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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: Fall lacrosse recruiting

Fall lacrosse or "fall ball", as it is called, has evolved. Only a few short years ago, lacrosse play in the offseason was typically designed to improve a player's game. Sure, the coaches running the camps or tournaments would use the opportunity to see kids and possibly recruit, but improvement was the purpose of the play.

It then became common that each college head coach would hold a camp and college assistants would staff many camps, all of them keeping an eye out for possible recruits for their programs. But then tournaments with no instruction or even a winner emerged for the sole purposes of recruiting. Coaches would line the fields after being invited by the tournament staff. Tournaments would announce before the event which coaches they might expect to attend as publicity. All of the sudden, a cottage industry existed. The tournaments became so popular for recruiting and selling recruitment that it was getting out of hand. The demands on coaches and players to be everywhere, all the time, in order to succeed was just too much.

Over the last few years, a series of often self-imposed rules and regulations have reigned in the fall, creating a manageable recruiting platform that works for college coaches and potential college players. The Division I coaches can only attend and recruit lacrosse players in the month of November in the fall. This left time for October fall play by the college teams and gave the coaches a life during December so they might have at least one inactive month to plan for next year, celebrate the holidays and maybe even spend some time at home with their families.

As you might imagine, this means that November has intensified and become a recruiting tour for coaches and their assistants and thousands of unsigned athletes. From California to Maryland, fall tournaments have popped up and some of the original ones have become massive must-attend events, hosting hundreds of teams and often upwards of 50 college coaches on a single Saturday or Sunday. It's a phenomenon.

I recently attended the National Recruiting Lacrosse Tournament at St. Paul's School, where field after field was jammed with games. Parked cars filled every other spot of gravel or green on campus -- and it's a big campus. The tournament is hosted by Aloha Tournaments, one of the companies that revolutionized the fall ball industry. And they do it well. Each coach is provided with a complete and accurate roster notebook and schedule for the day, as well as food and drink and reserved parking that is close to the action. Mine was not.

But peering over the madras of fields, each lined with woolen bundled coaches who've carried portable lawn chairs, clipboards and tournament roster notebooks from field to field all day, I wondered how they knew who they wanted to see, where to go, whether they could see enough in this format to make good decisions and many more questions. So I asked.

I chose two veterans of the recruiting game, Gettysburg head coach Hank Janczyk and Georgetown assistant Scott Urick. The Division I and Division III perspectives are a bit different, so between the two of them I knew I'd get the full story.

Janczyk has been at Gettysburg for 22 years. He's seen the recruiting game shift from a small group of prep schools to a big-time industry. He's a great coach. His Gettysburg teams usually win their conference and go pretty far in the NCAA tournament. He is second in career victories among all active Division III men's lacrosse coaches.

Urick may be more known to you as a star professional player in Major League Lacrosse. He has been an assistant at Georgetown, to his legendary father, Dave Urick, for seven years. He played for his father with the Hoyas before that. As a star player and now a coach, he's seen recruiting from every angle. Both coaches had unique perspectives and were very helpful in my quest.

Urick confirmed what Janczyk told us about the DI rules -- that the month of November is the only month that they are allowed to go to these recruiting tournaments in the fall. "That's why you see so many coaches at the November tournaments and that's why there are so many tournaments all month long, every weekend," he said.

In DIII, Janczyk is allowed to recruit past Dec. 1. "For us," Janczyk said, "because there is no time period, we recruit longer and theirs (DI) is more intense." He is glad, however, that the DI rule has, for all intents and purposes, compacted the fall recruiting season because he likes to spend time with his family. It seemed that his wife might have set some rules where the NCAA had not previously.

DI has other constrictions on fall recruiting. While the staff of a DI lacrosse team may have three full-time paid staff, only two are allowed to recruit or attend the fall tournaments on the same day. So Urick says they split up to cover as much ground as they can. Both coaches may be at the same large fall tournament, but that's not likely since there are so many. If they are, you'll never see them sitting next to each other discussing players. While there are so many tournaments and so many games, the limited window of recruiting time makes each very valuable and resources (coaches) need to be spread out for the most efficiency.

If you see two coaches chatting it up on the sideline, they are likely opposing coaches, most of whom are friends within the industry. Urick did confirm that what you see is mostly small talk and the conversation is very friendly but rarely has to do with the play on the field. "We keep to ourselves on the sidelines, mostly. It's obvious sometimes that we're all looking at the same guys. We are competitors after all," Urick said. "We keep our thoughts on players close to the vest."

Both coaches said that these fall tournaments are usually a follow-up look at the kids they have already seen before and are specifically there to see again. They agreed that in spring, a real high school game is a better barometer of the athlete's ability, not just because all the players are present but because at that point they are playing on a team and not in the all-star type of setting the tournaments usually provide. Also, both referred to the length of the tournament games as not long enough to get a full impression of the players.

Consistency is important and the coaches want to see a kid multiple times. If he's impressive as a sophomore, he's worth seeing as a junior. If he's still impressive and has shown growth as a junior, then the coaches retain interest. Many fall off during the process. That's how the lists are narrowed and things are boiled down to the final rosters and the great lacrosse action we see in real college games in the spring. Urick said, "We'd like to see each young man as many times as possible. A spring game gives us a better sense, but then we like to see them in more than a few tournaments and camps. It's harder to get a good read in the all-star like setting [of tournaments]. In some cases they are playing only half-hour games."

Urick says, "Most of the kids I saw that day [at St. Paul's] I knew of previously. Some we already want to be Hoyas. Some we want to see more of in order to make a decision. In the summer camps and previous spring you make a comprehensive list of juniors and rising seniors. For us, it's very important to have a good and organized list of seniors to see."

Janczyk says the DIII school lists are likely longer because there are many more kids at that level than DI. He also thinks the DI teams pare their lists much earlier than the DIII schools.

"We see a lot of kids in the summer," Janczyk said. "In the summertime you see a kid for longer so you get a better impression. The Gait camp is here at Gettysburg and Dave Urick's camp (coincidentally) are among the events we attend. So we have a list of juniors and sophomores to see again. So you look at the teams that are coming and your first objective is to see the kids that are already on your radar. Secondly we look to good teams and see who might be [new]. Then we'll also try to see the kids that send us letters or e-mails to tell us that they are playing in the event." There are some exceptions to the general rule of trying to see a kid many times in the recruiting process. Scott Urick is flying out to the High Rollers Tournament in Los Angeles this weekend. Mostly West Coast teams will be playing in that one and those players may very well not be on the radar of most coaches yet. "We don't know much about the kids at these but we would be naive to think we would not see great talent," Urick said. I asked him if he'd be alone on the sidelines out there and he expected that at least a dozen big programs would have someone there alongside him. That the West Coast has lacrosse talent worth recruiting is not such a secret any more.

Both coaches mentioned that many of the athletes on their "lists" are missing from the fall tournaments. Urick says many of the Hoyas players also played hockey, football or basketball in high school. He also said that those missing athletes sometimes make the ones who are present look better than they are compared to the field that is present. Janczyk thinks up to 65 percent of the kids he recruits are playing other sports in the fall.

I asked if a kid can get on the coaches' radar late in the game, say as a senior. Janczyk said that high school coaches call with late bloomers and every once in a while they'll just see a kid at a tournament that's not on the radar already, but that is rare. There are a finite number of players and these coaches are very organized with long lists of kids they follow. They know most of the kids' names on the rosters that will play in college at their levels. Urick says that they are sometimes pleasantly surprised and see a kid they like that's not on their lists already. They will sometimes check out a player that has contacted the program beforehand, mostly done by e-mail.

I asked if they made contact with that type of kid at the game where they see them and are impressed and he laughed. The coaches are not allowed to walk up and talk to the players at the tournament for obvious reasons. They might swarm around a kid on the postgame field like reporters do after big celebrities. Arguments could easily result. Fights could break out in a worst-case scenario and coaches trend generally toward more dignified approach, literally. After the tournament is over and the coach is back in the office, they may call a senior directly if the contact information was in the tournament's materials. If the player is a junior, they can call the coach, mail or even e-mail the player. I asked Urick how early a kid might get noticed by college coaches. He noted that they watch some pretty good high school teams all spring. "If there's a freshman or sophomore that is impressive on a varsity team, we take note and file that young man's name away and revisit it down the road".

By the time a late bloomer becomes a late bloomer, it may be too late for many programs to take him, thanks to early-decision application. Early decision is simply the process of applying to a college or university based on the grades a student has as a junior. The student has to keep up his grades in order to keep his admission but it commits them to a school as early as October of their senior year. It's all up to admissions in the end. At Gettysburg, nearly everyone on the team applies early decision now. Almost all roster spots are now taken up by early-decision candidates. I did not talk to Urick about early decision as an option for players, but I am sure that many kids choose this whether they are athletes or not at highly competitive Georgetown. The DI schools started it and the domino effect has it in use at most schools for lacrosse recruiting. Janczyk has taken the concept a step further at Gettysburg. "We don't cut a kid for a year if they go early decision. As a sophomore, junior and so on they have to make the cut, but they get a year to get used to the system and college in general guaranteed if they commit [early].", he said. "If we are talking to a highly-recruited kid I feel like I have to commit to him if he commits to me".

I asked Janczyk whether a kid is "marked" as a DI kid and then not approached by the DIII coaches. He said it's not so structured but that's close. He said "I see a kid and say 'Boy I hope he's around when it's time to commit', but he probably won't be. And some kids just want to go DI no matter what. But for many, their chances of going to an NCAA tournament are better at the top DIII schools than the lower DI schools".

I pressed him on this and asked what a school like Gettysburg can offer to kid that doesn't make Scott Urick's final roster, but is more likely to end up playing at the low to middle levels of DI. And they offer plenty. "They'll get more playing time and there are the great academic features of a smaller school. Professors have students out to their houses for dinner and are lacrosse fans at a school like Gettysburg. We're personally committed to the student's academic future, too", Janczyk said. "But we also want a kid who can't imagine playing great college lacrosse without working hard at school and achieving in the classroom. Graduating with honors is more important than being an All-American here. Our senior All-Americans were all academic All-Americans last year too".

I asked him what differences might be on the practice field. "At a small school like Gettysburg, we teach lacrosse and are committed to fundamentals," Janczyk said. "A kid might have a better chance of becoming a better player over the years than at a DI program where he is not starting. We train wall ball gurus and have a passion for training and practice. Sometimes, at a bigger school, that stuff is expected on your own time."

And Janczyk thinks many of his players could have gone DI. "Last year we had ten All-Americans, so we certainly get DI-caliber kids or bubble kids who wanted a different experience and a chance to play in a championship."

Finally, I asked Urick what makes for a good fall tournament and how they chose which ones to attend. He said that obviously the level of talent is important, but there was more to it than just that. "We pick tournaments with the most kids we are actively recruiting. And we prioritize on kids we need to make decisions on. In the fall, many tournaments have the same teams so the best are the ones who organize the best. Having the correct names and numbers is very important. The tournaments have gotten really good at providing info for us over the past few years. Proximity of fields to one another so you're not wasting time going back and forth is a good thing."

November 14, 2008
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