This is not a debate about which version of our sport (College Lacrosse VS Pro Lacrosse) is better marketed, or which one you prefer watching because of personal preference. This debate is all about which level of the game produces better actual lacrosse on the field, and in this case we’re all about wins and losses.
Most of the time, professional sports are clearly better than college sports when it comes to on the field play, but is that true for lacrosse? Are the pros really better than their amateur college counterparts? Jake Steinfeld, the founder of the MLL, loves to claim his league is the highest level of the game. Now we’re going to see if that’s true!
College Lacrosse VS Pro Lacrosse
In mainstream sports like football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and soccer, the professionals would CRUSH college teams most of the time. There is a reason you don’t see the Boston Bruins play UMass-Lowell in hockey; it would be ugly. There is also a reason that Alabama doesn’t scrimmage the Atlanta Falcons; it would also be ugly. But pro lacrosse teams (and even Team USA) play against D1 college teams each year, so what makes our sport different, and can these games be discounted in some way to elevate the pros above the college kids?
“Big Four” (basketball, baseball, football, hockey) and other high level professional teams (soccer, etc) practice more often than their college counterparts. The athletes competing in big time sports get paid big time salaries, and only the best make it to the next level. Being an athlete is their job, and their only job, and they are paid to win. While top level college athletes may make it to the next level and eventually become stars, they don’t usually dominate at the next level, at least not immediately. There is, more often than not, a period of adjustment.
Guys like Cam Newton and Mark Ingram make waves eventually, but it is rare for them to jump right in and have a Pro Bowl season right away. It does happen, but players like Johnny Manziel, Eric Crouch, or Tim Tebow show another, equally common side to the next level leap. Those guys were the best college football had to offer, and all took some lumps in the pros or struggled to start early on in their pro careers.
When you look at a sport like lacrosse, things change just a bit, and the gap from college to pro is simply not as big. Of the past 10 Tewaaraton Winners (not counting Lyle Thompson who is still in school), 8 are still mainstays in pro lacrosse. The two who are not, Matt Ward and Kevin Leveille, both played in the league and saw plenty of success before choosing to leave for other pursuits. Win the Tewaaraton and you’ll be a stud in the MLL. It’s a known fact, and most Tewaaraton winners see immediate success in the league.
Rob Pannell is a great example of this immediate Tewaaraton winner success. After setting the D1 scoring record he put up 42 points in 10 games his first year playing MLL. Pannell averaged 4.2 ppg, while the leading scorers of the league (Bocklet and Crowley) averaged 3.9 ppg. The only other player in the league to average OVER 4 ppg was Matt Danowski, another former Tewaaraton winner, with 4.1 ppg.
Every Tewaaraton Winner has either won Rookie of the Year or been a multiple time MLL All-Star. The transfer of talent is guaranteed. Heck, even Tewaaraton runners up have a high percentage shot at being a pro star… just look at Jordan Wolf, Kieran McArdle, or Marcus Holman!
So are lacrosse guys just that much better at transitioning to the next level? Or is the next level not really the next level? Is the college game actually better than pro lacrosse?
If you’re willing to treat scrimmage scores as real scores, then the answer just might be an emphatic YES!
First, you can look at Alumni game scores, and we’ll start there. Last year, Hopkins played their alumni and absolutely destroyed them. The Hop alumni had a number of current pros suit up (just look at all those MLL helmets), and some truly big time names. It didn’t matter as the current team took them down in decisive fashion. The final score was 28-2. That’s not even a game!
OK, so maybe lining a bunch of alumni up to play the current team isn’t exactly fair… so let’s look at a true PRO vs D1 team game, if we can find one…
Last weekend, the Denver Pioneers took down the Denver Outlaws 15-7. The Pioneers were up 6-4 at the half, went down 7-6 in the third, and then outscored the Outlaws 9-0 to finish the game. While this Outlaws roster wasn’t the exact same as it was when they won the MLL title this past Summer (no John Grant, no Schwartzman), it was still loaded up with talent. And the Pioneers still beat them by a 2:1 goal ratio.
I also asked a former Denver Assistant Coach about the annual match up this Summer as I wanted to know if these games were just flukes, and he said that a top level college team SHOULD beat an MLL team 9 times out of 10. It all comes down to practice, familiarity, conditioning, and team schemes… and in those regards, college teams hold a huge advantage.
The Pioneers have been practicing all fall. The Outlaws have not. That is true. But the Outlaws have been playing together all Summer, and the Pioneers have not. Also, this was not an overly watered down version of the Outlaws. Check out their roster here. It’s an impressive group of players. So while the game results might not be 100% accurate, but they do seem to stand up to deeper scrutiny. A college team beat a pro team, and they did so rather handily.
But maybe you don’t buy the whole Denver vs Denver argument, and you want something better, and more official. Well, let’s look at Notre Dame vs Team USA. That game was run like a real deal game, and both teams brought it for a full 60 minutes. Team USA took the W, 17-14, and before you tell me this wasn’t Team USA, let me tell you that you’re wrong. These guys have all been part of training teams for the US, and some were key players for the silver medal US Team this past Summer. Guys like Peter Baum, Jordan Wolf, and Kieran McArdle will be USA mainstays in 3.5 years.
These are some of the best players in the game right now, they know the Team USA system (installed during training camps last year) and they beat a college team by 3 goals. THREE GOALS. That’s it. If you don’t think college and the pro ranks stand toe to toe, I don’t know what to tell you at this point! The evidence is just so strong…
It’s my personal belief that college lacrosse is still just as good, if not better, than pro field lacrosse. Since lacrosse is a team game, the extra practice time really helps the college kids. Since lacrosse also requires great conditioning, the college kids again have the advantage, as they train much more often. The coaching is more consistent, and the players often travel in nicer planes and/or busses to get to games. There is often more gear, and room in the budget for extras. Even attendance numbers seem to slant towards the college game when you look at record setting crowds.
At the end of the day, I do think that pro lacrosse will continue to grow and improve. Teams will eventually pay more money, practice more, and put on a more professional show for fans and players alike. But right now, the college game is bigger, better funded, and an overall better product on the field, on average.
We may arrive at a time when the MLL truly is the best lacrosse on the planet, but we’re not there yet. Keep striving professionals, you’re making strides in the right direction, but the fight is far from over.