Fall lacrosse has become a microcosm for how modern high school athletes are evolving.
There is a shift toward focusing on a primary sport to give a better chance of earning a college scholarship with a competitive program.
Lee Corrigan, president of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, operates a top-ranked boys' club lacrosse program called the Roughriders, which consists of about two-dozen teams (based in Maryland and Pennsylvania) ranging from youth to high school seniors. He said the level of competition has forced players to try and stay ahead of peers fighting for the same potential spot on a top-tier high school or college program.
"It has become the way of the world at this point," said Corrigan, who coaches the Roughriders' elite team (class of 2017). "If a kid wants to excel -- i.e., play high-level high school and college lacrosse -- they really need to dedicate themselves to that sport, because so many of their competitors are doing it."
Gene Ubriaco was a standout player for Boys' Latin and Loyola University with extensive coaching experience at the college, high school and club levels. He currently works with the Crabs Lacrosse Club and is the associate head coach at Boys' Latin. Through the years, he too has seen the game of lacrosse change.
"What I've noticed at BL during my 20 years is a shift away from the 'three-sport' athlete to the 'two-sport' athlete," Ubriaco said. "As a small school, we have always needed kids to play multiple sports to be competitive with the larger private schools. However, what I've noticed is that more kids are playing two sports -- lacrosse and soccer, or lacrosse and football -- and taking a season off to workout. The Crabs' 2018 kids I coach all play multiple sports, but most of them play two.
"Our Crabs teams typically play a couple tournaments in November and then three tournaments in the summer. The youth teams have a much more extensive practice schedule during the spring and fall. Lacrosse still seems to be the sport that 'butters the most bread' around here, so there definitely is an emphasis."
Tammy Coccagna, a coach for the Sky Walkers Lacrosse Program, has seen female players step away from all other sports to focus on lacrosse. However, she said it's in the best interest of the player to stay involved with other sports, even if their preference for college is lacrosse. Many coaches on the professional and amateur level agree.
"This enables the player to be more well-rounded, helps them to become more competitive and certainly keeps them in condition while not in lacrosse season," Coccagna said. "They develop better [one versus one] defense and learn how to 'help' defensively from basketball. Field hockey and soccer help them to understand the importance of spacing on the field, and soccer, especially, helps them to read interceptions better. Playing multiple sports is the mark of a true athlete: someone who is hungry to compete and be physically active."
Ubriaco contends middle school athletes should be practicing much more than they play. Because there are so many tournaments, the players aren't developing their best fundamentals. The coaches can play a vital role through this development.
"I'd love to see a 5:1 practice-to-play-ratio at the younger levels of club lacrosse," Ubriaco said. "In high school, most of the guys are playing a fall sport, so fall ball, many times, is a welcome change of pace for the guys and a way to keep their skills sharp. I've also noticed a pronounced drop off in kids who understand how to play 'off ball' lacrosse on offense and defense."
One of the main advantages of playing "fall ball" is college lacrosse coaches are not in-season and have time to scout players. This is especially true at tournaments, where a coach can get a look at dozens of players from around the country.
However, this could be a double-edged sword.
"I will say that kids are getting some mixed messages from coaches," Corrigan said. "Some are saying that they love kids that play other sports, but at the same time, 'You should really be at those fall and summer events where the real recruiting takes place.' So those kids, while they want to play other sports, are finding it very hard to dedicate any time to those other sports, because they do not want to miss out on the hot recruiting periods of fall and summer lacrosse, which is understandable."
Ubriaco said the tournaments also mean more scrutiny for the individual players. The evaluation can go well beyond the player's athletic ability.
"More college coaches' eyeballs mean more kids who want to be seen," Ubriaco said. "Anytime a coach can see a kid play live, as opposed to a highlight tape or on video, it is a huge benefit. They can see the player's body language, where he stands on the sidelines and in huddles, how engaged is he when he is not in, what kind of teammate is he, how does he celebrate when he makes a good play versus one of his teammates making a good play. Does he pout, sulk, argue with officials, or is he a positive force and a vocal leader on his team. Really important to be able to evaluate live."
Coccagna said girls' lacrosse has become very competitive across the United States. As a result, players need to have realistic expectations as far as opportunities and scholarships because of the competition. Nonetheless, fall lacrosse does provide the opportunity to get better.
"Fall ball has become an important part of the recruiting process, especially for those players nearing the end of their club lacrosse journey," she said. "I wouldn't necessarily say that more coaches are available to watch games; however, it does add another layer to the process. It enables coaches to get a look at a player in the 'offseason' and see their progression as they watch them perform 'in-season.' Of course, from a recruiting standpoint, it's basically just providing the player with more opportunities to be seen. More opportunities can mean interest from more schools, which means a better chance for a player to find the right fit for themselves."