Why College Is Better Than Pro (Mostly)

Denver Denver lacrosse pro college
Denver vs. Denver. College vs. Pro.
Denver Denver lacrosse pro college
Denver vs. Denver. College vs. Pro.

On an even playing field, pro lacrosse players would be better than their college counterparts, pro lacrosse teams would be better than college teams, and the pros would represent another step in the evolution of the game.  But in our existing lacrosse reality, this even set of circumstances rarely presents itself, and because of the current set-up, elite college teams are often better than their pro counterparts.

It’s hard to define the concept of “better” simply, or by a single measurable metric, without focusing on wins and losses.  But since the MLL and NCAA teams don’t play any “real” games, the wins and losses argument has to be thrown out.  One can always look at scrimmage scores and use those as a basis for comparison, but we all know scrimmages aren’t games, and teams prep for them a little differently.  The point is that we can’t take a lot away from the results of a college vs pro scrimmage… but we can take a lot away from the scrimmage action itself.  So let’s look closely, and see what we can see!

Check out the recent Denver Pioneers (NCAA) vs Denver Outlaws highlights from lax.com as an example.

Yes, the college team “won”… but I already told you not to pay attention to that.  Did you watch the actual action?  If yes, continue reading.  If no, go back and watch the video again, please.

What did you notice?

I noticed that the Pioneers played like a team.  They moved the ball with precision, knew where other players would be and managed to score a lot of assisted goals.  They combined individual play with team play and created a ton of open looks by doing so.  They generated outside looks for their shooters, and inside looks for their finishers, and they looked like a real deal team.  Oftentimes, the 3rd or 4th pass ended up being the assist on a goal, and when the Pioneers did dodge, they had lots of space to do just that.

The Outlaws, on the other hand, got most of their goals off individual efforts, and maybe one pass.  The Outlaws produced some pretty goals, and they have some unreal talent on the roster, but NONE of their goals were as pretty as some of the Pioneers’ markers.  Connor Martin and a host of other Outlaw players went really hard in the game, and created some SportsCenter quality highlights… but not a lot of good team play, and if the pros want to elevate their game above that which is played in college, this is something that simply must change.

The Denver Pioneers looked like a practiced team, and at times like a well-oiled machine.  They spread the ball out, moved it quickly and played dynamic team lacrosse.  They dodged when they needed to and moved the ball nicely out of doubles and slides.  They played together, and it was beautiful.

The Outlaws, while athletic and skilled, seemed totally discombobulated.  They just didn’t have the same flow as the Pioneers, and because of this lack of chemistry, they were forced to play individual lax.  And when it comes down to it, this is what separates college from the pros.  College lacrosse is a team game.  The pro game is all about individual success.  One can argue that the Outlaws didn’t have all their players, and that this is their off-season, which is fair, but this is kind of what a Denver game looked like this past Summer.  It still looks like MLL style lax.

The single thing that will change the current stack of dominance is practice.

College teams practice… A LOT.  Pros teams don’t practice at all.  And please don’t try to tell me that the walk through pro teams do the day before a game counts as practice.  Some teams may go hard, but it still doesn’t count.  One day of lacrosse before a game is simply NOT enough.

Now I understand that the MLL can not afford to make its players full-time lacrosse players.  I get that.  But in order for the MLL to rise above college lacrosse, they have to make it happen somehow, and I have some ideas on how that could be done.

1) FORCE players to live in the area of their home team, or at least force them to spend more time there.  If Paul Rabil decides he has to live in Baltimore, then fine, but during the MLL season, he owes Boston 3-4 days a week.  Game day is one of those days, and the other two should be required for… you guessed it… practice!  This may drop a couple of guys off of current rosters, but in the end, the league needs this to happen, so if guys won’t go along with it, the MLL needs to replace them.  It’s a harsh approach, but it would do a lot for the quality of team play in the pros.

2) Use more LOCAL TALENT!  I’ll stick with Boston and Paul Rabil here… Yes, the Cannons just won the MLL Championship, and PR99 was a huge part of that run.  But that doesn’t mean that the current approach is the best one, just that the Cannons were the best at it.  And it doesn’t mean that the Cannons didn’t use local talent as well, because they did.  Mike Stone and Greg Downing are two guys who come to mind right away.  Neither of them are really big-name players, but they both provided a big boost to Boston, and they both lived in the area, and dedicated themselves to the team in a major way.  These are the kinds of guys who would practice 4-5 days a week, and it would barely cost the team any additional money.  They make up the backbone of the team, and their style of team play allows guys like Rabil more room to operate.

3) INCREASE ROSTER SIZES.  You don’t have to increase the number of guys who can play on game day, but the number of players that can be on a team should increase.  This way more local players can be picked up, and practice can happen more often.  Teams can then easily develop more local talent, and give more guys a shot at a spot.  It would also put a lot more pressure on the guys who fly in to play for a team to be there more often.

4) The MLL needs to take a better look at PRO PLAYER STICKS.  The pockets are too deep, and the heads are too pinched.  Pro players can rely on dodging because the ball just doesn’t come out of the stick.  I don’t think the MLL needs to go crazy here, but adopting the Universal head requirements for their sticks would be a great first step.  The top width has to be 6.25″ or more and then the throat has to follow current college regulations.  This would give MLL players the widest required sticks on the planet, and would definitely decrease the dodge-first attitude that is so prevalent in the pros right now.

The professional players are some of the most skilled the game has ever seen.  Some of the pros are in better shape than any other laxers in the world.  Teams are littered with big names and these guys put on a show every time they hit the field.  But in order for the MLL to be considered better than college lacrosse teams need to play together more, and they need to play better team lacrosse.  Star players are great, but the beauty of lacrosse is found in BOTH individual play and team play, and the pros are seriously lacking when it comes to the latter.


  1. I like your thoughts, I don’t think they need to make MLL specs though, too many different specs (HS, NCAA and MLL).
    However, many of the guys DO use NCAA spec heads already. I saw an article on here or somewhere else (I forget), the problem isn’t completely the heads but the stringing! People are too good at it and can use the widest head but get a tight channel and what-not to hold the ball. How do you fix that? I have no answer there…

  2. Connor, I typically LOVE what you write, but have to strongly disagree on many of these points.  I am a huge proponent of both the MLL and the NCAA game and have now played almost twice as many seasons in the MLL/NLL than I did at Cornell (in terms of actual playing time) so I have seen both sides of the coin. 

    Yes, being around your team 24-7 makes a huge difference both in terms of chemistry on the field and dedication off it.  Yes, practicing every day allows you to work on the things you need the most help on and game plan week in and week out until you have each system down to perfection.  And yes, individual match ups play a much bigger role in the pro game than the college game (just like the NBA or NFL).  But to use the comparison above as the basis for the overall play is unfair.  No knock to the team assembled or the Pioneers resulting ‘victory’, but it was NOT the Denver Outlaws you would see on an MLL game day. 

    The 4 teams that made it to the MLL Championship featured some of the best players in the world, with at least 1 starter per team holding a position on the Team USA squad that dismantled Duke later in the Fall season.  The overall speed, athleticism and skill required at the MLL level (especially with only 6 teams!) force only the best of the best to be able to play at that level.

    The other thing this contracted pool means is that players have to keep themselves in the best shape possible just to maintain their roster spot.  While people may joke about players being part-time or not “real pro athletes”, the guys that have success on the field are the same guys that are working as hard or harder than they did in college.  I know for me personally, my recent successes are a direct result of amping up my workouts and training which have allowed me to get in as good or better shape then I was in the past. 

    As far as team play, you are right on the fact that we don’t practice a lot.  But most teams do host LEGITIMATE practices Friday night, and training camp are similar to college practices.  Communication and knowing your personnel are what make chemistry – at the MLL level, when you have players who have been in the league for several years leading both O and D units and guys who can communicate, you will have team success and play as such.  Games 1-6 did the Cannons look as “sharp” as an NCAA team?  No.  But towards the end of the season, I would argue that comparing game film of our offensive and defensive units to college counterparts would offer a similar look and feel, albeit the difference in game speed.

    Which brings me to my final point and one that Ned hit on in his weekly blog in the Trilogy Lacrosse locker room.  The speed of the game at the MLL level forces players to be better all around LACROSSE players.  Less specialization means players need to be better at doing more, and thus, these Sportscenter highlights you mentioned aren’t just coming from the best known superstars (a la Jarrett Park and Drew Westervelt’s Top 10 moment from the MLL Playoffs). 

    So while I respect many of your points and do feel that the issues you bring up would certainly make for an EVEN BETTER pro game, I have to disagree with the overall assumption that NCAA lacrosse is played at the same level as MLL lacrosse.  However, the healthy debate will always continue and I a eager to hear other responses.

    Mitch Belisle
    Trilogy Lacrosse
    Boston Cannons
    Minnesota Swarm

  3. I didnt see Mundorf, Bitter or Westervelt out there for the Outlaws. Looks like some OUtlaw players and a few other random (probably local) talent playing for the MLL team. So this team had zero practice time together. Yes, practice does make a huge difference. A typicall MLL game has a lot more organization that this fall ball game. What makes it harder than the NCAA game is a shot clock. At the NCAA level, you can get your  6 on 6 offense “organized”. It could take a few minutes to do so, but you are in no rush. Get in the right spots, find the right matchups, make the right passes. If it doesn;t work, pull it out and give it another shot. There is no time limit. Now imagine if a college team had to do this all in 1 minute? It would look far less organized. So, to me, the MLL looking a little less organized in 6on6 is a pretty impressive considering they have 60 seconds to clear, make subs, get in offense and get a shot off. It might lead to a few gross possessions, but the overall tempo of the game is better.

    And i thought the MLL stick specs were exactly the same as high school level (2010 NCAA stick specs). They do have stick checks, etc. in the MLL.

  4. I completely agree. To me the MLL just doesn’t cut it as “real” or “true” lacrosse. Watching an NCAA game there is just so much more emotion and strategy involved. The most common play I see in the MLL is move the ball across the midline, get it to the star player and shoot.

    I’ll pass on ANY MLL game to watch a college game, whether it be MCLA, NCAA or otherwise.

  5. This article is inaccurate, non-facutal, and complete assumption

    1) I only saw 5 out of 17 goals for the college team with more than one pass.  Your article makes it seems like half their goals were off multiple pass sequences.
    2) There were plenty of players on the Outlaw team that are not really on the Outlaws.  Plenty of non Outlaw helmets.  I see one guy in a MCLA Colorado Rams helmet get his ankles broken.  Probably picked off the street to fill a spot
    3) I’m sure there are just as many players on the college team as the pros with even baggier pockets.  
    4) You’re just like Quint thinking the head “technology” (really, the proper term is design) is the reason for balls not being checked out of sticks.  In fact, pinched head and baggy pockets have been around and LEGAL since the 80s.  As long as it wasnt too deep and the ball can fall out it was legal. It was your choice to play with it and lose pass catching ease.  Now heads are just automatically sold as pinched as possible.  It’s just a given.  What the true reason is that mesh STRINGING has become so consistent and mastered by stringers (not factory) that it allowed players to master ball handling without having to get accustomed to so many different pockets as they develop.  “Technology” or design has nothing to do with it.  Pinched heads that were offset have been around for 20+ years.  Get over it.  Tennis has titanium alloy and bigger head widths.  Gold has titanium clubs, larger head sizes and a whole bunch of other advancements I don’t know about.  Get over it.
    5) Connor Martin, in no way, shape, or form, is a good lacrosse players.  He is on the outlaw team b/c of promotional purposes only.  He is a one trick pony.  Dive around the crease righty.  In the MCLA he was a 2 trick pony.  He could also pick corners standing on the left wing.  That’s it.  Nothing more.  There are plenty of high school kids who can pick corners from the wing all day.


  6. Good article Connor – heres my 2 cents:

    1)  Practice is key like you said.  As soon as MLL players can be full-time guys and a full-time team, the play of the league itself will get even better instead of watching individual highlight reels.  And the fans will take notice, and likely will draw more people to watch.  Hopefully the MLL will get to that point soon.

    2)  In terms of the Pro’s stick dimensions, I think thats a non-issue.  If theyre a bit “Canadian-esque” it only means the more the offensive players can do, and the more the offensive players can do (creative-wise) the more excitement it will bring to the fans.  Fans dont generally want to see the ball on the ground, they wanna see that sick BTB, between the legs fake back-scratcher-whacko goal!  Kids eat that stuff up and next thing you know you see kids in their back-yards trying those tricks (and coming up with their own).  In the end, its all about kids having a stick in their hands as much as possible!

    3) You hit the head on the mail with the Cannons team. BD did a great job with putting together some star players with role players.  Thats how great teams are formed and win championships.  A team loaded with stars NEVER WORKS.  Not enough ball to go around for all those egos.  if you gonna load a team up of stars, do it on the Defensive end, because defensemen are NOTHING like Offensive players in terms of ego.  Defensemen on the whole are selfless and team oriented…..basically you have to be this way otherwise your unit will get picked apart. 

    4)  Greg Downing – one of BD’s favorite players.  He does what he’s told and gives 110% regardless of his role.  But thats what you get from Central New York raised players – it’s a blue collar world up there and douchebags are not tollerated. 

  7. Outstanding video highlight. Four stars for camera work, editing and music. Whe you draw conclusions about a game from a highlight film,remember you are at the mercy of the filmmaker. Connor Martin ftw. I enjoyed seeing him in the highlights. C