The NAIA – what’s that? If you had asked me that very question ten years ago I would just have been giving you guesses. I grew up and played lacrosse collegiately in Massachusetts – the land of NCAA Division III. Within an hour of my home town there were dozens of NCAA Division III schools for me to choose from, and my first two coaching jobs were within DIII. NCAA lacrosse was all I knew until I moved down south. Even then, my first few years in Georgia were spent coaching at a DIII school and I didn’t understand what it meant to be an National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) team. That’s club, right? We even had some NAIA games on our schedule since they were nearby, and I would often see the coaches at all the same recruiting tournaments looking at the same players. Even though we played them and we recruited the same athletes as them, I must admit that I didn’t appreciate the value they were bringing to our sport.
It wasn’t until I landed my dream job at Savannah College of Art & Design that I finally got to learn what it meant to be NAIA. For my team, it means fall ball and spring season, morning lifting, practice under the lights, study hall, and individual meetings. It means working hard for a common goal, pushing their bodies past what they thought possible, doing extra to earn a starting position, while still appreciating and celebrating everything their teammates do. It means sacrificing their weekends to go to games, doing homework on the bus, and coming to class in their practice gear. Actually, what it means to be NAIA is exactly what it meant to me when I was an athlete in the NCAA.
For me, the NAIA means I get to experience a governing body being formed for the sport I love. While NAIA has been in existence since 1940, lacrosse is still in its Invitational status. As we approach the minimum number of teams required, we get closer to being considered Championship status and I have been fortunate enough to see firsthand our bylaws being formed. I have gotten to give my input and voice my opinion on how I feel timelines should work and rules be implemented. It’s exciting to know that I can help shape the future of lacrosse within the NAIA. We have coaches from all different levels of lacrosse who can speak of their experience about what has worked and what hasn’t.
As a coach in the NAIA I have also gotten to see the sport grow in a way that is different than what I had seen with new programs back home. Oftentimes you see a school announce a new program to join an already established conference and these first-year programs have a rough time navigating the first few years as they compete with schools that have had lacrosse for decades. With the NAIA, everything is so new. Here at SCAD, we are one of the oldest programs, having fielded a varsity sponsored team since 2008, but many of the schools within the NAIA have been founded in the last five years. They also are competing in conferences comprised of teams that are just as young, giving them a chance to grow together and have competitive games even within their first few years. You also see many programs forming in non-traditional lacrosse areas which is great for the growth of the game, but also great for all the athletes in those areas who might not have had an opportunity to play this sport in college if it wasn’t for those new programs.
On the recruiting trail, and when I see other collegiate coaches, it can sometimes feel like an uphill battle trying to justify that NAIA teams can compete with NCAA schools. We are so new, and not just new programs, but new rules, new leaders and new athletes, so sometimes people get focused on what they see right now without considering where this will all go. I have only been an NAIA coach for three seasons but I have seen the level of competition get steadily higher each year. As new programs become veteran programs and recruits start seeing all the additional opportunities they have to continue playing, the strength of NAIA programs gets better.
So maybe a decade ago I had no notion about what NAIA was, but now I know exactly what the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics is all about. The name might be different than NCAA, but for the student-athletes this is another opportunity for them to continue to play a sport they love at the next level. As lacrosse continues to expand across the country, it’s nice to know that NAIA is doing their part to bring the game to the next level.
Editor’s Note: For more information on NAIA Women’s Lacrosse, please visit their website.