TO THE HOT TAKE CANNON
[Ed.: part of what promises to be a series orienting people unfamiliar with lacrosse to the sport.]
Courtesy of Insidelacrosse.com.
(We now have the best helmets in three sports. Also: Maize uniform rage spreads to two sports)
I’ve started this diary to help introduce Michigan fans to lacrosse and to explain what’s going on both on the field and off as best I can. Since there are no games to recap and I don’t have any video of this past season to break down, I figured it was best to begin with an investigation of Michigan’s roster and how much overhaul and time would be needed before the team became competitive.
There has been a lot of chatter in the message boards and perhaps some diary entries for the past year speculating how Michigan’s 3x MCLA National Champion lacrosse team would fair at the varsity level. Some have argued that Michigan will need a minimal level of roster overhaul or change in recruiting strategies in order to be competitive both within their conference and nationally, particularly in light of the fact that Brother Rice High School won the Inside Lacrosse High School National Championship in 2008, and that the general University student body is already heavily composed of kids from the East coast.
I’ve broken this introduction into four parts:
- Part I of this Introduction to Recruiting will compare and contrast lacrosse recruiting to other sports.
- Part II will attempt to compare how Michigan’s roster compares to the dominant programs in Division 1, in order to see what recruiting changes are necessary to compete for a national title
- Part III will compare Michigan’s roster to its conference foes in the ECAC to see how long it will be before they compete for conference championships and NCAA bids
- Part IV will look at two other new Division 1 programs to see if their experience gives us any indication into how long it will take for Michigan to become nationally competitive.
An Introduction to Lacrosse Recruiting
In terms of what coaches are looking for, it’s pretty straightforward. First, college coaches are looking for a player that has the proper size and speed. If you are a defensemen at a top level program, you are probably going to be around 6’2”-6’3” and roughly 220 lbs, a top level midfielder is 6’0”-6’1” and around 190 lbs, and attack can vary anywhere from 5’10” 190 lbs to 6’2” 215 lbs. In terms of speed, you are looking for players that run in the 4.5-4.6 range in the 40. Max Seibald, former Cornell midfielder and 2010 Tewaaraton Trophy winner (lacrosse’s version of the Heisman or Hobey Baker) recently clocked the same time in the 40 yard dash as Percy Harvin (sub 4.4), so lacrosse is increasingly bringing in top-level athletes (not just guys too slow or uncoordinated for football, etc).
The last element that factors into the scholarship equation is stick skills. Coaches vary widely in how interested they are in a players stick skills. Some coaches love to take athletic guys that were great at multiple sports and true athletes—particularly Dom Starsia at Virginia and John Desko at Syracuse—and trust their own ability to teach stick skills. Other coaches want “lacrosse players” that have the stick skills to immediately contribute the moment they set foot on campus. These players won’t be ranked in the Inside Lacrosse Young Guns list (Top 100 high school players in a graduating class, their version of Rivals 250, etc), but coaches hope they will turn into something special as upper classmen. Normally, only the most successful programs have the luxury of taking a risk on this type of player since they know they have 5-6 instant contributors already in their recruiting class.
Lacrosse recruiting is also in a state of flux right now—for years it operated under the radar due to minimal participation in the sport and neglect from television and print media. As the sport has grown in the past 15 years, and as ESPN and CBS have steadily increased the number of games on television, more people are starting to chart and follow high school players and their recruitment. Overall, lacrosse recruiting is a hybrid to what we are familiar with from football, basketball and hockey.
Similarities to Football
At its core, lacrosse recruiting is still most similar to football recruiting. To begin with, what matters most is your performance with your high school team. How you perform on tape or in person during your high school season is still the single most important element in getting recruited—college coaches want to see you how you play in settled offense, settled defense, transition, special teams, when a defense is focused on one player, etc. The only time you really see teams scheme is during the high school season, so it’s the most realistic chance for college coaches to see how players will translate to the college level.
It is also similar to football in the importance that the camps most major schools host during the summer play in recruiting. Colleges host team and individual camps, and like football, they provide the opportunity for coaches to get a player on campus and to see how they play in person. It’s a chance for the college to get an accurate height and weight, to see how fast the player is both with and without the ball, and to meet the player in order to get a feel for how they will fit into your locker room. As well, there is an Under Armor All America lacrosse game (one for juniors and one for seniors), and the team is selected through a series of combines like the UA or Army All America games in football.
Finally, lacrosse is similar to football in the sense that location matters a great deal. Just like Florida, Texas, California and Ohio/Pennsylvania are the four major hotbeds in terms of producing high-level football talent, the same is true for Baltimore/Washington DC, Long Island, and Upstate New York (you can also start making a very strong argument for including New Jersey and Philadelphia on the list). Like football, you can find talent in other places, but it is impossible to match the density of top quality athletes and high-level coaching of these areas. The players coming out of these 3-4 areas grew up with a stick in their hand, went to high schools where the most athletic kids in the school played lacrosse, and had coaches that treated them like low-level college players from the time they were 14 years old. If you want players who will contribute immediately and a team that will compete for national titles, conventional wisdom says you have to recruit heavily out of these areas (Part II will examine whether this is myth or reality). Players from outside the hotbed areas tend to be recruited as the proverbial “athletes” since they do not have the stick skills to immediately contribute or a natural position on the field.
Similarities to Basketball
Now that you feel like lacrosse recruiting is incredibly familiar and easy to grasp, let’s complicate it by adding elements of basketball. If you follow basketball recruiting, there are two similarities between lacrosse and basketball.
First, club teams and programs are a big deal in lacrosse recruiting. While this seems like a contradiction to primacy of high school tape in recruiting I wrote above, club teams are essential in getting your name on a coach’s watch list. Most college teams have little to no budget to travel during the season, let alone does a team that has 1 head coach, 2 assistants and 1-2 graduate assistants have the man power to travel during the season. Consequently, if a coach is going to see you live, it’s going to be in the summer or fall when you’re playing for a club team. If you want to be noticed by a coach, particularly if you are not from one of those lacrosse hotbed areas (or you are in a hotbed, but on a high school team so stacked that you won’t see the field until your senior year), your club team and the tournaments they qualify matter. Once they know your name after seeing you in a summer tournament, then they’ll start watching your high school tape Playing for major club programs like the Blue Crabs (out of Baltimore) or the Long Island Express is often the first step towards a D1 offer. Club teams are so important that Inside Lacrosse Magazine now ranks the top club programs in the nation at the end of every summer.
The second similarity to basketball is the recruiting timeline for a top player and the top programs. If you are a Top 100 Young Gun, you will probably start collecting scholarship offers during your sophomore year and will commit sometime before the start of your junior season. Johns Hopkins, one of the top programs historically, just received its third commitment for the Class of 2013. Obviously the majority of players still commit around their senior year and the majority of teams do not fill up their classes early, but if you want to land a Top 25 player odds are you will need to lock in a commit 2-3 years before he sets foot on campus. I hate this aspect of the game and think it has the potential to lead to very dirty tactics if the sports exposure and TV money continue to grow, but that’s where the game is right now.
Similarities to Ice Hockey
Now time to really complicate the issue. Lacrosse is a suburban sport, so the top players tend to come from school districts and families that are more affluent on average than a typical BCS-level football or basketball recruit. It’s a sport that requires a lot of equipment and travel, so like hockey it tends to attract more affluent families. This means players in this sport have options that a lot of top level football and basketball recruits do not. On top of that, the sport is still small so that if you want to play on a top high school team, you only have a few options. This means that you could be a stud attackman at Garden City high school on Long Island and be talented enough to be ranked in the Top 100 nationally for your high school class, but you could never see the field until your junior or senior year because there are 3 other attackman in the Top 100 in the class above you on your team. Coaches won’t see you and recruitniks will forget about you.
So what’s a player to do—they are outstanding, but can’t get the playing time to warrant a scholarship offer from a D1 school. What many players will choose to do is to go to a boarding school for a year or two. Some players will do a post-graduate year after graduating from high school, some will repeat their junior year and stay at boarding school for two years, and some will repeat freshmen year and stay at the boarding school for four years. So, like ice hockey, you may gain a commitment from a kid that appears to be a year too old for their recruiting class. Sometimes a team will also ask a player to take a PG year, either to grow or because they will have more room in the following year’s recruiting class.
This route has proven to be a great way for kids to get more exposure and for school to find the “diamond in the rough” in their recruiting classes. Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Salisbury School in Connecticut are national powers at the high school level in large part because of the contributions of PG players, and 2011 Tewaaraton Finalist Rob Pannell and 2011 All-American Billy Bitter are both products of a PG year.
I hope this helps illuminate the process of lacrosse recruiting for everyone. I know this post does not have a lot to do with Michigan specifically, but I wanted to make sure we are all on the same page with how the recruiting process works with lacrosse. It’s obviously going to take Michigan some time to fill their roster with high level talent, considering they are already missing out on some key rising juniors who have committed already.
The theme of the presser is technically a secret, but the fact that I'm liveblogging it at GreatLaxState.com (and like, I spilled the beans yesterday) should be a serious hint as to what's about to happen.
Greetings, fellow Michigan fans, and now that it’s official, or will be in short order: As a dual fan whose other school is a lacrosse powerhouse, on behalf of fans of other lax programs, welcome to the world of D-I lacrosse. Michigan is joining an NCAA sport that is growing at a pace that doesn’t satisfy a lot of its fans, but is actually one of the fastest of any that the NCAA sponsors. For some, Michigan lacrosse is a symbol of a new and potentially very exciting frontier of expansion: the Midwest. We are not the only fans wondering about a potential Big Ten lacrosse conference. This is intended not to be an introduction to the game itself, but a primer on the NCAA “scene”, if you will. Hopefully this will get you smart (or smarter) on how the world of Division I lacrosse is arrayed. (Men’s lax only – I’m not qualified to speak on the women’s game.)
Like hockey, lacrosse is a very regional sport; in fact, even more so than hockey, at least for now. Hockey is big in the Northeast and upper Midwest; lacrosse is largely limited to the mid-Atlantic. This year was the first in which an NCAA tournament game was held west of the Mississippi; west of Lake Michigan, in fact. Last year was the first in which a championship game was held with a participant (Notre Dame) from a state that didn’t border on the Atlantic Ocean. Roughly 80% of the 61 teams that played D-I men’s lax this year are clustered in the Boston-to-Washington corridor.
Not only that, but lacrosse is still more insular than hockey with respect to national championships and the “top tier” of the sport. The line between hockey royalty and hockey hoi polloi is much more blurred than in lacrosse; ask a lacrosse fan who the top teams are and he’ll probably rattle off eight teams: the four ACC squads (that’s Virginia, UNC, Maryland, and Duke) plus Cornell, Hopkins, Syracuse, and Princeton. Denver and Notre Dame are working on breaking this octumvirate, but it’s tough. And guess who are the eight teams in the quarterfinals of this year’s tournament? Only Carolina and Princeton are missing, and the former got stuck with Maryland in the first round. The rest have proven largely interchangeable.
Let’s take a look at some of the things you’ll want to know about in case you feel like sounding smart about national men’s lax sometime in the future:
The polar opposite of hockey, this is an ever-shifting landscape as the sport grows. Conferences are much smaller, too, as teams vie for a spot in an auto-qualifying conference of six teams – but not too many more. Things are beginning to match up with the ordinary D-I conferences. The Big East has begun sponsoring lacrosse, as has the Northeast Conference; the ACC and Ivy League always have. Some conferences (such as the CAA) have wildly different membership than their nominal grouping; others (Big East, for example) are just smaller versions of their regular bunch.
Michigan will be playing in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) which has little to do with the hockey ECAC and has been a very fluid conference in recent times, serving as a stopping-off point for many teams on the way to a more permanent home such as the Big East. With Michigan onboard, it is also lacrosse’s biggest conference at eight teams and may get larger if High Point joins; it may also get smaller if Fairfield and Loyola decide to join the MAAC, where they exist in the rest of the world. The current membership should not be expected to be the long-term membership.
The ECAC is also wildly divergent in the quality of its teams. A quick rundown:
Denver – Burgeoning powerhouse and a team to be reckoned with going forward. The biggest obstacle to dominance Michigan will have for some time. They are coached by Bill Tierney, a Hall of Fame legend who won six NCAA championships at Princeton, and are in this year’s Final Four.
Loyola and Fairfield – Loyola is a respectable team that has some history getting into the NCAA tournament and flirted with it again this year; they are located in the lacrosse hotbed of Baltimore. Fairfield is a less-accomplished team, but they can be tough. Both are MAAC teams in real life, and there has been speculation (and nothing more than speculation) that now that the MAAC allows the full allotment of scholarships, they may want to join up.
Ohio State – Slowly gaining respectability in the lacrosse world, games against the Buckeyes will probably be tough pills to swallow in the first couple of years. OSU knocked off North Carolina earlier this year and gave Virginia and Notre Dame a difficult time, but also won by just a goal against Detroit and lost to Fairfield and Albany.
Air Force – Perhaps a good litmus test of where Michigan stands in its first couple of years. Air Force is the only service academy that hasn’t tasted much success in lacrosse. They were 6-7 this year but largely on the backs of the NCAA’s crap teams like Mercer and Presbyterian; and some of those crap teams beat them.
Hobart and Bellarmine – Non D-I schools that play lacrosse as their specialty D-I sport (similar to, say, Ferris State in hockey.) Michigan should be very competitive with these teams and hopefully beat them in their first year.
This isn't even necessarily the guaranteed lineup. Conference membership has been so fluid in this sport that a change between now and next season wouldn't surprise anyone.
The conference tournament, like all other lacrosse conference tournaments, invites just four teams; this is for RPI purposes and ease of scheduling.
THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
Like hockey, the lacrosse tourney is a 16-team, single-elimination affair; it is much less of a plinko game, however. Chalk advances with great frequency. It does not fuss about with regionals; first-round games are hosted by the seeded team. The NCAA determines these matchups mainly by seeding the teams 1-16 and then fudging the bottom half a little bit for travel purposes. The quarterfinals are hosted at two neutral sites, which are usually somewhere between Long Island and Baltimore. The NCAA is fanatical about giving teams as short a ride as possible to their quarterfinal site, even to the extent of allowing a lower-seeded team to play on their home field against a higher-seeded team if they happen to be a host. (This happened when #8 Stony Brook hosted #1 Virginia last year.) As with every NCAA tourney, the Final Four is hosted at another neutral site. The NCAA uses NFL stadiums for this purpose and often fills them, especially if the game is in Baltimore or Philadelphia. The men’s lax championship is usually the third or fourth best-attended NCAA championship each year, depending on how you account for the College World Series; the championship game, at times, outdraws the basketball championship.
Currently, six conferences have autobids to the tournament, but that will change in 2012; there will be eight next year. Because of this, and because of the NCAA’s usual desire to see its marquee teams on the marquee, I expect the tournament to expand to 20 in the near future. Interestingly, the ACC has no autobid because it has only four teams, but its teams nearly always qualify anyway.
Only eight teams – the abovementioned eight “royalty” teams – have ever won the NCAA tournament. Five additional teams have made it to the championship game and lost: Notre Dame, UMass, Towson, Navy, and Loyola. Unseeded teams – those that don’t host first-round games, almost never even make it to the Final Four – it’s happened just
four five times, the fifth this year with Maryland.
Lacrosse has three recruiting hotbeds, in order of importance: Long Island, Baltimore, and Philadelphia/South Jersey. This isn’t to say that talent can’t be found elsewhere, but Michigan will want to establish a presence in at least one of these three areas to start with. Fortunately, the school has a very good name on the East Coast. U-M will also draw players from Chicago, Ontario, perhaps New England, and of course, its home state. Long term, it’s my opinion that having two D-I lacrosse teams in the state, playing each other, will help create a critical mass of interest in the state that just wasn’t there when MSU was the lone D-I team here, and that will be a bonus for Michigan’s recruiting. That’s a factor for ten years and beyond.
One important source of players is the Ivy League. Teams like Virginia and Syracuse typically try to attract an Ivy transfer most years. Ivy schools don’t allow their athletes to play intercollegiate athletics while in grad school, so redshirted players look elsewhere for grad school to finish up their fifth year of eligibility. Because of the NCAA rules about grad school transfers, these players are available right away without skipping a year. Michigan should work very hard to attract these players, especially in the first few years of D-I play; they’ll help bridge the gap between the club years and the beginning of Michigan’s true contending years.
One of the best things about recruiting and fanhood in general in the lacrosse realm is the total lack of concern about the lure of professional sports. In the distant future that may change, but for now, lacrosse has none of the accompanying worry about competing interests. There’s no junior hockey in Ontario, no MLS or overseas club system, no slimy agents whispering NBA dreams in your players’ ears, no minor league farm system. Players play four years and occasionally five. Nobody leaves early for the pros and nobody drafts your committed recruits. It’s the only college sport that enjoys a big-time feel and a four-year guarantee.
I’ll leave the full-scale predictions to the experts. Suffice it for now that there’s a wide range of expectations out there in the wide world for Michigan lacrosse. Most don’t really expect Michigan to contend right away; neither do I. Some go so far as to suggest Michigan will be winless or nearly so, entering the league at a level below even Bellarmine. I don’t think so. But it’s a brave new world of sorts; Michigan will go from the top rung to near the bottom. The first goal: win the ECAC. That will be a few years down the road, especially with Denver in the way in the immediate future. In three years UDM, in the MAAC, came within one game of making the tourney and that was considered an eye-opening feat. My hope is that within ten years, Michigan has established itself as a team firmly established as a contender to earn at-large berths to the tournament; fewer, if the tourney expands.
Good luck to the teams as they take a big new step to the future! It’s a big deal for Michigan to be joining the world of D-I lacrosse, but it’s just as big a deal for the world of D-I lacrosse to welcome Michigan.
Has anyone found a feed for the game yet that works? FCS online seems to be incredibly convoluted.
Per Yost Built and Bob Miller, Michigan has landed the commitment of Zach Hyman (edit 2: totally didn't see that typo for about 18 hours), the CJHL player of the year. The guy put up a freakin 42-60--102 last season. The guy is mega-legit and could be an immediate solution to our offense problems. This would be like picking up a 5* guy on signing day. As he put it over at Yost Built:
This isn't getting all excited about the prospect of Max Domi. This isn't looking ahead to what could be a ridiculous class in 2013. This isn't Tristin Llewellyn being a top prospect as a 14 year-old. This is a five-star prospect for next season.
Yost Built link
edit: my bad, didn't see that the topic lower contained the Zach Hyman news. Either way, I feel it's a strong enough development that it can have it's own topic