Passion Knows No Division

By Julika Blankenship, Head Coach, Winthrop University @WinthropLax

Division I… Division II… Division III…

            Photo courtesy of the author

Three dividing categories, rife with stereotypes and assumptions. Do most lacrosse fans and followers really understand the true and valid differences between the three? I did not have a solid understanding of each as I embarked upon my athletic career (WAY longer ago than I would like to reveal). Truthfully, even as I entered the coaching ranks immediately following my playing career, I still did not fully understand the nuances that differentiate one from the others. Obviously, I had an understanding of my own Division III experience and the way my particular institution created the student-athlete experience for me (which, I would like to add, was amazing) but that was the extent of my knowledge at that point.

What are the differences?  What are the similarities? And more importantly, what is RIGHT for me?  Those are questions that thousands of potential college lacrosse players ask themselves.  So too, do many coaches as we start our professional careers.  First, let’s take a look at some of the stereotypes (***Potentially obvious disclaimer:  these are merely stereotypes provided by unnamed references and not necessarily grounded in reality***):

Division I:

Programs are fully funded, and as a result the athletes are showered with endless amazing gear. Road trips include first class travel accommodations, complete with lobster and steak dinners. Athletes are treated better than the typical students on campus, and they do not have to go to class. Coaches do not have to fundraise. Lacrosse is all-consuming and there is no time for fun.

Division II:

Wait, which teams complete in Division II? Aren’t there only about twenty DII schools? Academics are slightly more important than at DI schools, but many DII players could not even make DI (or even DIII) teams. The DII athletes take lacrosse seriously, but they are interested and involved in other things. The programs are not as well funded, but still have access to resources. If you lose even one game in your regular season, you probably won’t make the NCAA tournament.

Division III:

The athletes are very smart, and take academics more seriously than everything else. There are no scholarships offered, and the athletes must pay for their own gear.  Many athletes manage play two sports, and it is basically an extension of high school sports. The coaches are pulled in multiple directions and tend to wear many hats.

Since my start in coaching 12 years ago, I have been fortunate enough to be an assistant coach at the Division I and Division III level, and have also been a head coach at the DI, DII, and DIII levels. That has given me the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of each division and has certainly enabled me to see through some of the embellished and inaccurate stereotypes listed above. More importantly, it has given me the opportunity to work with a multitude of student-athletes with varying athletic and academic goals. I have learned that there is no singular Division “X” student-athlete experience, in the same way that no two students are expecting the exact same thing from their years spent on campus. Given the lack of unifying attributes across any of the schools or experiences in a particular division, I have found that the similarities across the divisions are more interesting and profound. That is not to say that one cannot identify, and even quantify, specific tangible differences between the experience at a particular DI school vs. a particular DII school. But only that one could also find significant differences between any two Division I (or DII, or DIII) schools. And so, if the similarities are more compelling than the differences, then what is most similar?

The one thing that stands out to me, above and beyond anything else, is PASSION. In choosing your path – and committing to play for X University or Y College – you are immediately surrounded by a group of players that grew up with, and love, the game of lacrosse… the same way you do. Perhaps you are brought together because you found a connection with a coach, or you loved the tradition of the program. Maybe it is because of the location, or that the campus is so inspiring. Or that the academic programs align with your career goals, or even that your parents are alumni. Or most likely, some combination of these (and many other) factors led you and a group of new teammates to settle in the same place for the next four years.

But once on campus, you are there together, as sisters. You rally and align around your love for the game and your desire to grow, both individually and as a team. It is now your responsibility to bring energy and enthusiasm, and embrace the culture and vision that your coach and leaders are responsible for creating. Many of these teammates will become your best friends for the rest of your lives. You will gain an unprecedented appreciation and sense of pride for your team and program/school, a true love that you could not have expected or understood until you felt it. And this is the beauty of the life of a student athlete, and it certainly not bound by a ‘Division’ or affected by stereotypes.

The ball is in your court. You can make what you want out of your experience and work tirelessly to ensure that the next four years – as both a student and an athlete – will be among the most rewarding times of your life. Regardless of the resources you do or do not have, the scholarship you did or did not receive, the fall season you do or do not have, the lobster dinner you did or did not eat, and all the classes that I hope you did attend, the relentless passion for the game is what connects us all in every single way and unites us as one! PASSION KNOWS NO DIVISION!!!

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