Could Huntley and Gait's NDP Change High School Ball Forever?
By Nelson Coffin
Controversy may be king this spring in men's high school lacrosse. Some feel the old Indian game is at a crossroads and its very survival, at least on the interscholastic level, depends on which path is ultimately chosen by coaches, administrators and players.
Dave Huntley discusses NDP with coaches at the Coaches' Convention
If that's being overly dramatic, then let's put to rest the death-bed scenario and take an objective look at the proposal offered by the world's greatest player, Gary Gait, and his business partner Dave Huntley, a former midfielder at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore Thunder GM and Team Canada Coach.
The Canadian expatriates have come up with a plan that, according to your point of view, will eventually either ruin high school lacrosse or take it to the next level with no ill effect whatsoever. The National Development Program, an idea hatched by Huntley and Gait, hopes to borrow the better aspects of soccer's highly successful Olympic Development Program to mold better players with better skills. Read the whole proposal here.
Gary Gait, the Baltimore Bayhawk
Think of NDP as a club program on a national level with extremely high standards, top-notch coaching and easy access through the labyrinth of collegiate recruiting.
And, oh yeah, it's not a freebie. Listen up parents! It'll set you back about $1,200 per year if your kid advances past a $50 tryout. The dough, most folks agree, will be worth the price of admission if little Johnnie someday grows up to be a stud middie on a partial ride in a respectable D-I program. Also, it seems from this vantage point, that every player who does earn a spot on one of the regional squads in hotbeds in the North, South and East will more than likely find a way onto a college roster somewhere. That's because the way NDP works. There will be only one team for every 30 high schools in two age-groups, U-19 and U-17. Exactly how those schools are chosen within each region is unclear at the moment.
For instance, in the Baltimore metropolitan area, if all the teams in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association (all private schools) are on one squad, they would have a huge advantage over the rest of the South region. Only the Washington, D.C. schools would have a good chance to knock them off. However, if the schools from which the teams draw are divided between public and private schools, there might be a better chance for equality within the region. There are many other kinks to be ironed out. NDP, at the moment, is still a work in progress.
Feedback from the public to Gait has been nothing but positive, he said. "The response has been overwhelming," said Gait, who still plays in the NLL and MLL, where he also is a head coach. Gait and Huntley feel the market is ripe for their program. "When I coached at Loyola College (as an assistant to Dave Cottle), we didn't see kids until they were seniors," said Huntley, whose son, Kevin, a Johns Hopkins recruit, led Calvert Hall to the MIAA A Conference title last spring. "Now, freshman, sophomore and junior years are really what count. The early nature of recruiting today forces the kids to accelerate their development and we think NDP will help those kids."
They also feel the current system of camps and summer tournaments could use better structure to make the transition process from high school to college ball easier. "The kids will be evaluated like they would at a national tryout," Gait said. "And then there will be a consistent progression of evaluations. Coaches will be able to go on-line to find out about kids, because the kids will be ranked by team, region and position." Players will receive uniforms, equipment, at least 10 practices and five days of tournament action for their money. "There's nothing else like it," said Gait.
Richie Meade with John Desko
Despite resistance from some quarters, Navy Coach Richie Meade is willing to give NDP a look. The Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Association President said that his organization has no position on the hot-button issue at this time. But he related some thoughts of his own. "The fact of the matter is that fall high school lacrosse is becoming more prevalent," said the former Mineola (N.Y.) three-sport standout, who played at North Carolina and Nassau Community College. "And there's a perception that kids need to play more lacrosse to be recruited. The question then becomes who fulfills that need? But we know that some high school coaches have a problem with that."
Nevertheless, NDP's first tryouts are slated for late summer. There will be practices and at least one tourney in the fall. Spring, the managing partners emphasized, will be reserved for the high school season only.
A Spinner column in favor of NDP
That's the way most elite girls prep club teams operate, including Baltimore's prestigious Sky Walkers Club Lacrosse Team. Gait, credited with much of the success of the program as an assistant to the University of Maryland women's team under Cindy Timchal, used the burgeoning schoolgirl club teams as part of his model for NDP. "Bottom line is I evaluated what the girls were doing," he said.
What they are doing, as a result, resembles what Gait wants to do for the boys in 2004 and for the national girls a year later. Sky Walkers, for instance, charged Rich and Peggy Atkins of Cockeysville, Md. $500 for the privilege of allowing daughter Katie to play on the squad. Tournaments, which cost between $65-$95, are extra. Was the more than $700 a wise investment? The Atkins think so. Kate was admitted to Princeton recently, although we'll never know if the Roland Park Country School star would have caught Tigers Coach Chris Sailer's eye without the Sky Walkers' connection.
Kate's dad is adamant about his feelings on the subject. "If it wasn't for Sky Walkers Chris Sailer would never have seen Kate," said Rich Atkins. "The level of play is so much higher than high school. High school is still good for rivalries, but club ball is so much more sophisticated."
Sophistication is one thing. Specialization is another.
Will top Players from Utah and Virginia benefit?
Some boys' high school coaches feel that by playing one sport all year, kids miss other experiences. Small private schools rely on better athletes to play multiple sports. "We're counting on the same kids," said Dave Allan, lacrosse coach at Baltimore's Gilman School. "It would really hurt the schools that rely on the new single-sport athletes."
Gait says that he has considered the specialization issue. "The issue of playing 365 days a year, we're not about that," Gait said. "We're very respectful of the high school, multi-sport athlete. We're saying if you play football, that's great. But you should be able to play in one (lacrosse) tournament on a Sunday during the football season. We're trying to be as flexible as possible."
Dave Allan on the Gilman sideline
One coach, McDonogh School's Jake Reed, feels that flexibility should not be in a high school mentor's lexicon when it comes to the subject of endangering multi-sport athletes. "I think it's in all lacrosse players' best interest to play multiple sports," said Reed. "And any program that encourages specialization is not in the kid's best interests if he's trying to reach his potential to play at the next level."
Jake Reed coaches a Bay State development team this Fall
But the NDP guys say that one day away from another sport would certainly cause no disruption and would yield many benefits, lacrosse-wise. The numbers, Huntley says, are there for all to see. "There are over 80,000 kids playing lacrosse in this country," he said. "So about 15-20,000 leave high school every year. And there are 5,000 open slots between college and college club ball every year. The players in NDP will have a college matching program to help them find those slots. They can find out on our database how many times per week a team practices and how many midfielders they might need. We're not going to create any more scholarship opportunities, and we never said that we would. We can do is help match up a player to a school."
Whether that matches up with the goals of US Lacrosse, is another matter altogether. "As the national governing body for lacrosse, US Lacrosse has a concern about the growing number of elitist, for-profit recruiting enterprises," said US Lacrosse Men's Division Director Jody Martin. "What we don't want to do is to single out Gary and Dave for trying to run their business. But, nationally, high school coaches are concerned if it gains momentum, a kid might think that his best chance of being seen and recruited by college coaches may be to play only for NDP, instead of his high school team. And that would be a very bad thing for the sport." As for the girls, whom NDP plans to include for the fall of 2005 campaign, a club culture has already taken root in the sport's epicenters.
Can 1,200 bucks help make your dreams come true?
"I think it might work for the boys because there isn't a tool or venue for coaches to use to see kids," said Chris Robinson, M&D Lacrosse Club Coach, whose program has 230 girls paying $500 each in six age groups. Club members hail from suburban Baltimore to Northern Virginia. "But for girls in this area, there are nine or 10 clubs that are solidly entrenched. The people involved in these clubs are just not going to give it up very easily." Meanwhile, US Lacrosse is planning to make a decision on its position regarding NDP soon.
The college coaching fraternity is also pondering its next move.
"It's not a black-and-white issue," said Meade. "I don't pretend to have all the answers. I need to talk to a lot more people before I come to a conclusion. Right now kids should want to go to a camp where they'll be taught, not just evaluated. But what we have right now is a meat market. And it's up to our association to protect the integrity of the game. We need to do something, though, because we're moving toward what's happened in soccer. So, if we're going to make a change, we (college and high school coaches) need to be involved in it."