August 29, 2011

Prep schools: Post graduate works

Thomas Flibotte will begin a post-graduate year at Deerfield Academy after an All-American career at Cohasset (Mass.) High School.

Thomas Flibotte was ready to take his game to the next level.

In his four years at Cohasset (Mass.) High School, he scored 285 points and was a two-time All-American. The talented midfielder committed to play lacrosse at Bucknell before his senior season. For financial reasons, however, he had to change his plans to be a future Bison.

By then, it was late in the process, at a point where most top recruits had long been committed and most top colleges were well into recruiting juniors. Nearing graduation and without a school to go to, Flibotte began to scramble to find a new future home.

“After looking at a couple more (college) options, I didn’t really feel great about them,” he said. “So I went the (post-graduate) route.”

Flibotte is like a lot of top players who wind up doing a post-graduate year. They don’t just settle for any school; they pursue spots at the legendary prep schools of New England, the small group of schools whose names are routinely mentioned in the top echelon of lacrosse programs nationwide, the programs where — no matter where you go to play lacrosse for the rest of your days — it tells other players something about you that you played at the prep school.

Flibotte — whose older sister, Gabriella, attended the Groton School and is now a starter for national champion Northwestern — landed at Deerfield Academy, the 2011 Western New England 1 champions.

Getting players such as Flibotte is a big reason schools such as Deerfield, Avon Old Farms, Salisbury and others never rebuild but simply re-load.

Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass., graduated 18 seniors this season, including All-American attackman Jimmy Bitter. While that number is huge, it’s not particularly large for the school. Further, if you look at the team’s track record, it’s easy to see that graduation is no excuse for a decline in performance for the Big Green.

Deerfield has been ranked in the top 10 of LaxPower’s national high school rankings for three consecutive years and four times in the past five seasons, the lone exception being a No. 21 finish in 2008.

Not only have they had team success, but many talented players have gone on to bigger and better things. According to the team’s website, in the 2012 season, “Deerfield graduates will be playing on six Ivy League teams, three ACC teams, seven NESCAC schools and in the Patriot League.”

Going for the post-graduate year allowed Flibotte himself to add Duke, Johns Hopkins, Michigan and others to his list of possible collegiate destinations.

That kind of success has observers wondering: How has the school been able to be so successful? How can it bring in such strong individual talent year in and year out? How can it consistently perform at such an extremely high every single season?

Deerfield Academy head coach Chip Davis declined by email to be interviewed about his team’s success. Instead he simply wrote, “The bottom line is that I am at a great school that makes it easier to stay successful. New kids mesh well into the culture of it and they have to want to be successful.”

Deerfield isn’t the only school with that kind of success in the standings though. Its main rival, Salisbury School, finished 14th in the nation in 2010 and 17th in 2009. For the past six seasons, it hasn’t been ranked lower than 82nd, finishing in the top 25 four times in that span.

Another Western New England 1 opponent, Avon Old Farms, has finished in the top 100 in the nation three times since 2006 and had a huge year in 2010, coming in at No. 20.

Skip Flanagan, the boys’ lacrosse head coach at Avon Old Farms, insists that for a program to be successful, it first has to build from the undergraduate group.

“We try very hard to build our program from underneath. We’re not reliant on students for one year,” he said. “We would like to believe that we can generate quality players from within and build upon them from year after year once they graduate.”

It makes sense that incoming kids see standards set by the older players, see the success they have and go about duplicating that type of winning attitude, all while constantly developing their skills. The players are happy and continue to praise the school well beyond their graduation date.

Flibotte admitted that Deerfield’s well-known success, the opportunity to play big-time college lacrosse afterwards and the testimonials from former players helped make his decision to continue to help keep the Big Green a huge success on the field.

“It’s about half of lacrosse with Deerfield’s success and Chip Davis’ connections,” he said, referring to the reason he chose Deerfield.

“Specifically talking to Deerfield alumni, even on my college overnights, there is that one kid from Deerfield on the team and he will rave about it all night. So it’s kind of just running into the right people and getting a lot of different opinions.”

So if you take the solid foundation of players coming through the system and add in some of the most talented mature players from other schools — kind of like free agents, who are hungry to showcase themselves — that gives these teams even more of a competitive edge. The constant success attracts even more talent, undergraduate and post-graduate, to the school and it becomes a cycle of winning.

One obvious concern, however, is team chemistry. There always is the possibility that the players who have played multiple seasons for the school will resent the post-graduate who is trying to step in and take their job, or view the newcomer as something of a mercenary. There also could wind up not being enough touches or playing time for players who are all trying desperately to get noticed by the big colleges and universities.

Flibotte acknowledges that in some rare cases that could happen, but he says he believes all the players understand the situation coming in and it should not be a problem.

“Part of it is there are unbelievable kids that go to high school there, so you have them and the (post-graduates) are the icing on the cake,” he said. “It’s something they know how to work with because they’ve been doing it for so long. The kids have to expect that there’s a new crop coming in fighting for spots.”

Understanding of the situation and team chemistry doesn’t happen by magic or pure luck, however. Flanagan explained that making sure things go smoothly with his team starts by the leadership he must bring to the field.

“It can be difficult, but most things in life that are important are always difficult. I think we set out the expectations at the very first point of contact,” he said. “I make it clear to candidates that these are expectations of you as a member of this community and this varsity team. You have to clearly state what it is you’re hoping for in these young men.”

That example — and getting the post-graduates mixed in with new teammates before the season starts — helps build the team chemistry necessary for success. In Flibotte’s case, he has played for a club team this summer, the Long Island Sting, thanks to a connection from Davis.

That got him the chance to play with one of his new teammates at Deerfield, and the summer tournaments showcased his talents for colleges. By the time, he touches campus, Flibotte likely will be committed, and many of the big schools will have wrapped up their class of 2012. At that point, players can hit the field for the Big Green not worried about touches and flashing their skills, already having reaped the benefits of having ties to the school.

Flanagan tries to do similar things for his players at Avon Old Farms and stressed the importance of helping the post-graduates prepare for college.

“When the post-graduate player is accepted to our school, we immediately become active in the spring of their senior year of high school,” he said. “We try to make certain they gain as much visibility in the summer before they even get here. We have showcases and help in placement. … We take our responsibility very seriously and act accordingly.”

These schools are in unique situations, but the way they are able to attract new players, win lots of games and then send them off to play at successful NCAA programs is impressive.

And with the Bucknell situation behind him, Flibotte is ready for his experience at Deerfield.

“I’ve heard good things from people, saying it’s going to be one of the best years I’ve ever had,” he said. “It sits in the back of my head as insurance that it’s going to be fun.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

Phillip Shore can be reached at feedback@laxjournal.com