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Last July, lacrosse got the sort of publicity it did not need.
It made Deadspin.
The popular gotcha website published an alleged email exchange between a Mid-Atlantic club coach and the parents of a player who was leaving for another club team. Their son, they wrote, was “unhappy and very demotivated to play. We as a family think it is time we make a change.”
The club coach responded with vitriol, a horrifying snapshot of someone who believed he wielded the power to shape the player’s future. He said he would talk to the player’s high school coach and college coaches, “and make sure they know they are getting a quitter who is ungrateful and soft…You have no clue how this lacrosse world works. Wow. You have really screwed him.”
Between a game between his club and the player’s new club, the coach threatened: “Your former teammates and coaches, who hate you now, can’t wait to get a piece of you.”
The player had just finished eighth grade.
Message boards and blogs widely condemned the exchange. It intimated that club coaches — who may be more concerned about their bottom line than players’ best interests — could dictate where their sons and daughters end up.
And some will prey on that fear.
“There’s no memory in recruiting,” Hofstra men’s coach Seth Tierney said. “Every year, new ninth- and 10th-grade parents come through recruitment and don’t know the potholes.”
Early recruiting has increased the pressure parents feel to find the right club. Last year, several boys players committed to Division I programs before even playing a high school game.
“A lot of what’s happening in recruiting is flipped to the club scene because college coaches can go see an awful lot of kids in a confined space,” Boys Latin’ (Md.) coach Bob Shriver said. “We’re secretaries. Since college coaches can’t call kids, they need kids and parents to call them. That goes through us.”
A common anxiety among parents is they will pick the wrong club, miss out on the best coaching, fail to go to the top tournaments or showcase events and hamper their kids’ ability to play at the highest level in college.
Arcadia coach Jim Stagnitta has been on every side of this kind of courtship — as a Division III coach, as a Division I coach, as a recruiting consultant and as a parent.
“There are 60-70 blue-chip kids that everyone is all over. That’s never going to change,” said Stagnitta, who spent 10 years at Division I Rutgers and also coached Major League Lacrosse’s Denver Outlaws. “Then there’s everybody else.”
Coaches say there are good lacrosse opportunities in college for those who want them, but getting a Division I scholarship is a dream that less than one percent of them will achieve. Never mind a full ride.
Virginia coach Dom Starsia has had three Tewaaraton Award winners in Charlottesville — Chris Rotelli, Matt Ward and Steele Stanwick — whom he estimates combined for a little more than one full scholarship.
“Parents have to know there are more chances out there in D-II, D-III and MCLA,” said Trevor Tierney, son of Denver coach Bill Tierney and president of the National Scholastic Club Lacrosse Association. “Just because you don’t make D-I doesn’t mean there aren’t places for you.”
#Lacrosse Parents: Beware the Recruiting Racket (And Those Who Profit From It) http://t.co/fu9Ir4gqkx pic.twitter.com/mNejus6W2s— US Lacrosse (@USLacrosse) March 6, 2014
#Lacrosse Parents: Beware the Recruiting Racket (And Those Who Profit From It) http://t.co/fu9Ir4gqkx pic.twitter.com/mNejus6W2s
Parents trying to find their child a club among a dizzying collage of similar mission statements and perks need not lose sight of what should remain the top goal.
“If they’re not having a good experience, or lacrosse isn’t fun for them, it’s a waste of time for everyone,” said Liam Banks, founder of LB3 Lacrosse Club.
Patrick Martin grew up in a lacrosse hotbed outside Washington, D.C., and dreamed of playing Division I lacrosse. He was a three-year starter on attack for The Heights School and Maryland-Independent Bob Scott Award winner.
Martin turned down an Ivy League school and a top Division III program to go to North Carolina, where he plays for the club team. His family spent thousands of dollars for him to play in tournaments and showcases with Southern Maryland Select (SMS) Lacrosse the last two years.
“It was a good experience,” Martin said. “Regardless of how much we spent, it was the way I figured out which path I wanted. Even though I ended up not playing, I don’t have any regrets.”
A good experience starts with being an informed consumer. Most club programs charge fees to try out. If you make the team, then there are transportation, lodging, meals and entry fees associated with tournaments. Showcases, clinics and camps bring additional expenses. Training sessions and consultation fees add more.
“We know a lot of teams we compete with and a lot of the coaches, they’re making a living and some are making some scary, scary dollars,” Duke’s (Pa.) Lacrosse coach Ebe Helm. “You can charge out your you-know-what and make a killing.”
Parents at most clubs figure on four to five summer tournaments and two to three more in the fall. Kathy Weeks of Princeton, N.J., estimated her family spent $4,000 in one summer for her daughter, Kaitlyn Weeks, to play with Ultimate Lacrosse. Kaitlyn Weeks impressed Boston College, where she is a freshman this year, at a tournament in Massachusetts, and the family felt its money was well spent.
“No one ever said it, but when you go to your first tournament, it’s clearly where the college coaches are going,” Kathy Weeks said. “No one is going to your high school games.”
Clubs can help open doors to the next level, but too often that becomes their sole focus. Skills suffer and life lessons are neglected in recruiting factories.
“It’s all about development,” Trevor Tierney said. “You need good people to teach your kids how to play the game.”
It’s easy to see which clubs focus on college placement over player development. Many will publish players’ commitments to build their reputation and even raise prices.
“Make sure kids’ lacrosse IQ is being developed,” said Joe Spallina, the Stony Brook women’s coach, Team 91 coach for his sons’ youth teams and coach of the MLL’s New York Lizards. “Club lacrosse is similar to honors classes. I want my kids with the best teachers, the best students. I want the bar as high as possible. I don’t want a low bar and great results.”
Parents should research a prospective club’s coaches and background.
“Look out for manipulative practices,” Trevor Tierney said. “If a club team is hiring a high school coach and the high school coach is saying, ‘If you want to play for this high school, you have to play for this club team’ — if there’s a form of coercion — that’s when there are red flags.”
Because of that conflict of interest, Shriver has turned down opportunities to start a club program. “It’s ripe for potential problems,” he said.
With recruiting starting earlier, college coaches are coming to club coaches sooner, and players don’t want to get left behind.
“The right club turnover happens between eighth and ninth grade,” Stagnitta said. “That’s when it goes from instructional/learning, to what team goes to exposure events, who has access to good tournaments.”
Connor Nelson recognizes the benefits a club could hold for him. The freshman at New Hartford (N.Y.) High wants to follow the footsteps of his father, Hall of Famer Tim Nelson, to Syracuse.
“I’m excited to see what the future holds,” he said. “I’m kind of worried too. You don’t know if colleges are going to want you.”
New Hartford is known more for its baseball program. College lacrosse coaches aren’t exactly lining up to see a team that has won one Section 3 title in school history. That’s why he’s looking for the right club experience.
The number of players in a club and on each team will factor into the attention your child will receive from coaches and colleges. Rosters should be in the low 20s.
“You want the best kids with the best kids,” Spallina said. “It’s nice to see a kid playing with lesser kids and doing it all by himself or herself, but you want to see them with good players.”
Watch a club practice to see what is emphasized. As clubs push players to participate in events without devoting serious time to developing skills, fundamentals are slipping.
“A lot of clubs run their clubs with promises of college scholarships and the ability to get seen by coaches,” Banks said. “The most important part is the educational side. That’s what’s missing from club programs. If you come to practice and it’s just scrimmaging, I don’t think there’s a ton of value in it. Another red flag is to say, ‘We’re the best team and we’re going to go undefeated.’ Our record isn’t a sign of our success.”
That message resonated with former Washington & Lee player Jay Foster, an Upper Dublin (Pa.) parent whose freshman son, Sanjay, plays for LB3.
“Winning summer tournaments, while great, in our view is the byproduct,” Foster said. “We take pride in mastering the fundamentals.”
Said Trevor Tierney: “Realize the experience you’re having is a great experience in itself. Club lacrosse shouldn’t be a means to an end.”
US Lacrosse believes it’s imperative that parents stay educated on the issues trending in our sport. Read the full seven-point check for parents in Lacrosse Magazine’s March issue, and visit the Parents section for more resources.
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