September 9, 2008

Sept. 9, 2008

Recruiting is a topic on which families, prospects, coaches and others expend considerable resources, time and emotion. Lacrosse Magazine will delve into many of the sub-topics involved in a series of articles, augmented by personal stories from young men and women that have recently completed or are in the midst of the recruiting process.

This article appears in the September issue of LM, a US Lacrosse publication available exclusively to its members. Join today to start your monthly subscription.

Shannon Smith: Thoughts From a College Freshman

by Matt Jennings, Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Come fall, thousands of teenage lacrosse players will descend on high school, college and recreational fields for weekend tournaments that get under way at 8 a.m. and don't end until the final horn blares at around 4:30. Once scheduled over a few weekends in November, these tournaments -- for both boys and girls -- now leak into October, and with jamborees popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain, it's not uncommon for teams to play multiple games at myriad venues in a 24-hour period.

Just in the past few years, fall ball for high schoolers has exploded into a million-dollar cottage industry and recruiting hothouse, with tournaments taking place in both traditional lacrosse hotbeds and a bit farther a field (Charlotte, N.C.).

These events bear names like "The Ultimate Performance Fall Shootout," "The Elite 150 Tournament," and the "National Recruiting Tournament." One Maryland tournament attracts club and high school teams from as far away as Denver, while another touts Outback Steakhouse, Lax World and STX as sponsors.

And then there are the college coaches. Just about every collegiate coach spends his or her fall weekends traveling the tournament circuit, and where once the coaches were going to a few events, they are now stretching their recruiting budgets -- and their stamina.

"We all chase each other around," Lars Tiffany, head men's coach at Brown, says of him and his colleagues. "It's our first chance to see kids in about six months, to see them compete, so it's something we pay attention to. But you have to take it with a grain of salt. A lot of these kids haven't had a stick in their hand in months, and many top athletes aren't out there. They're playing football and soccer or getting ready for basketball and hockey."

But is this wishful thinking? A growing chorus of coaches are becoming concerned that high school football and soccer players must sacrifice for these fall tournaments. For some, their fall sports season may be over, but others play on teams that are in the thick of state playoff races.

Tiffany says that 100 times out of 100, he'd tell a prospect to "play football, play soccer, if there's a direct conflict. Don't bother with the tournament." Many scholastic athletes, however, avoid a conflict by eschewing that second or third sport.

"I do think [fall lacrosse] is making kids question whether they should play a second sport, either in the fall or winter," says Dave Campbell, head men's coach at Middlebury College. "A big part of this is that these events are now geared toward the 11th-grader. Where once we were going to see a senior for the third or fourth time for a final evaluation, most coaches are going to evaluate that junior."

It's tremendous pressure, he adds, for both the coaches and the kids.

"When I was in high school," says the 30-year-old Campbell, "if I did play fall lacrosse, it was pick-up with my buddies on a Sunday afternoon at the elementary school down the street."

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"I have coached kids who didn't do any of the camps, didn't do any of the fall tournaments, and they went on and played at the upper echelon of Division I. And I have seen kids who have stretched themselves too thin."

McDonogh (Md.) boys' coach Andy Hilgartner

Campbell was a two-time All-American goalie and was in the cage when Middlebury captured its first national title in 2000.

Andy Hilgartner, who coaches at McDonogh School in suburban Baltimore, has mixed feelings about the explosion of fall tournaments.

"On one hand, it's a good opportunity for the seniors, some of whom need one last bit of exposure so they can sneak on somebody's radar. And it's good for the kid who plays at an out-of-the-way school in a less competitive league," he says.

But Hilgartner worries about multi-sport athletes being stretched too thin. Roughly 75 percent of Hilgartner's players go on to play college lacrosse, and most are also two- or three-sport athletes in high school.

"It's part of our philosophy here," he says of the well-rounded student-athlete. "And that will never change, nor do I want it to."

While he will take his returning varsity team to one fall tournament and understands that several of his players will play in other tournaments with their summer teams, he urges everyone to wait until their fall seasons are over before they participate.

Most, he says, agree.

Yet for all the well-intentioned coaches -- both at the scholastic and intercollegiate levels -- Danie Caro, the head women's coach at Quinnipiac University, worries that it's not enough. That's why, as the president of the Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA), she helped spearhead a movement to reform recruiting practices, specifically as they pertain to fall evaluations.

Last spring, the IWLCA submitted a proposal to the recruiting subcommittee of the academics/eligibility/compliance cabinet of the NCAA. In it, the IWLCA expressed alarm at the acceleration of the recruiting timetable, and recommended that the fall evaluation of non-senior prospects be limited to the three weekends before Thanksgiving.

"I'm not sure it's the best solution," Caro says, "but it's a solution. It's imperative that we start this discussion."

In the proposal, the IWLCA cited a 2007 ethics survey that showed that 80 percent of the college coaches who responded felt that prospective student-athletes were making their college decisions too soon. Caro also cited burnout and the need to protect the fall sports season as driving factors behind the legislative proposals.

"I understand some of the cons to the proposal," she adds. "In areas that are trying to expand the sport, fall tournaments mean more experience for players and coaches. But we don't want it to turn into a detriment to the sport."

Caro believes that the NCAA wants to avoid piecemeal legislation -- sport by sport -- but she hopes it will allow women's lacrosse to serve as a pilot project for the proposed legislation. This desire, however, is far from a unanimous feeling among the coaching profession. The American Lacrosse Conference -- which is comprised of five Division I women's programs, including four-time defending NCAA champion Northwestern -- officially opposed the IWLCA proposal, basing opposition on the following beliefs: it would have a negative impact on the national growth of women's lacrosse; and it will drive more student-athletes, not less, toward the November tournaments, creating even more conflict with those wishing to participate in fall sports.

Many agree that the recruiting landscape has greatly changed in the past three to five years, but Hilgartner's next opinion sounds odd coming from a highly successful coach in one of the most competitive high school leagues in the country: "We have kids who are playing entirely too much lacrosse."

He continues: "I have coached kids who didn't do any of the camps, didn't do any of the fall tournaments, and they went on and played at the upper echelon of Division I. And I have seen kids who have stretched themselves too thin" -- at psychological, physical, and monetary costs, he adds.

Each fall, Hilgartner arranges a meeting for parents of McDonogh lacrosse players, at which he bluntly lays out the facts: There are 200,000 kids playing high school lacrosse, and there are about 500 Division I spots available each year. From around the room, he will hear gasps and see eyes open wide in amazement.

The message, he explains, is simple. You can't buy your way onto a collegiate lacrosse team. And the risks: they range from missed opportunities to burnout.

"After all," he says. "This is a game. It's supposed to be fun."

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