I have written about this subject in the past, Division III tennis and reality. I will reiterate this in the strongest way possible. As a Division III tennis coach for both men and women, I am partial to the experience provided to the student/athlete in what is perceived incorrectly by many in the Long Island and New York tennis public. Those young players aspiring to play in college need to understand what they are getting themselves into.
I thought I had put this topic to bed a few years ago in some articles previously written. I decided to resurrect this topic after a men’s tournament of almost all Division I tennis players I had my men’s players from SUNY Oneonta (Division III) participate in.
I recruit players from Long Island, New York City, Upstate New York and other nearby regions. The primary difference between the recruited players from Downstate and Upstate New York is the sense of entitlement that families believe they have in lower New York. The families and tennis academies from the lower region generally believe that their success lies with getting that athletic scholarship and playing Division I is tennis nirvana. I have written about this at great length, and some listen. Others believe they know better than this coach with 32 years of experience.
The only Division III institution amongst of field of six Division 1 programs including Hofstra and Fordham, SUNY Oneonta came away with 12 wins in the event, combining singles and doubles.
This is not an advertisement for SUNY Oneonta, but more of an educational piece. The Division III experience provides an integrated environment focusing on ACADEMIC success, while offering a competitive athletics. Nowhere in that definition does it say that the athletics are inferior. There are 183,500 student/athletes nationwide amongst 448 institutions in Division III and 75 percent of all student/athletes receive some form of non-athletics grant or scholarship. The ACADEMIC success rate is over 87 percent in Division III, as opposed to only 81 percent in Division I and even lower in the Division II.
I had the opportunity of coaching the Maccabi National USA Team that competed in Israel this past summer. My top male player on that national team was a gentleman from Claremont McKenna College, who was the runner-up national champion in Division III who is now turning pro. The second best player on that squad was a gentleman from UC Davis, a Division I institution. I see examples like this from all over the country. When Emory University won the DIII National Men’s Tennis Championships in May, each one of those players were recruited by Division I colleges.
When you speak to most players about why they attend Division III schools, the majority will answer “the balance between athletics and studies weighted heavily towards academics” as the primary reason they went DIII.
The entitlement factor I stated earlier was disproportionately weighted in the downstate demographic. “My son or daughter is going to play Division I” is often heard in a boastful tone as if the lottery was won. While the demographic of very good upstate talent, and I mean very good, although not as many as downstate, are simply proud to be recruited and considered for DIII. What are we doing? Are you really turning your noses up at an institution of higher learning where academics are a huge weighted focus? Folks, get your priorities in order. The microscopic population of Division I tennis players have not played on the pro tour, and an even smaller sampling who did play professionally are competing against not just great tennis players, but world-class athletes will, by and large, have limited success. What they do have though is enormous debt!
To enhance my point, in the past several years, I had two players transfer from Division I colleges to Oneonta State. One of them played in the third position at a Division I school, but had to settle for number five on my squad. The second one played at SUNY Oneonta for one-year and transferred to a Division I institution. He found he had little balance in his life, although he started at the DI college and ultimately decided to transfer back. His comments were, “I played great players in DI, but had little or no time for my academics, so I returned to DIII to play great tennis and enhance my education.”
The tennis academies I visit for recruiting purposes in Upstate New York open the door to me to help their junior programs get their students recruited. While many of the Downstate New York academies can actually look down upon a DIII institution as if I was carrying some sort of contagious disease. The fact of the matter is that at some of these downstate so-called “tennis factories,” 80 percent of their students would be challenged to make our DIII squad.
The above comments may come across strongly. I am not looking down at DI colleges because there are many great academic institutions promoting higher learning. However, with an 81 percent for DI and a graduation rate of 87 percent (highest of all three divisions), you could very well be discounting a great educational experience at the majority of colleges across the country at DIII (DI 346 schools, DII 314 schools and lowest success of graduation at only 71 percent, DIII 448 schools).
Please open your minds and take a look at all three and see what is being offered beyond the tennis. After all, for the majority of collegiate players, it’s not tennis that will be putting food on the table post-graduation. It will be a career away from tennis that will provide you with your livelihood. You will, however, stand out in your career as a former collegiate student/athlete. Your recreational lifestyle that includes tennis will add to your well-being. Your potential employer and/or postgraduate school will be impressed by your student/athlete participation. Your win/loss record will not be relevant, but how you did in your academics and being a student/athlete might be a door opener in the next part of your life. These four years of college are just a small part of your journey, and the most effort you can put in should be the educational portion.
In closing, I am not discounting Division I or Division II as a viable choice for tennis players. But what I am saying is this: “An informed and knowledgeable choice gives the best chance for success.” Without including Division III in your menu of choices, you are discounting more than 40 percent of institutions of higher learning representing more than one-third of U.S. colleges. You just might be discounting some of the best academic choices in the country.
Lonnie Mitchel is head men’s and women’s tennis coach at SUNY Oneonta. Lonnie was named an assistant coach to Team USA for the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel for the Grand Master Tennis Division. Lonnie may be reached by phone at (516) 414-7202 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.