I first read Dave Campbell’s editorial "On Choosing to Play Division III" during my junior year of high school. It could not have come at a better time. I was entrenched in the college lacrosse recruiting process and I had my sights set on suiting up for a Division I program.
“As a high school lacrosse player with hopes of playing in college, one can be hyper-focused on the role of lacrosse and forget about the other important aspects of choosing the right school.” — Dave Campbell (Middlebury ’10)
These days, I’ll step onto the field for my final season playing for the Tufts Jumbos. Tufts, of course, is a Division III lacrosse program that competes in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC).
So why choose to play for a Division III program?
First off, let’s acknowledge how the early recruiting process has drastically accelerated in recent years. Coaches don’t like it, club programs have proliferated from it, but the fact remains that a fast-forwarded recruiting timeline has emerged out of the necessity to compete.
For better or for worse, today’s recruiting environment places an exceedingly high level of stress on the shoulders of young players. A recent feature in The New York Times even highlights how this environment is perhaps most severe in lacrosse recruiting; according to the National Collegiate Scouting Association, 31% of its men’s lacrosse clients accepted a scholarship before the official recruiting process even began.
As my high school coach, Bob Aronson, always reminded me, “You’re not making a four year decision, but a forty year decision.” The stakes are getting higher and the recruits younger.
With this demanding environment in mind, it’s far too easy for wide-eyed recruits to be wowed by the lacrosse-only locker room (with Xbox consoles and Ping-Pong) or the flashy video on InsideLacrosse.TV about a team’s latest “swag report.” But, in reality, it’s far more important to consider what will truly define your college lacrosse experience.
Recognize that the relationships you’ll develop and the lessons you’ll learn—both on and off the field—are what matter most. While playing on Division III team, you may end up dressing in the visitor’s unwanted equipment room and you may have to buy your own cleats, too.
Yet take lacrosse entirely out of the equation for a moment. Once you graduate, you may never need that nasty left-to-right split dodge again. Attend a regular admissions tour, and then ask yourself, “Would I be happy at this school without lacrosse?”
If so, and if you add a great match in a lacrosse program along with it, you’re well on you way.
Your four years in college are truly a time like none other. There are opportunities at every turn. For Division III programs, limitations on out-of-season practices promote a balance between academics, athletics, and extracurricular activities.
Several of my teammates have competed in another sport during the fall, many others have studied abroad everywhere from Chile to Australia. Some teammates have gained invaluable work experience through internships, while others have volunteered each week at local schools.
During my time in college, I’ve even started a company of my own to build mobile apps for speech therapy. So when I sit down in a lecture hall, I’m just another student taking notes feverishly before next week’s political philosophy exam—all before the whistle blows later that afternoon.
These are just some of the opportunities that exist beyond the college lacrosse field.
So why choose to play for a Division III program? Well, every young player will decide on his own: the balance between athletics and academics, the opportunities beyond the lacrosse field, or the level of competition at one of 212 Division III men’s lacrosse programs.
In writing this piece, I reached out to Dave Campbell to see—five years later—if his original perspective had changed at all. Dave responded:
While the sport of lacrosse has changed, recruiting timelines are accelerated, and the role of club and summer ball are pushed as significant, at the end of the day, lacrosse is still a sport and remains only part of your college experience. Four years will go by quickly and soon the joy of practice, focus of preparation, and the thrill of game day will fade into memories; stay true to yourself and make sure you choose a school and a program that suits your needs as a student and as an athlete.
So while evaluating the opportunity to play college lacrosse, take it for what it is: an opportunity. The recruiting game is changing, but your goal to find the right college fit shouldn’t.
Whether your experience culminates by competing on Memorial Day or walking across that stage on commencement day, lacrosse will always be one meaningful experience of your college years.
Jack McDermott is a senior midfielder on the Jumbos men’s lacrosse team majoring in political science and serving as a representative on Tufts’ Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.