Strong on faceoffs with the potential to become a versatile two-way midfielder, the 16-year-old Arlington resident’s recruiting profile offered no guarantee of a place on a talented squad that includes 16 other players who have pledged to play at Division I schools.
Offutt has plans to suit up for the University of Virginia in the 2017 season, but the news that the freshman had squeezed into one of the last spots on Landon’s 42-player roster came as a relief.
“Trying out there was definitely some pressure, it was like ‘Oh no, What if I’m a U-Va. commit on J.V.?’ ” Offutt said.
The push to fill recruiting classes with the top lacrosse players has forced college coaches to face a new reality, following an accelerated timetable that U.S. Lacrosse President Steve Stenersen compares to “an arms race.”
The recruiting process for this nonrevenue sport on the collegiate level, involving exclusive club teams and elite recruiting events, now more closely resembles that of high-grossing basketball and football.
Less than three years after the first sophomore made an oral commitment, Forry Smith, a freshman at Haverford School in Pennsylvania, gave his pledge in November to play for Johns Hopkins. A few weeks later, Offutt became the area’s first ninth-grader to make an unofficial commitment. Nationally, 125 current sophomores and six freshmen have made oral commitments, according to Inside Lacrosse.
“I don’t think it’s healthy,” said Dave Cottle, who spent 28 years as a college head coach at Loyola (Md.) and Maryland and now leads his son’s Class of 2015 club team in Anne Arundel County. “I tell those guys to dig in their heels a little bit and slow down the process, but it’s really hard for the kids and the parents and the club coaches to do that because they feel like they’re going to let a great opportunity go by.”
These lacrosse players are not jockeying for a totally free college education when families shell out hundreds of dollars annually to put their children in position to be seen by college coaches.
Fully-funded Division I teams — there are currently 63 squads at the top level, with four more set to debut next spring [Furman, Boston University, Richmond and Monmouth] — divide 12.6 scholarships over a roster of about 40 players, and full rides to play the sport at the next level are almost unheard of.
But even without knowledge of their specific slice of that limited scholarship money, players and their parents are compelled to start the process early to grab a spot in a recruiting class and with it peace of mind that they will have the best opportunity to gain admission to the college of their choice.
In October, U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body for the men’s and women’s game, released a strongly worded statement decrying the current recruiting climate. Stenersen said in a phone interview that the process undermines the youth sport culture and also threatens its rapid growth. He worries that raising the stakes in the club system could deny opportunities to “expand entry to the game beyond the stereotypical rich, white child.”
“I can maybe see [early recruiting] in the sports in which the professionals are paid tens of millions of dollars — lacrosse doesn’t have that,” Stenersen said. “To what end are we creating this culture of pressure on younger and younger kids to make a college decision?”
Yet the process of recruiting freshmen and sophomores continues, with coaches forced to monitor the high-profile camp circuit almost year-round while following specific protocol to avoid breaking NCAA rules.
By the time college coaches can call players or speak with them off campus — July 1 before a recruit’s senior year of high school — most recruiting classes have already filled up.
A faceoff specialist who grew two inches and added 20 pounds over the past year, Moran had begun narrowing his Division III options before Ohio State and Richmond had spots open up in the Class of 2013. Late last month, he committed to the Spiders, who will begin Division I play next season.
Many area coaches have reluctantly started meeting with freshmen and their parents to discuss recruiting goals. Landon Coach Rob Bordley, who has led the Bethesda school since 1975, called the system “broken.”
“You want to give the kids every opportunity to find the right fit,” St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes Coach Andy Taibl said, “and if you want to make that happen, you have to start from Day 1.”
Although many in the sport have expressed concerns over the current trend, the NCAA, which has made its own strong push in recent years to thin its rule book, has stuck to the same recruiting calendar that governs most nonrevenue sports.
An NCAA spokesman said in an e-mail that the organization is in the process of reviewing its recruiting policies for all sports and plans to consider the recommendations over the next year.
While Virginia Coach Dom Starsia called the lack of NCAA action to alter the recruiting process “frustrating,” Richie Meade, the longtime Navy coach now at Furman, said generating actual consensus among the college coaches has proven difficult, in large part because of the pressures of the job.
“Lacrosse is trying to pretend like it’s this nice, little sport,” said Meade, the president of the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. “But it’s been pushed to the competitive point of ‘You have to win.’ ”
“If you don’t [reach out early], those players and their families will think that you’re not interested while maybe some of the guys that you’re competing against are,” Maryland Coach John Tillman added.
But after coaches reach out, the onus rests on the player to follow through.
In November, Virginia assistant Marc Van Arsdale saw Offutt play at a recruiting tournament set up by his club team, Greene Turtle Lacrosse. The coach reached out to Offutt’s club coaches, Trey Whitty and Billy Glading, both former players for the Cavaliers.
Sitting in Starsia’s office during an unofficial visit the first weekend in December, Offutt received his first offer. Three days later, he phoned the coach, saying he wanted to become the second member of the Cavaliers’ Class of 2016.
“For our family, you just can’t beat it,” his mother Laura Offutt said, citing the quality education, quality of the team and short drive to Charlottesville.
Churchill sophomore Louis Dubick tells a similar story. The gifted attackman burst onto the high school scene last spring in leading Montgomery County in points. But he couldn’t really gauge college interest until after a strong performance at Jake Reed’s Nike Blue Chip Lacrosse Camp, a three-day event that this year carries a $675 price tag for rising sophomores.
Quickly sifting through about 20 Division I suitors, Dubick, whose father and grandfather played at Maryland, made three unofficial visits before picking the Terps.
“I mean, I have thousands of Maryland t-shirts in my dresser, Dubick said. “Nothing was going to change if I waited.”
In his first season at Georgetown, Coach Kevin Warne has adapted to the changes like everyone else, having securedoral commitments from five current sophomores and a freshman, according to Inside Lacrosse. But as he’s out evaluating prospects, he thinks about an unimposing 6-foot defenseman who committed to Hofstra as a high school senior in March 1994.
“If I was in the recruiting process right now,” Warne said, “I probably wouldn’t even recruit myself.”