Early Recruiting: The State Of Affairs & The IMLCA’S Proposal

Photo: William Stewart Photography

Photo: William Stewart Photography

No topic in lacrosse has drawn as much conversation and controversy as early recruiting. As the timetable gets earlier and earlier each calendar year, people in the sport continue to call for rampant change.

Last Friday, a step towards possible change was made when over 200 Division I coaches gathered at the annual IMLCA convention and supported a ban on all contact before September 1st of junior year. Like a similar proposal from the women’s side in September, it still has to be approved by the NCAA, so any change to the current process isn’t likely to occur anytime soon. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a major sign of progress.

“We’re a non-revenue sport but still a high profile sport – we feel that making a powerful public statement offers a much stronger lobby than what’s out there and that goes a long way,” said Princeton’s Chris Bates, who helped lead an advisory committee. “We’re all competitive and want the best recruits out there but at the end of the day, we’re educators who want what’s best for the kids and their families.”

The state of early recruiting

The transformation and explosion of early recruiting over the past decade or so is fascinating.

To put things in perspective, I was a junior in high school when early recruiting came around, though you have to remember that the definition of ‘early’ is incredibly different from what it is now. Lacrosse fans freaked out when my Class of 2009 classmates – guys like Marcus Holman, Davey Emala, Tucker Durkin and JoJo Marasco – committed in the fall of their junior year. To many, that was outlandish.

A few short years later in December 2009, St. Paul’s (Md.) / Baltimore Crabs sophomore attackman Spencer Parks made a verbal commitment to UNC. In all likelihood, that instance was the true catalyst for super-early recruiting as commitments started to occur earlier and earlier, leading up to the summer 2012 when No. 1 ranked Ryan Conrad pledged to UVA during the week of Jake Reed’s rising sophomore camp. From there, the timeline continued to get pushed forward. In the four graduating classes currently in high school, the 1st freshman commitment has taken place in November, September, August and July, in that order from oldest to youngest class. Where does it go from here?

At the moment, there are 61 publicized Class of 2019 verbals to a total of 13 schools. In the sophomore class, there are 350 commitments to 53 programs with the full list available here. If I had to guess off the top of my head, those figures are about double what they were last year at this midway point between semesters.

During the November recruiting circuit this year, it was easily apparent how many schools wanted to at least get an early look at the top 2019’s. A ton of coaches that wouldn’t touch a freshman-only event with a ten foot pole a year ago were present at tournaments like the Philly Freshman Showcase. Of the 30 schools that attended the event, 17 programs didn’t have a freshman commitment as of December 23rd, including seven schools that sent multiple coaches that weekend. Most, of course, probably won’t take a 2019 prospect until the summer but felt like it was crucial to create an early list of targets.

Even the college coaches will tell you that the early recruiting process is driven mostly by them – not the club coaches, parents or players. Without the Division I guys driving it (and let’s be real, it’s primarily the ACC’s, Big 10’s and a few others), none of this craziness would be taking place. If you’re a coach that wants to avoid early recruiting entirely and focus on finding older and passed over talent then your rivals are going to go out and gobble up the talent. It’s as simple as that, hence the uptick in college coach attendance at 2019 events this fall. They feel like they have to or they’ll miss the boat entirely.

What the proposal means

While it’s exciting for our sport to think about the recruiting process no longer taking place prematurely, there’s so much more that goes into it than meets the eye. Many fans of the game are under the incorrect assumption that change has already been made – or that because the members of the IMLCA voted on this, the coaches would self-police (and have some sort of gentleman’s agreement) during the process. That certainly isn’t the case.

The biggest factor in the whole decision is that the NCAA has shown that they want to simplify their complex rulebook, making it shorter rather than add to it. For this reason alone, each D1 coach that I spoke with these past ten days all had hope but very little optimism that this proposal would get passed. On top of that, it would be a tall task for schools’ athletic departments to look after everything to stay within the rules.

“With this proposal, we’d essentially be asking compliance to do a ton more to actually regulate recruiting,” said the head coach of a Top 20 team. “It would be near impossible for compliance officers to monitor incoming call logs and endlessly go through cell phone records. A huge chunk of work would be added to their plates, so that’s why the whole thing getting passed doesn’t seem likely.”

Besides, why would the NCAA care about a broken system in a sport that doesn’t generate their organization any money?

If these rules were passed, coaches would still find loopholes to make the most out of the regulations. In all likelihood, the majority of the big boys will still camp out on the sidelines watching freshmen and sophomores in order to know who to pursue when September 1st of junior year hits. On the side of the student-athlete, one has to imagine that the top prospects will take visits on their own to have a good idea of who they like heading into the contact period. College coaches would surely create new loopholes, such as telling a current player to get in the ear of a prospective recruit from their former club or high school to come check out their respective school. Third-party conversations would become even increasingly pivotal and club coaches would act even more as middle men as recruits figure out the schools they want to talk with when September 1st of junior year hits.

“As coaches, we’re smart enough to adapt to whichever rules are in place,” said Richmond head coach Dan Chemotti, who was also part of the advisory committee last weekend. “Right now, they are what they are and everyone will follow them. If they change, we’ll keep following them, though we’re all incredibly hopeful that there will be change in the near future.”

Continuing to get hypothetical, the biggest benefit of the potential rule changes would be the increased time for players to develop and mature. Right now, the current climate rewards the kids who are the biggest, most athletic and most polished heading into the 9th grade. Pushing back the timeline would reward the so-called late bloomer and allow many kids to catch up to their peers that had early growth spurts.

Over the past few years, instructional opportunities have often been passed over in favor of club tournaments and showcases. Parents and pupils are so eager to make an early decision that less time is spent improving skills and more time is spent trying to get seen by college coaches and media members. If the rules were passed, more onus would be placed on the clubs to teach and develop their players. In reality, they could probably increase their yearly fees, especially if it’s a club that has proven to continually place players in top college programs.

Right now, colleges are securing pledges from kids who don’t have a single semester of grades or actual test scores. There’d be more time for kids to become accustomed to the grind of freshman/sophomore year school work, which can be awfully overwhelming for many, especially given the rigor of so many high school lacrosse powerhouses. Getting good grades is the major stepping stone towards a commitment (read more on this subject in last Friday’s post), so kids would be able to grow academically while also having a better idea of what they wanted to study in college. One of the reasons why commitment switches are happening at an alarming rate is because prospects think they’ve found the best fit as freshmen when in reality, they probably don’t know what they truly want in a college until they’re a couple years older.

Just about everybody’s hopeful that the proposed rules will get passed, though it’s mostly cautious optimism. It’s my take that nothing will happen to the timeline until the lion’s share of NCAA sports feel that there needs to be change. Bigger sports like football, basketball, soccer and hockey have early recruiting in place (though nowhere close to the level of lacrosse) but nothing has been done because there isn’t a tremendous need for it. For the folks at the NCAA to listen and ponder change, there needs to be more than just a single sport speaking up.

For now, we can all at least keep our fingers crossed.

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