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April 28, 2010

UnCensered: Recruiting Has Devolved into Coercion

by Joel Censer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Censer Archive

Former UMBC All-American Terry Kimener exemplifies lacrosse players whose games did not yet develop by junior year of high school -- before which many Division I hopefuls are tendering verbal commitments.

I like to write about what I know. Sometimes what I think I know may be completely off base. Take, for instance, the way Maryland long stick Brian Farrell destroyed
my first annual college lacrosse big board last Friday by scoring two goals and leading a Terrapin defense that held Billy Bitter and Jimmy Dunster to a combined one goal. Still, I watch enough Division I college lacrosse to feel pretty comfortable making assessments.     

However, when it comes to expressing disappointment over a compressed recruiting calendar that encourages high school studs to commit by the beginning of junior year, I tread a bit more lightly. I admit, I have no clue whether college coaches are applying Ray Finkel-like pressure on recruits to commit early. Moreover, what right do I have to tell some kid he shouldn’t jump at an opportunity to play for a premier lacrosse program or immediately snatch up a scholarship to attend a superior academic institution? I’m confident that a lot of the kids who commit early have no regrets about the school they choose or enjoying a senior year without the burden of the college admissions process.    

Yet I can't help but think something is fundamentally wrong with the current direction college lacrosse recruiting is taking. In LMO’s April 8 LaxFeed, Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala warned that we would hear about a 13-year-old committing to a major lacrosse school sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, an ACC school is rumored to have received a verbal from a kid who has never actually played on varsity before.

And during the Denver-Fairfield telecast, ESPN commentators Quint Kessenich and Matt Striebel wondered aloud whether Bill Tierney left Princeton for Denver in part because early recruiting and the growth of the game has doomed the Ivy League to the same fate it faces in basketball and football.      

Think about it this way: If 16-year-old mega pop star and Ontario native Justin Bieber (who certainly makes a killing playing up his adolescence) had developed some nasty Canadian indoor box skills and was ready to forgo a lucrative music career, now would be about the time he’d have to commit.  

Joking aside, my major problem with early recruiting is that a kid who wants a scholarship to play top-notch Division I lacrosse has little choice but to commit early. Do the math. There are 60 Division I teams (and not all them provide the maximum 12.6 scholarships), so opportunities are already scarce. Then consider that as schools start acquiring verbal commitments and classes start to develop, kids are naturally going to feel the pressure to try and attend their top school before it’s too late -- even if they aren’t necessarily ready to make that decision.  

It’s a game of dominos, and ultimately, whether coaches are being openly aggressive is irrelevant. Postmarked scholarship offers that could potentially evaporate would be reason enough for a kid to quickly give a verbal commitment, meaning recruiting today is as much about tacit coercion as it is about persuasion.

From a personal standpoint, this is discouraging because I know how much choices and decisions can change from sophomore to junior to senior year of high school. If during my sophomore year, you had told me that I was going to be recruited by a bunch mid-level Division I schools, I would have been ecstatic and probably asked where to sign. Lacrosse was life.  But by my senior year, I was actively looking to go to small school where I could play right away. Eventually, I committed to apply early to Haverford, an academically-oriented liberal arts college whose lacrosse program was one of the worst in Division III at the time. But for me, it was the right decision, and one that a couple years earlier I’m not sure I would have had the maturity to make.

In addition, I can’t imagine early recruiting being a particularly efficient method for coaches. Again, I can only harken to past experience, but the kids I grew up with in Northern Virginia who became the best players in college often weren’t the most developed by the beginning of their junior year of high school.

Steve Whittenberg, who a few years back was Maryland’s best defenseman, was a short stick until his junior year of high school.  UMBC’s 2008 second team All-American Terry Kimener was a great athlete between the lines, but didn’t have the kind of offensive game to write home about. Likewise, Gregg Duboff, Yale’s star faceoff man in 2008, was literally one of the last guys off my local club team’s bench even into his senior year.

Despite the potential problems that recruiting freshmen and sophomores presents, there are worse things than kids committing early to a bunch of quality schools. Certainly, I’d be the first to admit that it’s easier to criticize the process in some D.C. coffeehouse than to feel the actual pressure of trying to win at a school like Hopkins.

In my mind, though, it’s in the general interest of both the NCAA and the lacrosse community to promote a policy in which kids choose colleges where they can ultimately grow and feel comfortable (especially when you consider lacrosse is a non-revenue sport and Division I schools lose on average nearly half a million dollars supporting it).

So as lacrosse continues to become more of a presence on the national stage, I think it’s important to at least be cognizant of how early commitments in other college sports, particularly basketball and football, have often degenerated into creating a recruiting culture that could be characterized as nothing less than a regrettable underbelly.

If only we could commit to avoiding that.


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