Have you ever wondered what NAIA lacrosse is really like? Do you want to know if playing NAIA lacrosse is for you? Is this the first time you’re hearing about the NAIA?
The good news is that I’m here to give you an insider’s perspective of NAIA lacrosse from what the level of play is like all the way to what you can expect from facilities.
What’s It Like to Play NAIA Lacrosse? A Player’s Perspective
My name is Tucker La Belle. I’m a Lax All Stars writer and senior captain on the Clarke University men’s lacrosse team. Clarke is a small liberal arts university in Dubuque, Iowa, that competes in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) as part of the KCAC (Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference).
Background of the NAIA
The NAIA was founded in 1940 and is an alternate athletic governing board to the NCAA. The majority of NAIA schools are smaller liberal arts universities and colleges that would compare to NCAA DII and DIII schools in size, with the exception of a few universities in the NAIA with large enrollment numbers. This last athletic season the NAIA had 249 schools from across the U.S. and even Canada competing in many sports.
What makes the NAIA great is that most NAIA schools offer athletic scholarships that compare well to the NCAA DII level. This is what catches the attention of many athletic recruits, lacrosse players in particular. On the lacrosse side, there are 33 NAIA schools that sponsor lacrosse as a full varsity sport. This means there are great scholarships and often quite a bit of financial support for the programs.
Why NAIA lacrosse?
While I was going through my recruiting journey in Ohio, most of my interest was coming from NCAA DII and DIII schools, along with several NAIA schools. At the time, I didn’t know much about NAIA lacrosse and decided to verbally commit to an NCAA DII school my sophomore year of high school.
Fast forward to the start of my senior year, and I got a call from Clarke University. After my first visit to the school, I made the choice to decommit from the NCAA DII school and switch over to the NAIA.
I loved the small campus that had a major emphasis on athletes and college education. Most NAIA schools offer a high level of college education paired with very competitive college athletics. This is what appealed most to me at the time.
After three years of playing in the NAIA, I can tell you that I truly feel like I made the right decision. In the NAIA, athletes are supported as people and students and not just athletes. We aren’t just a number but instead a part of the greater campus community. For me, this community aspect allowed me to become our student body president on last year and this year. Other players also get involved on and off campus through a variety of opportunities.
Level of play
The NAIA is still new to lacrosse, but I can assure you the level of play is still very much there. With players coming from all across the country and transferring from NCAA schools, the games are as competitive as one could ask for. However, newer NAIA programs can have a period of struggle and will often show scores that only represent the newness of the programs.
In my opinion, most NAIA lacrosse programs sit between the NCAA DII and DIII levels of play in comparison. There are some top-tier NAIA teams that could compete with most teams from both those divisions. For us at Clarke, we often mix in several NCAA DIII games each year, which are often a good benchmark to understand where we sit at for level of competition.
Again, with NAIA teams being across the country levels of play can and will vary every year, but I feel the consistent programs would compete well with the levels of play listed above. This level of play has noticeably increased with every year I’ve played as more and more players discover the NAIA and decide to commit or transfer in.
If you want to continue competing at a high level, get a college education, and also make an impact on your campus, the NAIA might just be for you.
No, I didn’t forget about the gear. How could I?!
I love gear, and each NAIA school has its own gear situation. But I can say that most of the schools really treat the lacrosse teams to quite a bit of lacrosse gear and apparel, many even more than NCAA DII and DIII schools.
While I can’t speak too much to other programs, I can give you a rundown of what we get at Clarke as an example. In my three years here, we have had three pairs of gloves, two helmets, two sets of elbow pads/guards, and two gear bags. On the apparel side, we normally get several long-sleeve workout shirts, several short-sleeve shirts, two pairs of shorts, a polo or quarter zip, and hoodies and sweatpants each year, along with backpacks every two years on average.
Again, that’s just one sample of what our program gets. I know of others that get more and others that get less. It really just depends on the program and their budget. Each team generally has a brand deal with companies such as Warrior, Nike, STX, Maverik, and many others. You can see some images of recent gear hauls above.
Facilities are where the NAIA really shines compared to the other two levels referenced. For us here at Clarke, we have two turf fields, two weight rooms, and locker rooms.
Again, this is just a sample from our program. In my three years, I have played at many other schools and have constantly been impressed by the facilities and fields. One in particular I really like is Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri. You can find that pictured below, along with images from Clarke.
Bottom line here is that I promise most people will be very impressed by NAIA lacrosse venues.
Travel at the NAIA level is just like other lacrosse programs across most levels: charter buses or school-owned buses, hotels for long road games, meals covered by the school, and athletic trainers at both home and away games. You get everything you could need to focus on the games ahead.
Practices and team lifts
This is where each program really has its own standard and way of doing things, but I can again do my best to fill you in on my experiences.
In the fall, we normally start after the first week of classes with team bonding and meetings. From there, we jump into a fall practice schedule consisting of three days of lifting and three days of contact practice. Many of these fall days will be doubled up with lifting and practice as well as conditioning exercises outside of practice.
In the spring, we open up the preseason by having the team back on campus two weeks prior to school starting. These two weeks are all lacrosse and getting the team going. Then, depending on game schedules, we will practice four-to-six days a week on average, with fewer days of lifting in season. This seems to be pretty similar across the board for NAIA schools, but I have heard of some who do less or more.
At an NAIA school, you are truly expected to be a student and athlete. Education is important at these schools and often quite competitive. Balancing lacrosse and education can often be a grind and not all are cut out for it. You need to really find a routine fast and put in extra work in the classroom as well as on the field.
Because we have fewer days together in the fall compared to many NCAA programs, players are expected to be conditioning and working out a lot on their own in order to be prepared. Balancing all this has challenged me at times, but with a routine, it will become clockwork.
At this level you aren’t going to be looked at any differently than other students around you. No special treatment or special tutors for the most part. You have what the rest of the students have. This all takes a special amount of dedication to your sport and school work but can be very rewarding. With all that said, if you are serious about your education and continuing lacrosse, the NAIA can be a very good home for you.
The bottom line
I think the NAIA will continue to grow in lacrosse. From the campus sizes to the athletic support, these schools can make for a great home to continue your sport and education. Just know that you will need to put in lots of extra hours in the weight room and library in order to find your success.
College isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. College lacrosse has made for the best three years of my life thus far, and the NAIA has been a great level for myself and so many other players I know. If this all sounds like it’s up your alley, I highly suggest doing some more research into NAIA lacrosse programs and finding where you could fit in.