Lynchburg Creates Perfect D-III Fall Model
What is the utility of fall ball for a Division III program? With 16 dates to practice, including one of them designated for intrasquad scrimmages, what can really be accomplished?
For many coaches, it's a chance to knock off a little rust, see who was working during the offseason, get the newcomers up to speed and maybe introduce some basic schemes. These uses certainly don't hurt D-III teams, but there is little to no carryover to the spring season.
The NESCAC taught us that once again last year. Prohibited by league rules from having an organized fall ball and mandated to start a month later than everyone else once the spring rolls around, the NESCAC broke the record for most teams qualifying (4) for the NCAA tournament in 2012. Fall is to lacrosse as filet mignon is to a dinner – it's a start, but it takes solid preparation and key ingredients to produce a good meal.
Assuming the overall value of fall ball is minimal, what's the best way to maximize the opportunity? We saw the perfect model for Division III when Lynchburg hosted Virginia last Thursday night for two primary reasons.
Getting Virginia, one of the signature programs in the college game, to come to your campus is going to be a positive, regardless of the outcome. Not being content with just playing against the 'Hoos, the Hornets turned it into "an event." They marketed the game – getting an estimated 2,000 students and fans to pack the school's main stadium – and had a live webcast for the contest.
The competition level speaks for itself, but it also acts as a useful tool off the field, as well.
"It gives our kids a great experience; to be able to play against in UVA in that atmosphere at home is pretty special," said Lynchburg head coach Steve Koudelka. "It does allow us to promote our program to more kids. Whether it's them being on campus for those in on a visit, or for them to see it and read about, it does speak a little bit to the program and who we're able to attract and play here. That's a big part of it."
Koudelka clearly understands that he is fortunate to have UVA visit, and is quick to credit – and thank – Dom Starsia, UVA's head man.
"It speaks volumes about Coach Starsia and what he thinks about this sport," Koudelka said. "He understands that bringing Virginia to Lynchburg to play a game is very beneficial to his own team, I hope, but also to our team and the sport. Of the 2,000 fans, it seemed like a 1,000 of them were little kids just running around and trying to get autographs from UVA guys.
"Those are things that Coach Starsia gets. That's why he's one of the best promoters of this sport. It's more than how well UVA played against Lynchburg; it's more about putting a positive spin on this sport and giving to the Lynchburg lacrosse community at large. We haven't had lacrosse that long, but we're growing and booming in our area and he's had a hand in that."
Not every Division III team has a coach like Starsia nearby who has the desire or time to lend his program and prestige to a small school, just as not every D-III team has Lynchburg's talent to make it a worthwhile trip. But it's still possible to create a compelling fall ball spectacle for fans and recruits without one of the sport's marquee names.
This fall, Division II Le Moyne will square off against Division III Cortland in a scrimmage – a game featuring a pair of teams that could potentially win their respective national championship. With the right venue and marketing, that contest would be a must-see contest for every lacrosse-starved upstate New York fan.
What about Merrimack-WNE? Or Denison-Michigan? Salisbury-Limestone? Gettysburg-Mt. St. Mary's? Even Whittier-Chapman?
An argument could be made that no program wants to take a "loss" in the fall, especially if it's in the higher division or they fight for some of the same recruits. I get that, but do you think that Starsia, who was playing mostly freshman and sophomores, according to Koudelka, would care if the Hornets pulled out a "win"? It's a scrimmage. Everybody knows that. Prospective recruits are pretty savvy, and understand what scrimmages are. They'll also understand what it means when a campus has the ability to come alive for an otherwise meaningless game.
To be fair, creating a fall ball extravaganza is also a matter of resources. Lynchburg is blessed with a communications major with many students eager to show off their A/V skills, along with an athletic administration willing to tolerate an off-season event. But if you throw in a free pre- or post-game clinic for local youngsters, what institution is going to say no?
Lynchburg is not the first Division III team to turn a fall ball scrimmage into a show. The Lee-Jackson Classic, which once pitted Washington & Lee against Division I neighbor VMI during the regular season, was flipped to the fall not too long ago. But unlike the LC-UVA game, Lee-Jackson is treated as the culmination of fall ball.
This is traditionally the norm in Division III. Use your practice time leading up to a scrimmage or play date, and perhaps leave a date or two open for an alumni game (which are not counted as scrimmages). By playing UVA early on in its calendar, Lynchburg is able to build upon what was learned against the 'Hoos.
"I never liked when we played on our very last day of fall ball because I felt you left there and there were always things you wanted to work on and no more dates," Koudelka said. "I don't mind playing at the front end because it gives a purpose to these guys in the offseason, and it also allows you to use the last few weeks in fall ball. We were able to come in on Friday and show our guys the film"
In addition, a game-like scrimmage early in the fall allows a staff to start the fight for playing time. Players find out early on where they stack up, but still have time to make a positive impact – a process that typically commences in the spring.
"I told our guys after the scrimmages on Thursday night, 'If you're a starter or you played a bunch tonight, you need to work even harder," said Koudelka. "If you are a guy who didn't play as much as you would like, now you know where you stand, and we'll give you every avenue to get better and push for the starting lineup. Hopefully both cases will take advantage of it."
Further, by playing Virginia under the bright lights in September, Lynchburg has already started the process of assimilating newcomers. They got a dose of what to expect when the regular season rolls around, so maybe they won't be quite as awestruck during contests against the likes of Gettysburg and Salisbury.
With summer club ball, fall ball and captains' practices, lacrosse has become a year-round venture for a lot of Division III student-athletes. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it is a fact. By using the lone fall ball scrimmage to inject a little purpose into the tedium that is the eight-month offseason is nothing but a positive for the players, the schools and the sport itself.
Lynchburg has provided the perfect blueprint to do it.