Lacrosse recruiting starting way too young

He hasn't played high school game yet, but he's committed to Johns Hopkins

February 21, 2014|Mike Preston

Luke Shilling doesn't have a driver's license yet, but he is on the road to success in lacrosse.

He probably still hasn't figured out how to shave, or whether McDonald's Crench fries taste better than those at Burger King. He still uses words like "awesome" and "wow" and he doesn't have a girlfriend.

But at age 16 and yet to play one second in a high school lacrosse game for Boys' Latin, Shilling has already verbally committed to play college lacrosse at Johns Hopkins.

Wow. Awesome.

It's all part of the college game, especially in lacrosse, where coaches are recruiting players during the summer before their freshmen seasons. It is getting out of control in Division I, and the sad part is that no one knows where it is headed because the NCAA has not got involved.

"The first thing I have to say is we're as guilty as anybody," said Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, who under NCAA rules is not allowed to comment publicly on unsigned recruits. "We are not going to lie, we're doing it. Do I like doing it? No. Do we want more information on kids? Yeah, more information means fewer mistakes. The older they are the more mature decisions they make.

"That said, choosing Johns Hopkins in the ninth grade isn't the worst decision in the world. This is a great institution. But until the NCAA steps in and says no more recruiting ninth graders or 10th graders, it will continue to happen. Pandora's Box has been opened, but we don't know what comes out next."

This is not just a Hopkins thing. Virginia does it, and so do Syracuse and Duke, and all the other major powers in college lacrosse. Some dress it up differently, but it still comes down to taking advantage of young athlete.

In some ways, it's exploitation.

Most college coaches don't like it, but everyone wants a competitive edge. If I were in that situation I would probably do the same thing.

And there is no way I would blame a kid. Imagine what it is like to have a Pietramala or Virginia's Dom Starsia watching you play at age 14 or 15.

"There were a lot of D-I coaches on the sidelines watching and it was really crazy, I didn't know what to do," said Shilling, a freshman attackman. "It was shocking until our coaches calmed us down and told us to relax and just go out there and play."

At that age, kids are enamored by a lot of things, certainly more than 18-year-olds. They are gullible, impressed by the Big D printed on Duke shorts. Or they like the fact that Syracuse plays in a dome or Michigan draws 100,000 for football games or that Hopkins has its own lacrosse building.

"My jaw dropped when I saw that building," Shilling said. "Lacrosse there is the top sport and I liked that lacrosse players got special privileges."

Shilling appears to be fairly mature. He has a 3.3 grade point average and takes all honors courses. His mom, Dawn, was very active in the recruiting process as well as his father, Andy, a former attackman at Salisbury. But there are others whose parents aren't as involved, and some who can be easily swayed.

"How can a kid that young make a colossal adult decision about their future, etc.?," asked Boys Latin coach Bobby Shriver. "The college coaches can see talent, that's easy, but can they see that kid's work ethic, physical/emotional maturity? I completely get that parents and kids have to jump at the opportunity — a bird in hand.

"That being said, I try and tell parents and kids to be patient because if you are good enough they will find you. But add the pressure exerted by peers and coaches telling kids 'if you don't take it now' ... It really is a shame."

Shilling saw the pressure first hand.

"Some kids get more stressed out than others," he said. "They freak out if they haven't gotten contacted and I try to tell them they have three years left of high school to find the right school."

Everyone wants to talk about those who commit, but what about the ones that don't get contacted? The coaches are aware of some of the problems which is why they've held roundtable discussions. They could agree on the rules if there was a group to enforce them.

"We [ACC and Big Ten coaches] got together for eight hours and went around the room and talked about what if we did this or what if we did that," Pietramala said. "It is good that some people wanted to take some leadership, but nothing is going to happen unless the NCAA steps in with a hard and fast rule.

"There are no consequences. The NCAA is actually going the opposite way. They are making the rule book smaller and putting more on the conferences."

Duke coach John Danowski said: "We're not a big money-making sport like basketball or football. It's not like there are a lot of eyes on the sport, and what is happening here."

That might change soon. With more of the early commitments come more de-commitments. Lacrosse could become like basketball and football where coaches pursue players even though they have made verbal agreements.

"In those sports you aren't a big-time recruiter until you get a blue chip player to turn and de-commit," Pietramala said. "You are going to see that in our sport, going to see a level of animosity between coaches that is going to go from here through the roof."

Agreed, it's only going to get worse.

Until there is change for the better, parents need to get more involved in the decision-making process and players should try to remain patient despite the pressure.

As for the major colleges, they really don't know where this early recruiting will end. In some cases, they won't see how some of these recruits turn out for seven or eight years.

"How all of this will serve us? None of us knows yet," Pietramala said. "I can't tell you if it's great, I can't tell you it is wrong, but I worry."

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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