach Seth Tierney said. "Every year, there's an all-new set of ninth- and 10th-grade parents coming through recruitment and don't know the potholes." (Kevin P. Tucker)

Virginia coach Dom Starsia has had three Tewaaraton Award winners in Charlottesville — Chris Rotelli, Matt Ward and Steele Stanwick — whom he estimates combined for a little more than one full scholarship.

"Parents have to know there are a lot more chances out there in D-II, D-III and MCLA," said Trevor Tierney, son of Denver coach Bill Tierney and president of the National Scholastic Club Lacrosse Association. "They're all training hard and working hard. Just because you don't make D-I, there are a lot of places for you."

Parents trying to find their child a club among a dizzying collage of similar mission statements and perks need not lose sight of what should remain the top goal.

"If they're not having a good experience for any reason, or lacrosse isn't fun for them, it's a waste of time for everyone," said Liam Banks, founder of LB3 Lacrosse Club.

Patrick Martin grew up in a lacrosse hotbed outside Washington, D.C., and dreamed of playing Division I lacrosse. He was a three-year starter on attack for The Heights School, a first-team All-Metro Independent Lacrosse League selection in 2013 and Maryland-Independent Bob Scott Award winner.

Martin turned down an Ivy League school and a top Division III program to go to North Carolina, where he plays for the club team. His family spent thousands of dollars for him to play in tournaments and showcases with Southern Maryland Select (SMS) Lacrosse the last two years.

"It was a good experience," Martin said. "Regardless of how much we spent on doing that, it was the way I figured out which path I wanted to choose. Even though I ended up not playing, I didn't have any regrets."

Martin played for a bigger, more expensive club closer to home, but found he got more attention and opportunities from SMS.

"You have to be an informed consumer," Lynchburg coach Steve Koudelka said. "Ask those questions. In your local community, you can go off reputation, how much coaching is going on, where those kids are going for certain events. The best kids are being noticed, whether it's through their high school season or through their club team or showcase events. Kids can still put their best foot forward without worrying about spending money on one particular team."

Most club programs charge fees just to try out. If you make the team, then there are transportation, lodging, meal and entry fees associated with tournaments. Showcases, clinics and camps bring additional expenses. Training sessions and consultation fees add more.

"We know a lot of teams we compete with and a lot of the coaches, they're making a living and some are making some scary, scary dollars," Duke's (Pa.) Lacrosse coach Ebe Helm. "You can charge out your you-know-what, and you could make a killing."

Parents at most clubs figure on four to five summer tournaments and two to three more in the fall. Kathy Weeks of Princeton, N.J., estimated her family spent $4,000 in one summer for her daughter, Kaitlyn Weeks, to play with Ultimate Lacrosse. Weeks impressed Boston College, where she is a freshman this year, at a tournament in Massachusetts, and the family felt its money was well spent.

"No one ever said it, but when you go to your first tournament, it's clearly where the college coaches are going," Kathy Weeks said. "No one is going to your high school games."

Clubs can help open doors to the next level, but too often that becomes their sole focus. Skills suffer and life lessons are neglected in recruiting factories.

"It's all about development," Trevor Tierney said. "It's about learning to play the game. You need good people to teach your kids how to play the game. There are a lot of questionable practices, but in club lacrosse there's a lot of good people doing good things and helping develop players and helping them through the college search and recruiting process."

The same goes for the summer camp circuit. Cardigan Mountain Lacrosse Camp in New Hampshire employs a cross-section of respected coaches to teach skills, but since 1998 has also utilized motivational speakers—including cancer survivors, paraplegics, amputees, Diana Nyad, Travis Roy, a Vietnamese refugee turned black-belt champion and various Olympians—to emphasize broader values.

It's pretty easy to see which clubs and camps pride themselves solely on college placement. Many will publish players' commitments to build their reputation and even raise prices, but there aren't any definitive studies on who is best prepared to play at the next level.

"You want to make sure kids' lacrosse IQ is being developed," said Joe Spallina, who is involved at every level as the Stony Brook women's coach, Team 91 coach for his sons' youth teams and coach of the MLL's Long Island Lizards. "Club lacrosse is similar to honors classes. I want my kids with the best teachers, the best students. I want the bar as high as possible. I don't want a low bar and great results.

Study and compare local clubs' reputations and history. Who are the coaches, and why are they involved in the club?

"You have to look out for manipulative practices," Trevor Tierney said. "If a club team is out there hiring a high school coach and the high school coach is saying, 'If you want to play for this high school, you have to play for this club team' — if there's a form of coercion — that's when there are red flags."

"I personally don't think it's right to be involved in a club," Shriver said. "If I decided to get in the club process, it would put undue pressure on the Boys' Latin kids. It's ripe for potential problems. Does he make varsity because he's on your club team, or does he make your club team because he's on your varsity? I'd love to make the money, have the extra income, but I feel it's not right for me."

New clubs are popping up regularly, particularly in emerging areas. Adrenaline Lacrosse sends players from nine western states and Canada to colleges across the country and has been around since 2000.

"The first couple of years, no one took us seriously," said Adrenaline Marquee and Recruiting Director Jono Zissi, who played at Tufts and also coaches at Torrey Pines (Calif.) High. "As we've been able to grow it and grow our reputation, coaches have taken chances on our word."

With recruiting starting earlier, college coaches are coming to club coaches sooner, and players don't want left behind.

"The right club turnover happens between eighth and ninth grade," Stagnitta said. "That's when it goes from instructional/learning, to what team goes to exposure events, who has access to good tournaments."

Connor Nelson recognizes the advantages a club could hold for him. The rising sophomore at New Hartford (N.Y.) High wants to one day wear Syracuse's No. 1 jersey like his father, 2013 National Hall of Fame inductee Tim Nelson.

"I'm more excited than anything to see what the future holds for me," he said. "I'm kind of worried too. You don't know if colleges are going to want you."

New Hartford is known more for its baseball program. College lacrosse coaches aren't exactly lining up to see a team that has won one Section 3 title in school history. That's why he's looking for the right club experience.

Which tournaments a club attends are important. Clubs list often list the events and college coaches that have attended in the past.

"There is bad exposure if they go to tournaments over their heads," Seth Tierney said, "if you go to tournaments where coaches are crossing their names out and saying, 'He's not at this level.'"

The number of players in a club and on each team also factor into the attention your child will receive from coaches and colleges. Rosters should be in the low 20s.

"You want the best kids with the best kids," Spallina said. "It's nice to see a kid playing with lesser kids and doing it all by himself or herself, but you want to see them with good players."

Watch a club practice to see what is emphasized. As clubs push players to participate in events without devoting serious time to developing skills, fundamentals are slipping.

"A lot of clubs run their clubs with promises of college scholarships and the ability to get seen by coaches," Banks said. "We explain to our parents, the most important part is the educational side. That's what's missing from club programs. If you come to practice and it's just scrimmaging, I don't think there's a ton of value in it. Another red flag is to say, 'We're the best team and we're going to go undefeated.' Our record isn't a sign of our success."

That message resonated with former Washington & Lee player Jay Foster, an Upper Dublin (Pa.) parent whose freshman son, Sanjay, plays for LB3.

"Winning summer tournaments, while great, in our view is the byproduct," Foster said. "We take pride in mastering the fundamentals."

Most clubs welcome new talent, but are loyal to players who have been with them before. Many clubs have open tryouts, some are invitation only with players vying for precious spots on select teams.

"Realize the experience you're having is a great experience in itself," Trevor Tierney said. "Club lacrosse shouldn't be a means to an end."

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