CCBC-Essex's men's lacrosse team has found wealth in a sluggish economy.
More than a decade ago, most junior college rosters were filled with players who didn't meet NCAA standards. They usually spent a year or two improving their grades before moving on to four-year institutions.
But given the state of the economy and the rising price of college, community colleges have become more of a bargain. And junior college programs such as Essex's keep getting better and better.
The Knights (1-0) are ranked No.2 in the latest National Junior College Athletic Association poll. Essex was scheduled to play No. 1 Onondaga on Saturday in Syracuse, N.Y., but the game was postponed because of snow.
Take a look at the Essex roster and you'll see players from the star-studded Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association as well as players from Connecticut, Illinois, Virginia, California and Florida.
"That's because the landscape for recruiting has changed where it's no longer strange to see a player from Calvert Hall, Loyola and [Archbishop] Spalding here," said Essex coach Shawn Burke, 37, who played at Calvert Hall and UMBC. "As much as the sport has grown, it hasn't grown in some places as much as we would like, especially as far as adding DivisionI programs. The economics have also changed where a kid who gets into Gettysburg or Washington College can't afford that $50,000 to $100,000 in the first two years.
"They can come here and save that kind of money for the last two years at a four-year school. The degree is the same, and so are the classes. An out-of-state player can come in, play in Baltimore, which is the hotbed, play for a national championship and improve his stock for a DivisionI program. It's a good deal."
No, it's a great deal.
Burke knows it, and that's why his staff of six assistants is everywhere. There might not be a harder recruiter in the area than the Knights' Todd Stiegler.
But besides the bargain price, Essex has always been a great place to start a college career because traditionally it has been one of the county's best junior college programs. The Knights have won 22 Maryland Junior College championships and two national championships and turned out 119 NJCAA All-Americans.
That won't change anytime soon.
In Burke, the Knights have a young coach who turned Howard Community College into a national power in the four years before he took the job at Essex.
In his second year as the Knights' coach, Burke wants another shot at the national championship. Essex lost to Onondaga, 17-4, in the title game last season but still finished 16-2.
Burke has an overall record of 58-19.
"I think when kids come here, they are surprised," Burke said. "We've got the huge turf field, the indoor facility, a beautiful campus. Some of these kids coming out of high school went to four-year schools, and for whatever reason, it didn't work out.
"But most of these kids are hardworking student-athletes, grounded now, and realize this is a good opportunity for them."
Of the 32 players on the roster, 24 are from the Baltimore area. The Knights actually had to make cuts this season. In the past, the Knights have sent players to Maryland, Salisbury, Stony Brook, UMBC, Penn State and many other schools. Several have come back to Essex to coach.
This season, the Knights have plenty of talent in a midfield unit that could have three All-Americans in Brandon Kendrick, Travis Crane and Neil Hutchinson.
Crane is one of Essex's current success stories. He played one year as a defensive midfielder at UMBC but wanted to leave for a bigger school and more on-campus activities.
To get recruited again, Crane transferred to Essex; he's now being sought after by Maryland, Georgetown and Penn State, among others.
"To be re-recruited, I wanted to show schools I was a two-way middie that could play on both sides of the ball," said Crane, a graduate of Eastern Tech. "I still take 7.5 credits at UMBC and 12 at Essex. After I finish at Essex, I'll go to grad school and play more seasons. Here, you'll find most of the players hardworking, goal-oriented and wanting to use Essex as a platform to accomplish those goals."
The Knights also have two good attackmen in Luke Phipps and Ryan Arthur and a solid goalie in Eric Biller.
Onondaga, though, is one of the teams in the way of Essex and a title.
"Onondaga gets a lot of Canadians and Indians from the reservations," Burke said. "They pretty much run the same systems every year, and they are usually pretty good.
"But in the big picture, we could be seeing them again in the final four. Our chemistry has been pretty good. It's been like night and day from the fall until now. The kids have worked hard and have played well."