Over the years, the landscape of recruiting at the high school level has taken on many vastly different shapes.
From the personal, one-on-one connection between coaches to the wild-west battle for middle schoolers, things finally seem to be rounding into form as the NCAA continues to tweak its rules and regulations within the game.
To find out how we got to this point, it takes those in the know to paint a vivid picture of what life was like on the recruiting front in the past compared to what it is like now, and two of the winningest high school coaches in Massachusetts history were up to the task.
“Beverly put a program in when they eliminated spring football in Massachusetts high schools,” said Richard Mazzei, the first coach in state history to record 400 wins, which started with the 16 years he spent as head coach at Beverly (Mass.) High School, beginning in 1980. “To keep the football players playing, they put lacrosse in. I have to be honest, my first few years it was pretty rock ’em-sock ’em lacrosse.
“But then slowly, as we got into the ’80s, that started to change. Slowly, we became a really good program, so we did get into the recruiting.”
“There were very few teams back then,” said Bussy Adam, the head coach at Newton (Mass.) North High School since 1987 and the commonwealth’s all-time winningest coach with 457 victories (and counting). “I think we only had about seven high school teams in Eastern Mass. A lot of top college coaches would come to the UNH camp and Peak Performance camp in Springfield, and that’s when kids would get exposed to college coaches. Then they would come out to watch them play their high school season.”
Prior to the influx of showcases and yearround club teams, college coaches had to mainly rely on the high school coach to obtain information about players.
The abundance of individual Internet highlight reels were decades from existence, so stronger bonds were formed and more personal networks established.
College coaches were inherently interested in not only knowing what the player could do on the field but also, more importantly, showing genuine concern for the student athlete and their well-being off the field.
“They would actually reach out to us, ask for names and then go after it. There were not many camps. There weren’t these showcases. So, it was really up to the high school coach to really go out and promote his players,” explained Mazzei, a member of the Beverly High School Hall of Fame and the New England chapter of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame. “The college coach really treated the guys like a person, and not a number of a scholarship. They really cared about how they were doing academically back in those days.”
As the game began to blossom around the region, high schools began implementing lacrosse programs in a hurry, around the same time that showcases and summer select leagues were providing additional developmental opportunities for players in the sport.
The talent pool began to get very deep and competition to obtain the region’s best players was beginning much earlier than sophomore or junior years of high school.
“I think I really saw the change in the late 1990s, but especially as we went into the 2000s,” said Mazzei, who coached for 33 seasons at Beverly, Malden Catholic and Saugus before retiring in 2014. “What happened was three things: first, Massachusetts had a boom in lacrosse. So, we have more teams. Second, we were starting to get more individual lacrosse players, guys that only played lacrosse. The third thing was that we started getting the camps.”
Through camps, club teams and all of the other development leagues, college coaches were able to have access to a more youthful portion of that talent. Soon, targeted kids in eighth and ninth grade were giving their verbal commitments to play at the college level.
“It was such an injustice to young kids and families. They want to get their claws into kids at an early age, before they even know what kind of kid he’s going to become,” said Adam, who has guided Newton North to three state championships in his tenure. “To tell the kids in eighth and ninth grade that, ‘We’re recruiting you,’ that sends a powerful message to a kid. It doesn’t help in terms of motivating them to get better.”
Seeing that nearly 50 percent of kids weren’t graduating from the schools that recruited them, things began to change.
In April 2017, the NCAA passed a “new early recruiting proposal,” which prohibits college coaches from communicating with any student-athlete prior to Sept. 1 of their junior year in high school.
“I think it’s a much, much better approach,” said Adam, who recently went through the process with his sons Bryce, a sophomore at Tufts, and Hunter, a freshman at Merrimack. “Then you get a kid that’s thought about college and where he wants to spend his four years after high school. You’re actually seeing a kid who is competing at a higher level as a more mature, developed athlete.”
Through the ever-changing frontier of the game’s recruiting process, somewhere along the way lacrosse blew up to a point that the governing bodies could not appropriately keep things in a proper perspective.
Now, however, with the new rules in place, things seemingly have settled into a more proper approach, which should allow the game to continue to blossom at both the high school and college levels.
“I think the delayed recruiting is much, much more beneficial to both the schools and, most importantly, to the kids,” Adam concluded.