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Boys lacrosse sees early risers; Verbal commitments common for sophomores

Congratulations, you're one of the top boys lacrosse players in the country. You're being offered a scholarship as an underclassman.

But you need to have an answer quickly.

Because the offer might not be there for long.

That's the scenario for today's standouts in boys lacrosse, where underclassmen are committing to Division I programs at surprisingly young ages -- because the process has begun earlier and earlier.

In most sports, having high school athletes verbally commit as juniors is relatively rare, and having sophomores commit to college is almost unheard of.

But not in boys lacrosse, where a quick scroll through recruiting websites will find not just a regular stream of members of the Class of 2013 committing, but seemingly just as many from the Class of 2014.

This sped-up recruiting process is due to a combination of factors. Talented players are targeted earlier than ever, and there is a relatively scarce amount of Division I scholarship money to go around in men's lacrosse. Throw in the natural competition in recruiting and there has been a trickle-down effect that has left high school athletes in boys lacrosse facing some major decisions a lot earlier than most of their counterparts in other sports.

"There are only so many schools and so much money," said Bishop Timon-St. Jude coach Mike Burke, who has consistently had players sign with Division I schools, including current North Carolina freshman Brian Sullivan. He committed in the fall of his junior season. "Programs can tell which kids stand out at a young age. So everyone kind of has to play the game. It can be tough -- a lot of kids struggle having to make such a big decision so young. But for the top kids, it's all like that now."

Adam DiMillo of Bishop Timon-St. Jude verbally committed to Maryland last fall -- about four months before his sophomore season of lacrosse would even begin.

Hamburg junior Max Maxwell is all set to play for the University at Maryland-Baltimore County, a decision made before he'd played a game of his junior campaign.

"I just think it's gotten to be ridiculous that colleges are recruiting so deep into the sophomore and freshmen classes as they are," said Jerry Severino, the seventh-year coach at Hamburg and former longtime assistant at Orchard Park. "I find it distracting -- it changes the whole dynamic. Families have to be more interested in seeking the college decision instead of developing and enjoying the kid. So I'm a little bit old-school, but at the same time, if I had a kid at 15 that was that talented, I might be working at it myself.

"And college coaches need to recruit -- their jobs are in jeopardy. In high school, I'm not going to get fired if I have a bad season. In college, if you don't produce, you're not going to be around long. So it's competitive that way. If you are a Johns Hopkins coach, or a Syracuse coach, you have to go deep. You have to beat the bushes."

But there isn't a great deal of bush-beating to do these days. High-profile summer camps and fall leagues attract the top talent from throughout the country. That attracts the top coaches -- and the scholarship offers follow.

"When we go to the top summer tournaments, there will be 55 of the 60 or so Division I schools," said Burke. "Even tournaments in fall ball are loaded with college coaches. And the coaches, they see right away what level kids can play at."

In a podcast last fall conducted by his own school's website, University of North Carolina men's coach Joe Breschi addressed the practice:

"The recruiting process has taken a life of its own now. It's certainly gone a little bit earlier than it has in the past. As coaches, we prefer to have this recruiting done way later than it is but unless the NCAA changes the rules, we're going to stick to what our competitors are doing."

Part of the equation is the amount of scholarship money available. In college football, schools can give out up to 85 scholarships, almost of all of them full scholarships. Basketball programs can give 13 full scholarships.

In all other men's sports, coaches can distribute a pot of scholarship money to various players. Full scholarships are rare; partial scholarships are the norm. The total number of scholarships Division I men's lacrosse programs have to hand out is 12.6.

The early recruiting process lets top programs focus their top money at the top recruits -- as early as possible.

And that can lead to some interesting situations.

DiMillo said one top-level program offered him a full scholarship -- but they also let him know that he was one of three players targeted for two spots, and that the first two to accept it would get it. The third one was DiMillo, who had visits scheduled to other schools, so he didn't take it right away. By the time DiMillo went to visit another school the next week, that scholarship offer wasn't there anymore.

The school was still interested in him, but instead of a full scholarship, coaches said they would work to get him as much money as they could.

"With the coaches, there is some pressure, because they are getting rid of their scholarships," said DiMillo. "As a sophomore they have to know if you want to commit or not, because if not they are going to look to give other guys the money."

DiMillo said he wasn't pressured by Maryland, but that he did feel a bit of peer pressure. He noticed that other members of the Class of 2014 were committing, so he wanted to make sure he did as well. He said he was going to pick Maryland, but the other signings helped move the process along.

"I've played against a lot of the kids that were committing -- I saw the numbers that were growing every day and I said 'I better commit before I lose my scholarship.' I decided I had to make the phone call."

Maxwell had a similar experience.

He was offered scholarships by four Division I schools but then had those offers rescinded because he didn't accept them in time.

"If you don't take it, we're going to move on," was the way Maxwell described the emails.

Prospective student-athletes have enough to figure out in selecting a college -- location, size, academics, athletics, coaching, conference -- but how the school conducts itself during the process becomes a category as well.

"When my dad and I decided to get my list down to a top five, those schools that rushed me and sent those emails, those schools didn't make my top five," said Maxwell. "Some schools pushed you to make a decision -- but most of my [finalists] were under my time frame, and that's what helped me make my decision."

The process started for Maxwell last Sept. 1, the first date that colleges were able to contact juniors. Maxwell had performed well at camps and in leagues over the summer, but it was still a bit stunning to be in the position of having the college selection process begin just as his junior year of high school was beginning.

"We were surprised about how fast it came on us," said Kevin Maxwell, who accompanied his son Max on weekend road trips in the fall and winter in which they took a look at prospective schools. "We did have a bit of panic for a week or two. I think you adjust. If you look at it, Max had about 5 1/2 months to consider what he wanted to do. It was controlled chaos in a way. The long rides didn't hurt -- we had time to talk about what we had seen."

And despite what appears to be a process that could be described as cutthroat, that hasn't been the experience for those who have gone through it.

"There was a tremendous decency with the coaches -- they weren't hard core, which surprised me," Kevin Maxwell said. "They were straightforward, told us what their time lines where. We had a very good experience with it."

Burke said the overwhelming majority of schools and coaches are up front about the situation -- even in the case of DiMillo missing out on the scholarship offers that were taken by two other players.

Burke said Maryland has said DiMillo is free to play football and it will honor its scholarship offer even in the event of an injury.

"It's not horrible, the early committing thing," he said. "There have been cases where kids get injured and coaches keep their word, and that means a lot. Everyone is highly motivated and committed to get the best guys, but there's a lot of character -- honest guys telling you the way it is."

Max Maxwell knew from the beginning that while he might have been making a college decision earlier than expected, it was a good problem to have.

"I just know how lucky I am -- it's definitely a blessing," said Max Maxwell. "There are seniors right now looking for a place to play and colleges to go to. As a junior, I know where I'm going and it makes school much easier. The traveling school to school, we really just embraced it. We had fun with it. I can't really say anything bad about it."

email: kmcshea@buffnews.com