Currently, there are so many tools and services available to help parents and players successfully navigate the recruiting process. While these are all wonderful methods for finding the right school for each player, I believe a large group of schools may sometimes be overlooked when many top juniors look at college. Those would be the 300+ programs that make up NCAA Division 3. Today, I'll discuss why Division 3 can be a great option for American juniors all the way from 1 to 5 stars, boys and girls alike.
I'm a big believer in statistics, so let me start by providing three sets of statistics that briefly highlight Division 3 tennis.
To begin, I looked at 4 and 5 star players in the classes of 2006 and 2007. Among these players, 242 went to Division 1 from high school and 30 went to Division 3. Of those 242 to D1, only 134 consistently started for their team, 86 played in the NCAA tournament and 68 have either transferred schools or quit the team. Of the 30 who went to Division 3, 27 consistently start for their team, 23 have played in the NCAA tournament and 5 transferred or quit the team.
To get a larger sample size of D3, I looked at 3, 4 and 5 stars who went D3 in the classes of 2006, 2007 and 2008. There are 133 total players in this category. Of those 133, 94 consistently start for their team, 80 have played in the NCAA tournament and only 17 have transferred schools or quit the team.
My last statistic is a demographic of D3. I looked at the top 6 singles players on each of the top 20 teams in Division 3. The breakdown is as follows.
5 stars: 2
4 stars: 39
3 stars: 40
2 stars: 19
0 or 1 star: 10
I will also mention that there are currently 9 kids in this breakdown who transferred from Division 1.
So what does all of this mean? Typically, when a junior tennis player thinks of Division 3, they think of strong academics and not-so-strong tennis. The former is definitely true. If you look the top 75 National Universities and the top 75 Liberal Arts Colleges according US News and World Report, nearly half of them compete in NCAA Division 3 tennis. When choosing Division 3, players will definitely be able to get a great education but will also be able to play top notch tennis. A great part about D3 is the variety among programs. If a player wishes to train 3-4 hours a day, the opportunity is there to do so. If a player needs to miss practice for an academic conflict, that is also extremely acceptable. D3 typically doesn't mirror the rigid practice schedules of D1, and there is a lot more flexibility when it comes to athletics.
I spoke with Matt Solomon, a recent graduate of Whitman College, about the differences between D1 and D3. Matt played at Whitman for his first two years as well as his senior year, but transferred to Boise State for the spring of his junior year because he wanted to experience D1 competition. During this season, the Broncos defeated Alabama in NCAAs before falling to Ohio State in the Round of 16. Matt started at #3 doubles for Boise and commented on the student-athlete experience as well as the difference in level of play between the two divisions.
"In my experiences, the balance is tilted significantly towards athletics for a D1 athlete and contrarily, is tilted heavily towards academics for a D3 athlete. At Boise State, practice lasted either 2 or 3 hours depending on the day. Three times a week we would go to the gym for one hour for weights and running... At Whitman, I was provided with ample opportunity to grow as a complete person. For example, this past year I was advertising manager for our school newspaper and I was on the executive board of the Whitman investment club... I expected the #3 doubles spot at places like Pepperdine, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Virginia to be at a considerably higher level than top doubles teams in Division III, however this was not the case. I think it’s a huge testament to Division III tennis that I was able to go from D3 to D1 and be competitive with some of the best #3 teams in the country."
I pose the following question to all junior players. Unless your goal is to become a professional player or a tennis coach, why would you choose a school that emphasizes tennis over academics? The NCAA ad campaign of "almost all of us are going pro in something other than sports" exemplifies this point quite well. D3 gives you the opportunity to concentrate on your schoolwork while still playing a high level of tennis. You will be prepared for the real world, whether it be at a larger research university or a small liberal arts college. You don't need to be academically outstanding to be accepted into a D3 school and there are often financial aid packages that can take the place of an athletic scholarship that you would receive in D1. The thing that is guaranteed is that the emphasis will be placed on student, before athlete, and you will come out of college as a more disciplined person.
I spoke with Coach Chuck Willenborg of Johns Hopkins University about the academic and athletic success of his program. Coach Willenborg just finished his 6th season at the helm of Hopkins Men's and Women's programs. He played at the University of Miami and had previously coached at his alma mater as well as Pepperdine University. The Johns Hopkins women climbed as high as #10 in the country this year their men were as high as #8.
"One thing I feel that gets overlooked when talking about Division III is the graduation rate of players leaving the program. All the rules are geared for the players to do well in school and feel that we take advantage of this. In Hopkins case, we take a lot of pride in our teams having very high GPAs while winning conference titles and competing on a national level. In my six years at Hopkins, we have placed 12 players in medical school at a 100% rate. The national average for students going to medical school is under 35%. This success is possible because of reduced amount of practice time."
On too many occasions, I believe naive junior tennis players are steered in the wrong direction and blinded by the prestige of being a Division 1 athlete. They are pressured by parents and often coaches to maximize only their tennis ability without exploring their other talents. Unless you are a highly recruited blue chip player, the chances are good that you may never win a conference title or play deep into an NCAA tournament. D3 gives you the opportunity to be competitive on the national level and really feel like you are playing for something when you step on the courts every day. With international players filling up more and more roster spots of the top D1 teams, the American juniors are being pushed to the lower ranks of D1 and often to the middle or bottom of their lineup and conference. Top D3 programs would be competitive with most of the Ivies and could compete for a title in an academically strong conference such as the Patriot League.
While D3 may not be right for everyone, it is certainly worth a look for many incoming college tennis players. The tennis continues to get stronger and we can still advertise numerous teams and players that qualify for Academic All-American status. Just take a look at the quality of players that have entered D3 over the past four years and you will realize that it is a great place for incoming college tennis players to develop, and more importantly it truly reflects the term student-athlete.