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Lacrosse - Unease in Lacrosse Amid Race for Earlier Commitments

By ZACH SCHONBRUN | Published on: May 25 2012 | Source: New York Times

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the junior varsity boys’ lacrosse team at Chaminade High School faced St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island in New York on Tuesday, a dozen Division I men’s lacrosse coaches were in the stands watching. 

Seven sophomores playing in the game had already made verbal commitments to top college lacrosse programs around the country, before even putting on a varsity uniform or taking the SAT.

The race for earlier and earlier commitments — the same rush that is well known in college men’s basketball and football — has spread to men’s lacrosse.

“It’s really accelerated drastically,” said Jack Moran, the longtime Chaminade coach. “For the parents, if their kid is in 10th grade and they’ve heard that somebody has verbally committed and their kid hasn’t, they start to worry: ‘Is it too late? Did we miss the boat?’ ”

Twelve of the top 20 lacrosse teams in the nation, including all four of the semifinalists (Duke, Maryland, Loyola of Maryland and Notre Dame) in the N.C.A.A. championships here at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, have already received a verbal commitment from a prospect in the Class of 2014, said Geoff Shannon, an associate editor at Inside Lacrosse magazine.

“You feel like you should be going to the rec league game with 10-year-olds running around,” Drexel Coach Brian Voelker said. “It’s definitely not far off that a freshman’s going to commit.”

As the sport’s popularity has spread, the stakes of success have risen, too, as evidenced by the 12 coaching changes that have occurred among the 61 Division I programs in the last two years.

But projecting a 14-year-old’s ability is a tricky exercise, and mistakes are made in judging talent and personality. That leads to more transfers and broken commitments.

“A keen eye can see someone who clearly will be a dominating factor,” Denver Coach Bill Tierney said. “The trouble is, we’re in this mad rush to get kids in those classes, and the coaches are making some bad decisions.” 

In December 2011, at the urging of a group of coaches, Phil Buttafouco, the executive director of the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association, discussed proposals at the annual coaches’ convention to curb the trend of early commitments. 

“The overwhelming majority, if not unanimous, was that we need to do something to change the tide of where the recruiting process is going,” Buttafouco said.

One popular proposal would almost completely restrict contact by coaches before Sept. 1 of a prospect’s junior year. Buttafouco said he submitted suggestions based on the proposals to be reviewed by the N.C.A.A.’s legislative council later this summer.

“We don’t know what the N.C.A.A. will do,” Buttafouco said. “They might not do anything. We’ve got to wait until this summer to see where they take these concepts.”

If the N.C.A.A. declines to propose legislation, Buttafouco laughed at the notion of any sort of “gentleman’s agreement” among coaches, despite their near-unanimous desire to stem the tide.

Voelker agreed: “Somebody’s got to save us from ourselves. The only people that can do it is the N.C.A.A. Because us as coaches are not going to put the brakes on.”

High school coaches bemoan the difficult position early recruiting puts them in, especially if they would not normally play a sophomore but are pressured to do so by colleges that have offered him a scholarship.

Tierney said a share of the blame should go to parents who have become more aware of the rush for scholarships and push their kids to make decisions earlier.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have them make a life decision like that at 15 years old,” said Dave Marr, coach of Yorktown High School in New York, who had a sophomore commit to Johns Hopkins last year. “Kids physically aren’t developed enough. You have sophomores that get looked over because they haven’t grown yet.”

A fully financed Division I lacrosse team is allowed only 12.6 full scholarships, and rosters can range into the 50s. “It puts a lot of pressure on the student-athletes and the families to accept that offer or be kind of pushed aside,” said Quint Kessenich, a lacrosse analyst for ESPN.

Syracuse Coach John Desko, who just finished his 32nd season as a coach, said coaches used to be able to focus on the hotbeds — central New York, Long Island, Maryland and Virginia — and would fraternize when their recruiting efforts overlapped. All that has changed.

“It’s almost created somewhat of a frenzy,” Desko said. “Now I look at the lists that some of the sites post, I’m not sure I recognize half the names.”

Last week, Ohio State Coach Nick Myers was at the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association lacrosse tournament, traditionally a powerhouse high school showcase, and saw fewer coaches from top-20 programs than ever before.

Why? Because the competing teams are typically led by upperclassmen. “You almost feel like it’s not an event you want to go to anymore,” Myers said.

Moran, the Chaminade coach, said: “My discussion with the college coaches is that they do it because everybody else does. It’s kind of like if Hopkins stops, then Virginia will stop, and if Virginia stops, then Maryland will stop, and then Duke will stop. But nobody stops.”

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