By HANNAH KARP and DARREN EVERSON
Don't look now, college-sports behemoths, but in some of the lower-profile NCAA sports like tennis, swimming and lacrosse, there's an unlikely new force welling up to give you a run for your money: those precious liberal-arts colleges that don't offer athletic scholarships.
After years of serving as an occasional appetizer for Division I programs, a growing number of teams from Division III, the NCAA's lowest tier, have been scoring major upsets. In November, Kenyon's D-III men's swim team beat Miami (Ohio). Emory's men's tennis team recently crushed Georgetown while the University of Chicago took down Dayton. At a women's golf tournament last year, Williams (Mass.) finished ahead of several Division I teams including Hofstra and Boston University. Last month, the baseball team from Minnesota's University of St. Thomas stunned the University of Minnesota by five runs.
Scott Craig, the boys' lacrosse coach at West Islip High School in New York—one of the nation's top prep programs—said the playing field in that sport is nearly flat. "Once you get past the top 15 or 20 D-I schools, the top D-III teams can totally compete," he said.
The growing potency of D-III teams is being felt most acutely in men's tennis. As the D-III men's championships got under way last week, coaches and players say (and the results suggest) that the top men's D-III teams are now better than about half the teams in Division I, and can hang with all the D-I teams outside the top 50.
The rise of D-III has much to do with the changing nature and availability of scholarships. The NCAA's Division I has seen a net loss of 106 wrestling teams, 72 men's tennis teams and 18 men's swim teams over the past 20 years. On many teams that remain, scholarships are becoming scarce. As schools rush to comply with Title IX, men's D-I tennis teams usually only have about four scholarships per team (or fewer) while women's teams generally have twice as many.
With fewer scholarships, talented athletes who would have gone with the tuition subsidy in years past are now free to go wherever they want—and in may cases they're choosing the better school with less athletic pressure, even if it might cost them a lot more in tuition.
As more schools move athletic programs to D-I, the total number of athletes receiving sports-related aid has grown to about 90,000 this year from about 70,000 a decade ago, according to NCAA estimates. But in many of these lower-profile sports, the scholarships are only partial, meaning they cover a fraction of the total tuition bill. In most cases, playing in Division I also requires students to make a much larger commitment of time to practices and the like.
Lacrosse is a good example. Because Division I schools are limited to 12.6 men's scholarships per team (on rosters that generally have about 45 players), players often get only one-third or a quarter of their schooling paid for—which can make a lower-cost Division III team a better deal. And as Division I lacrosse grows, it's becoming more intensive and year-round, which is driving recruits to increasingly consider D-III. "You can go to D-III and have a more academic setting," Craig said. "You don't have that kind of offseason commitment that you have in D-I."
The same is true in swimming. While Kenyon, which is in Gambier, Ohio, has long been a D-III swimming superpower, other D-III schools like Atlanta's Emory and Denison, in Granville, Ohio, are drawing top swimmers as well. Emory swim coach John Howell says he only recruits against D-I and Ivy League teams and schedules most meets against lower-ranked D-I teams. "Sometimes we'll beat a D-I team and they won't want to swim us again so they just drop us from the schedule—it's hard for them to lose to us," says Howell.
A byproduct is that top D-III teams are increasingly populated with serious students. At Washington University in St. Louis, the men's tennis team—ranked No. 6 in D-III—includes a bunch of pre-med students. At Chicago, the No. 4 women's and No. 9 men's tennis teams include a number of sleep-deprived econ majors who can be found dozing overnight at the library.
Dillon Pottish of East Quogue, N.Y., who was ranked among the nation's top 100 junior tennis players in high school, started his career at the D-I University of Portland, in Oregon. Two years ago, he transferred to Emory, whose team is now ranked No. 2 in D-III. He said he left largely because he couldn't stand the rain—and wanted more rigorous academics. This spring, Warren Wood, a five-star tennis recruit from La Jolla, Calif., turned down scholarship offers from Penn State, the University of San Diego and North Carolina Wilmington. His choice: Tiny Claremont-Mudd-Scripps east of Los Angeles, which is ranked No. 3 in D-III. "Claremont seemed like best school I could get into academically," he said.
Ivy League schools, which compete in Division-I but don't offer athletic scholarships, also are benefiting. For the second straight year, Cornell was the runner-up at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships (the school sells recruits on the idea that while they might not get the free education offered by programs with athletic scholarships, their future earnings potential makes it a financial winner). Yale's hockey team spent much of this winter at the top of the D-I rankings as well.
CMS men's tennis coach Paul Settles says that in some ways, being in D-III is a benefit. Because D-I players spend so much more time on the court and in the weight room, they play a more physical game and rely on big weapons like powerful serves. Because top D-III players spend more time in the library, he says they play "a less physical brand of tennis," so the "cerebral side is critical."
"We're constantly battling how we do more with less so tactics are very important," Settles says. D-III players often seem to play with more heart, he adds, because it's their last hurrah. "This is their Wimbledon."