October 14, 2012

A cautionary college recruiting tale

Luke Aronson followed Matt to Yale but couldn't crack the lineup at midfield and then suffered a severe knee injury.

For most high school players, earning interest from Division 1 college coaches is the pinnacle of achievement, opening the door to living a lifelong dream of playing the game at a high level while earning a prestigious degree.

But as Div. 1 programs begin to recruit players younger and younger — now taking commitments from freshmen and sophomores who, in some cases, haven’t even played a high school varsity game — those scholarship dreams sometimes turn into personal nightmares, particularly when the young student-athletes get to college and realize that the game they love is now a full-time job.

If ever there was a cautionary tale about recruiting and college lacrosse, it comes from the Aronson family. Father Bob Aronson coached at Medfield (Mass.) High School for 11 years and won five state championships, and among the many players recruited off his teams were his sons Matt, Luke and Sam.

Each of the Aronson boys had different experiences being recruited.

Although all three had the stellar high school careers and credentials that led to expectations of college stardom, their university careers were not exactly the living-the-dream fantasies they had as high schoolers.

Matt and Luke both played at Yale, graduating in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

Matt — who declined to be interviewed for this article — was a starter and captain for the Bulldogs. According to his father, Matt hasn’t picked up a lacrosse stick since he left Yale.

Luke couldn’t stay on the field at Yale after a series of injuries but is now starting his own company in the lacrosse business.

Sam decided early on not to go the Div. 1 route and committed to play at Div. 3 powerhouse Tufts after graduating from Medfield High in 2011.

He completed his freshman year having left the Tufts varsity team before the season, playing instead on the school’s club team.

The recruiting process has changed dramatically for Div. 1 programs since Matt was being recruited in 2004, Bob Aronson says, but even then the pressure was on to commit as early as July after his junior year at Medfield. It was rare then to stretch “official visits” as late as October, but Matt pushed back at the coaches recruiting him and took his time, visiting Cornell, Brown and Yale.

“(Matt) really had a choice,” Aronson said. “He pushed back to coaches, adults and people in power that were bullying him into trying to make a decision. That’s hard for a 17-year-old to do with any adult, let alone a Division 1 coach that can be very pushy.”

Matt’s mind was all but made up to choose Brown, but Yale coach Andy Shay persuaded him to visit the New Haven school last before making a decision.

“His mother and I are sitting there in Coach Shay’s office and (Matt) comes in with a grin from ear to ear,” Aronson said. “We said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Where do I sign?’ It was the last thing we expected. We asked him if everything was all right, and he said, ‘Have you seen this place?’”

Matt, a defender, was in Shay’s first recruiting class and was a four-year starter for the defensive-minded coach.

Younger brother Luke joined Matt two years later after a post-graduate year at Hotchkiss, a respected Connecticut prep school.
Luke recalled how tough it was watching his high school friends go off to college while he toiled at a strict boarding school, but the minute he agreed to the post-graduate year, the middle Aronson boy started getting significant attention from at least 10 Div. 1 programs hadn’t shown interest in him before.

“(Before Hotchkiss) I was on the fringe for Division 1 schools,” Luke said. “They said, ‘If you go prep school for a year, you’re basically number one on the list for the next recruiting class. You’ll get bigger, stronger and faster, and your grades will be that much better.’”

Luke visited Duke, Yale and Brown for official visits; Duke impressed him, but Yale won him over.

“The academics at Yale are just unbeatable,” Luke said. “My brother was there, and I figured I had a better chance at getting some playing time at Yale.”

But when Luke arrived for the 2008 season, he found a locker room divided.

The team clashed with the coaching staff, he said, chafing under the hard-nosed style of Shay and some of his assistants.

Matt was elected sole captain for 2009, his senior year.

Luke said it was his brother’s breaking point.

“Matt was the only captain, and there was a ton of tension between the players and the coaches,” Luke recalled. “He was the only intermediary, and he really hated that.”

After Matt graduated, according to Luke, Shay changed his coaching philosophy and became more laid back.

The damage to Matt’s lifelong love affair with lacrosse was done.

Matt now works for P3, a sports science and athletic-training center in Santa Barbara, Calif., that caters to professional athletes.

Luke had his own issues at Yale. After being named starter at attack as a freshman, he came down with mononucleosis and missed virtually the entire season. He lost his spot and switched to midfield, but he couldn’t crack the lineup.

“I felt like no matter what I did, I had no chance to move up,” Luke said. “I almost quit, and I almost transferred.”

Instead, he picked up a long pole for the first time in his career, and got some run at defensive middie. By the beginning of his junior year, he was at the top of the depth chart and starting at defense, filling the role left by his brother. Then in Yale’s first game in 2010 against Holy Cross, Luke tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus.

It effectively ended his playing career.

He stuck it out and tried his best to get back on the field — staying on the team through a fifth year of eligibility in 2012 granted due to medical hardship — but he never had the game-day impact that was expected of him as a high school star and in-demand recruit.

After graduation, Luke started String King Lacrosse with his cousin Jake McCampbell, another Medfield standout and a three-year starter at Div. 3 Bowdoin College. The company offers strings, netting and tutorials on different methods for stringing a stick.

Youngest brother Sam graduated from Medfield in 2011 having been the starting goalie on consecutive state championship teams.
After seeing what his brothers had been through at Yale, however, Sam knew he wanted to take a different path.

“I had been playing my whole life, and I love the sport of lacrosse, and I’ve enjoyed playing my whole life, but I didn’t want it to be like a job for me,” Sam said. “I wanted it to be a game.”

He enrolled at Tufts, where his father has worked for 18 years in facilities, and where Sam had played in summer camps in the past.

Bob Aronson said a major factor for Sam was how much debt his brothers accrued attending Yale; Ivy League schools don’t give athletic scholarships — only financial aid and grants — and Sam knew that his father’s employee discount would allow him to get through Tufts with much less debt than he’d have going elsewhere.

Moreover, Tufts coach Mike Daly recruited several other players from Medfield, so Sam would have friends on the team.

“I had my mind set on that early on, as far as where I wanted to go,” Sam said. “I definitely didn’t have the grades I would have needed without lacrosse so, with the coach’s help, I got in.”

Using the sport to get into a “better school” can be as much of a reward for a top high school player as a scholarship offer. The ability to get into a top school is a big part of recruiting dreams.

“I got there and I did fall ball, and all the workouts,” Sam said. “I loved playing, and I loved the other kids, but it turned out to be less of a step down from D-1 than I had expected. We were going five days a week, two or three hours a day. It was kind of a lot for me, and it’s not really what I wanted to do.”

Sam approached Daly about his second thoughts, and was told to take his time and figure out what was right for him.

After talking to his brothers and thinking about his future in lacrosse over Christmas break, Sam quit the team.

“We told him do exactly what you want to do, and never worry what other people think,” Luke said. “He saw us, and we complained to him about how … there is literally no free time. If you’re not in class or doing work, you’re at practice or at lift, or eating or sleeping. There is nothing else, except Saturday night. That’s a life that not everybody wants.”

Sam said Daly was supportive of his decision. Daly declined to be interviewed for this story.

But Sam’s biggest worry was what his dad, the veteran coach, would think about quitting varsity to play club at Tufts.

“He was one of the last people I talked to, because I wasn’t sure how that was going to go,” Sam said. “(Lacrosse) was always one thing that we shared. He’s always been my coach.”

The elder Aronson already had adjusted. He had seen enough in his own family and with the other “sons” from his Medfield program to know that there are more important things than playing college lacrosse, even for players who could be very good at it.

“He was totally fine with it,” Sam said. “He said we had that special thing, and he was thankful for that, but he wasn’t going to hold it against me for not wanting to play college lacrosse.”

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.

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