The real answer is a complex one, and it depends on a number of factors, so we’ll start out with a general answer to the question, and then dig down deeper on what it takes to play at different levels of the college game including NCAA D1, D2, and D3, NJCAA, MCLA, NCLL, and CUFLA.
A General Answer
There are a number of different options and levels available to you. But here is the big key aspect they all share: No matter where you want to play college lacrosse requires time, effort, and plenty of sacrifices.
Any college student-athlete, at almost any level, needs to be prepared to dedicate at least a couple hours each day to lacrosse. Playing on a college team also means that other activities or options will no longer be available to you, and that the team will take priority over most other things during your years in school. This may be what you want, but before you can actually play college lacrosse, you need to be able to commit to the time it will require. That is really the first big step.
Do you need to work while you are in school? Or can you get loans or grants to cover your costs? Can you commit to being off campus with your team for half of the weekends each spring and one or two every fall? Will your major require an intensive project during the year? Will that mesh with your lacrosse activities? How does the college’s coach view academics vs athletics? How do you view the two? Will playing lacrosse help you keep your grades up? Or will your marks suffer because of athletics? Can lacrosse help you get into a better school? Is a “better” school a better fit for YOU? What would you do if you couldn’t play lacrosse anymore? Would you still like the school? How well do you manage your time on your own? How emotionally mature are you?
Before you can even ask yourself questions about on-field ability, you really should think heavily on ALL of the above issues. Go off on tangents. Ask yourself tough questions. Don’t just accept what you hear from one source. Talk to lots of people on your situation. Weigh their arguments. Come up with your own. And don’t listen to people just because they’re telling you what you want to hear. Pursue the truth. Can you HONESTLY handle all the school work AND the lacrosse work? It’s not easy!
Everyone, regardless of ability or where they end up, should ask themselves a lot of questions, but it all comes down to one thing. Can YOU make a full commitment to play college lacrosse and still find a way to thrive in the classroom?
If you answered yes to the above question, you may be ready to decide which level of college lacrosse is going to be appropriate. I’ll start with the big boys, the alpha dogs… the D1 lacrosse scene.
How Hard Is It To Play College Lacrosse at the D1 level?
Most D1 teams are running year-round and recruiting in top notch talent. Some offer scholarships (those that do have 12.5 scholarships for about 45 players) and some do not (the Ivy League for example), but all of these programs are running a serious show. From big time D1 athletics programs (like Notre Dame and Michigan) to D3 schools with D1 lacrosse (like Hopkins and Hobart), everyone is putting in a full-court press, and the competition is fierce.
Lacrosse is still a small sport across college, and rosters spots on D1 teams are hard to come by. D1 expansion has seemingly been much slower than high school expansion, so now there are more talented kids than ever vying for limited spots. 10 years ago it was much easier to find a spot on a lower end team’s roster, but these days, even teams that go 3-12 have plenty of talent and athleticism.
For your average D1 program, players are typically putting in 2-4 hours per day. There may be periods of slow down (Duke takes some time off from team stuff in December), but guys are always training, working out, and keeping lacrosse near the top of their priority lists. During the spring season, it ramps up another level, and lacrosse becomes nearly all-encompassing. This is not a negative, just a reality.
Many of these schools also don’t hold tryouts. The kids they recruit in are most often the kids that get a chance. If your plan is to walk-on to a D1 team, know this now: it will be a tough, uphill battle. Some programs host tryouts, but many don’t. For those that do host open tryouts, making the roster is a serious task. In many cases, you basically have to impress a coach so much that the coach drops a guy he brought in to the school for lacrosse. It’s a lot to ask, and few coaches will take you if you’re “as good” as one of their guys. From what I have seen you need to be better than a couple of their guys to make a real impact, and possibly make the team.
Now if you want to be recruited to a D1 school, you can go about in a couple of different ways:
1) You can attend a college’s “prospect day”. This is great if you know where you want to play as it puts you in front of the coaches in a contained and small setting.
2) You can create a video of yourself that includes ALL your field time from one game where you played against a top level opponent. Ask your high school coach to write the coach a letter about you as well. Do not send coaches a video filled with 10 second goal highlights. That is useless as a recruiting tool. USELESS. Coaches literally laugh when they see most of those unless the kid is truly a magician. Same thing for FoGos who only show themselves winning face offs. USELESS. Show coaches who you are as a complete player and hope they like you.
3) You can also join a club team and HOPE TO GOD that your team is so good that a coach happens to see you. At a tournament with 400 teams, do you REALLY think you’re good enough to stand out amongst 8000 kids? Are you one of the top players on your team, which is one of the top teams? If so, go for it. If not, look at options #1 and #2 a little more closely.
4) Just focus on being a LEGIT overall athlete in high school. Honestly, this is the best option. Play multiple sports, be good at all of them, and be a good kid. If you’re an all-state basketball player, college coaches will love your potential. If you were also all-state in lacrosse, even better. If I were a D1 coach, I would want to recruit a kid who was all-league in 3 sports over a kid who was named to 4 fall tourney all-star teams. I’m not a D1 coach, but many I speak to feel the same way.
Ok, so where exactly should you be athletically for D1 lacrosse?
On average, D1 lacrosse players are superb athletes. These are the guys who played multiple sports, made all-state in one or two, and were all around forces to be reckoned with no matter what they were doing when it came to athletics. They are big, strong, fast, tough, and most importantly, have a good game sense for sports in general. There are exceptions of course, and some guys just have better skills than anyone else, and that gets them through the door as well. But to have those kind of skills requires a certain athleticism, so the point really does stand.
Do you TRULY stand out as an athlete compared to your friends and peers? Are you faster, or bigger, or just better (or notably more competitive) than ALL of the kids at your school? (Ask yourself that last question very honestly!) Is your school an “athletic” school? How do you compare to other kids in the area? Are you a league all-star in a couple sports, or just lacrosse? Can you take over a game, or cause a team to change their game plan? YES???? Well then, you may be a D1 caliber lacrosse player as well.
Of course you might not be. I know guys who fit the above profile who did not make in the D1 lacrosse world believe it or not. I also know guys who didn’t really fit the above profile who did make it. In general however, the above general tests and questions should help you address the issue of whether or not you are cut out for D1 lacrosse. D1 lacrosse is not for the kids who “just want it”. D1 lacrosse is for the kids who not only want it but also go out and make it a reality and then perform at a high level. A big chunk of natural athleticism and a good attitude never hurt either.
Remember, there is a 6’2″, 210 pound great natural athlete from Long Island who has been playing lacrosse, football, and basketball since he was four years old. His brothers, father, and uncles all played D1 sports. That is who you are competing with. How hard is it to play D1 lacrosse? VERY hard.
Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t necessarily pick up lacrosse later in life and still have D1 aspirations.
How Hard Is It To Play College Lacrosse at the D2 level?
Take pretty much everything I said about D1 lacrosse, and dial it down to about 95%, and you have D2 lacrosse. Basically, it’s still really excellent lacrosse. In fact, I can’t think of another sport where the gap between D1 and D2 is as close as it is in men’s NCAA lacrosse. There are a few less teams (65 for 2016) and each team only has a maximum of a couple scholarships, far fewer than the 12.5 that fully funded D1 teams have. Rosters are about the same size, around 40-45 players per team.
The work rate and the level of play at the higher levels of D2 is very much like the D1 experience. Adelphi, Limestone, LeMoyne, Mercyhurst and a score of others offer some really great lacrosse options, and pull in some truly high level players. On the lower end of D2, the overall quality of the play does still take a major step down, but it is nothing like it was in past years. Bottom rung D2 teams (especially in newer areas) used to be truly awful, but with so many more kids looking to play college lacrosse now, a lot of these lower regarded programs have improved greatly, and the days of 35-0 scores being common seem to be behind us.
D2 lacrosse at the top levels is very competitive, and rivals some D1 programs. At the bottom end, it is below the level of good college club (MCLA) lacrosse, but it is still competitive. D2 offers a wide range of options and levels of play for the interested student-athlete, and their geographic spread is truly impressive with multiple teams in Georgia, Florida, California, and Tennessee, as well as hot bed areas like Long Island, Upstate, Pennsylvania, and New England.
D2 NCAA Lacrosse was considered the ugly duckling of college lacrosse for a long time, but that is really not fair anymore. D2 lacrosse is legit, growing quickly, and a great option for kids out there who want to play REALLY good college lacrosse.
How Hard Is It To Play College Lacrosse at the D3 level?
Take the scholarships right off the table. You might get grant money, or a loan, but you can’t play D3 lacrosse and get a “lacrosse scholarship”. That is against D3 rules. While there aren’t any scholarships, there are a TON of teams to choose from (and many offer great financial aid)! With 231 programs in 2016, NCAA D3 men’s lacrosse is the biggest division out there, and the diversity of the teams is downright staggering.
You have top level programs like Tufts, RIT, Salisbury, and Stevenson (amongst others) who routinely pull in top level players. These schools have awesome facilities, equipment sponsors, and they chase titles regularly. Their level of play is like high level D2 lacrosse, or mid to low level D1 lacrosse. As you can imagine, between #1 and #231 there is a big difference.
Lower end D3 lacrosse is completely accessible. If you have never played before, but have a good attitude and some athleticism, you can make some college teams. Seriously. Of course if you try that at RIT, things will go poorly for you. Between the top and the bottom we’re talking about polar opposite worlds.
The top 60-70 D3 teams take lacrosse very seriously. Kids on those teams have played before, usually a LOT. Just making the team is hard if you weren’t an exceptional player on your high school team and good overall athlete. From around 70 to 110 you have another mix of teams. Some are long-time “ok” programs, others are newer programs on the rise. Beyond 110, it’s a real mix. Some of the programs are brand new, others are relatively new, while others still are old and under-funded. Some have coaches who needed to be fired long ago. Others don’t pay their coaches a serious salary. Some make the kids pay for their gear. Some are just small schools in new lacrosse areas. There is literally every sort of set up imaginable, but between the 110 and 231 range, any solid lacrosse player, or athlete, should be able to find a suitable home if they can commit to the time and effort that all lacrosse requires.
How Hard Is It To Play College Lacrosse at the NJCAA level?
There are some serious levels of striation for NJCAA Lacrosse. Up top, you have Onondaga, and then everyone else. Sort of. At least on paper… OCC has been dominant as of late, winning the last 7 NJCAA titles as well as their last 105 games. But Nassau CC, CCBC Essex, and Genesee are all very solid programs, and others move up and down year to year. While OCC is the clear top dog, Nassau gets 100 kids for tryouts and just making that team is an accomplishment. Many years they play OCC for the title, and games can be pretty close. Plenty of non-OCC players go on to play NCAA D1, D2, and D3 lacrosse each year, so the overall quality up top is good.
Lower down the ladder, the top level players can still be good, but depth suffers quickly. OCC, Essex, and NCC have talent all over, but many others programs don’t have more than a couple really good players. This can detract from the score lines we see, when better teams can win games by 15 or more goals regularly. At the lowest end of NJCAA lacrosse, programs are begging kids to come out and play and a roster of 14-17 players is not all that rare.
For the players at the top, NJCAA is tough and competitive, just to make the team. Many of these players have hopes of playing high level NCAA lacrosse. As you move down the ladder, it becomes less about NCAA lacrosse and more about competing and participating. Lowed end D3 NCAA schools can often be the goal here, and the NJCAA provides a great system of prep both on the field and in the classroom.
How Hard Is It To Play College Lacrosse in the MCLA?
The MCLA has two divisions, and while all of the teams are student-run to some degree, some of the programs are very serious, and attract a lot of top level talent. Big time D1 and D2 MCLA teams can play with many D3 and D2 programs, and they can beat a number of them as well. There is still a difference between schools like RIT, Tufts, Adelphi, and OCC and the best MCLA schools, but that gap is not a HUGE one. Over recent years, it seems to have only gotten tighter.
The MCLA is good lacrosse, but when it comes to asking if you can play MCLA Lacrosse, another question has to be asked: Can you afford it?
Many MCLA programs require the student-athletes to pay their way to play lacrosse at the school. You will see this at certain NCAA schools as well, but in the MCLA it is basically the norm. Practices can be held on school grounds, or not. Games can be on college campuses or public parks. The league is organized, but it is driven by the players above all else, which makes it a unique experience in the US. Many team captains spend hours coordinating their teams off the field in addition to their commitment to play college lacrosse.
If you want to play on a top level MCLA team, you will need to be a good player. ASU, Chapman, Colorado, Grand Canyon, and a number of other schools have great programs year in and year out. These clubs even produce players who end up in the pros sometimes. Not everyone is that good, but the MCLA can ball, so don’t think it’s going to be a cake walk out there. No way, no how. Lower down, teams are more open, and talent drops off considerably, but near the top, the MCLA offers high D3 level lacrosse.
How Hard Is It To Play College Lacrosse in the NCLL?
If your school has an NCAA team, your school can’t have an MCLA team. Those are just the rules. But they can have an NCLL team! The NCLL is basically a club league, made up of students at any school that don’t play varsity NCAA lacrosse. Navy has an NCLL team, which has basically been their school’s official JV team. Stevenson does a similar thing. You also have schools like Cortland and Salisbury, where 120 kids per year want to play varsity lacrosse. For those guys, the NCLL provides another league option.
At other schools, the NCLL teams are really just club teams, and there is no JV component to them. They are totally student-run and organized, and the D1 coaches have little to no interest in the kids playing. This is the case at Binghampton and some other schools with lower interest levels.
There are often some good players out there, and schools like Navy, Cortland, Salisbury, Virginia, and a couple others are often very well organized, and might even have a coach on their sidelines. Others are player-coached, and totally disorganized. Of course you also find everything in between the two extremes.
Making an NCLL team is usually an achievable goal if you can pay the dues and can maintain the commitment to your team. Remember, stick skills are a must if you want to play college lacrosse at any level!