September 19, 2012

State of the Game: When recruiting works

Seven minutes after meeting for the first time, Temple University women’s lacrosse coach Bonnie Rosen changed my daughter Whitney’s life forever.

In the fairy-tale world that most parents and players want to live in, the rest of this story would involve a big scholarship offer, an early commitment and Whitney being on her way to collegiate stardom.

But this was no fairy tale.

While I like how this story ends, fairy-tale believers might be shocked.

It was the fall of 2010, early in Whitney’s junior year in high school. She had been hearing from a mix of colleges after a solid sophomore spring and rising junior summer of club ball. Whitney had missed her freshman season after suffering a broken neck in a car accident; but still wanted “the dream,” which was a chance to play NCAA Division 1 lacrosse.

She also had decided to pursue a career in physical therapy, helping others recover from the kind of devastating injury she had suffered.

Temple had been in touch, talking D-1 ball in a great city, close to where her big sister attends college; it had a great physical-therapy program, with an athletic-training major — another undergrad route toward a therapy career — as a fall-back position.

Whitney planned to go to a clinic at Temple in December — “clinics” being a way college coaches can get a good look at potential recruits — but we trekked to Philadelphia in November as part of her first real college tour.

We didn’t even expect to see Rosen, the former UConn coach and U.S. national team player who was inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2010. Whitney arranged the visit with the assistant who had been writing her, who promised to show us around and answer our questions.

But as we waited near the parking garage, both Rosen and assistant coach Jennifer Wong came to greet us.

Whitney and Rosen, one of the most dynamic personalities in the game, seemed to hit it off, walking and talking, chatting up a storm as we passed some athletic buildings and an under-construction dorm that would house the freshmen by 2012, before turning toward a turf facility where the Owls practice.

As we got onto the field, Rosen asked Whitney her planned major; she stopped dead at the answer.

“Not here,” she said. “It’s too much lab work and too difficult to do that and play lacrosse. … And athletic training (as a major) is even harder (with lacrosse). …”

Whitney’s body language changed. The first seven minutes had been heaven — she could see herself there for a vibrant, exciting coach — but now her head was swimming.

“You can certainly try,” Rosen said, “but I’ve just never had anyone who was able to do both. … The players who wanted careers in physical therapy — and we’ve had girls who did that — wound up majoring in kinesiology, and then went on to graduate school.”

The fairy-tale believers I’ve told this story to think Rosen was being “horrible” by telling Whitney that she could not pursue her preferred major and still play her sport.

That’s not horrible; it’s honest.

Whitney will be forever grateful. She contacted other D-1 coaches who were recruiting her to ask if they believed she could do her preferred major at their school. All said that it would be difficult, if not impossible, while playing lacrosse, due to heavy course/lab loads conflicting with practice and travel, although they suggested other, related majors that could get her into graduate school leading toward her ultimate career goal.

In total, the conversations helped Whitney set her real priorities for picking both a college and a lacrosse team.

She wanted to play — not just be on a team, but also have a chance to make an impact — while getting the most from her academic opportunities. That requires more than a good lacrosse program, a charismatic coach or a scholarship offer.

I tell this story because as New England Lacrosse Journal publishes its annual list of recruits from around the six-state area, my daughter’s experience changed my perspective on how recruiting really should work for players and parents.

With the recruiting timetable speeding up, more boys and girls than ever are committing to colleges long before they have finished growing, let alone before they have a clue about what they want to study or a clear picture of how they fit on a roster filled with high-level talent.

Top college coaches, meanwhile, are taking on more players (and spreading scholarship dollars thinner, at least initially) knowing that there’s a good chance that half of any freshman class will be gone — either from the team or the school — before their senior year.
I’ve always said that the goal of recruiting was earning entry to a school “one level higher than was earned in the classroom,” with athletic scholarship money a secondary consideration for all but the top stars.

Living through the process with Whitney — as opposed to the many players I have coached through their recruitment — I recognized the real goal as simply finding “the right school.”

Sure, every student and parent says that’s the goal of the college search, but they don’t always mean it. They’re not returning messages from coaches at schools they’ve never heard of, or properly evaluating their chances for making a real impact on teams that recruit them, trusting that the coaches wouldn’t recruit them without expecting them to be a big success.

They don’t recognize that college lacrosse is a job — fun, yes, but still a lot of work — and that the NCAA’s divisions basically are a way of identifying the work as heavy part-time (Division 3), full-time (D-2) or overtime (D-1).

They see college as a four-year choice when, truthfully, it’s more like a 40-year choice.

In Whitney’s mind, she’s becoming a student-athlete, which will be followed by times as grad student-athlete, physical therapist-athlete, mother-athlete, retiree-athlete and so on.

Life comes first, sports second.

In New England Lacrosse Journal’s list of recruits, Whitney is one of hundreds of 2012 grads off to school; she accepted a scholarship offer to play at Pfeiffer University, a D-2 school in North Carolina, where the head coach not only told her she could pursue her degree as she wished — despite having to miss practices for labs — but that she could take extra time, if needed, to be part of the Honors program.

At the time of her conversation with Rosen, Whitney had never even heard of Pfeiffer; her first visit to campus and meeting with the coach was spurred mostly by a trip to see a nearby rival that was recruiting her heavily.

Ultimately, however, it was the right mix. It’s not the “best lacrosse school” that Whitney could have attended — or the “best academic institution” for that matter — but it’s the “right school” for her.

The moral of the story?

If you want to live out your college lacrosse dream, be less focused on how the story starts — because everyone gets their “Once upon a time …” — than on making sure it ends with living “happily ever after.”

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

Chuck Jaffe is the editor of New England Lacrosse Journal. He is a longtime youth and high school coach and official, and runs BullsEye Lacrosse.

Twitter: @NELaxJournal