By Justin Lunt
What does it mean to be an NCAA Division III (D-III) athlete? There are many rumors and myths out there about what it means to be a D-III athlete. Many high school players and coaches do not truly understand what it means to be a D-III athlete, and because of this many players miss out on an opportunity to continue playing beyond high school. There are falsehoods with all aspects of Division III, especially in men’s basketball.
To be a Division III athlete, the student-athlete needs to be truly exceptional with both parts of the endeavor – both “student” and “athlete.” First, the individual must be an exceptional student, one who goes above and beyond what is asked in the classroom. The student must maintain tremendous grades and have a true understanding of the main reason for attending any university – to earn a degree.
Besides being great students, a Division III student-athlete is a great athlete as well. Many players and coaches think that the Division III coaches only recruit athletes who can play at the Division III level, and are not capable of playing at a much higher level. We typically do not recruit the “Division III basketball player.” We recruit players who we believe are better than our level – young men we see as being capable of playing at the Division II, and quite possibly, the Division I level. Nearly all of the players in our program were league MVPs at the high school level and all were the best players on their high school team.
We have been fortunate to have a few players who were capable of playing at a higher level, which attributes to our recent success. Within the past four years, we have beaten a Division I full scholarship team, as well as many Division II teams that have scholarship level players. We could have not won those games, or even have been competitive, if we did not pursue excellent athletes and require them to put in an enormous amount of effort. The reason we recruit these players is because we understand that they are looking for the best overall experience, to get a great degree and to play athletics at the collegiate level.
Some young athletes scoff at the notion of playing D-III, but we have been able to find many young men who relished the opportunity of playing collegiate basketball while simultaneously pursuing academic excellence. Many of our past and present players have declined chances to play Division I or Division II basketball so that they could come here to the University of Puget Sound.
Also, there is a prevailing misconception that there is absolutely no scholarship money available for D-III athletes. Again, another myth. There are many ways to earn money, possibly even more money than getting a scholarship to a Division II university. With D-III schools, there are instances where students can earn a great amount of money through academics, while the “athletic scholarship” to a Division II university could be dramatically less. The reason that students attend any university should be for the academics, and this is how scholarship money can be earned to attend a Division III university.
Another falsehood about Division III athletics is that we do not devote as much time to the sport as Division I and Division II programs do. We take great pride in what we do and we work year-round in recruiting, player development and in enhancing all aspects of our respective programs. We make sure we explain to every player we recruit that we expect a lot out of them, usually much more than what they expect. Even with the rigorous academic demands that come with most D-III schools, our athletes come in to the program knowing that we are very serious about our sport. The athletes may complain about 5:30 a.m. conditioning sessions, but deep down they love knowing that they’re working every bit as hard as their counterparts at big-time athletic universities.
Early on in their careers our players come to learn that their studies take up a majority of their time. Then, on top of that, we have practice, weights, meetings and individual work that needs to be done pretty much year-round. We like to tell them that being a Division III student-athlete consists of a lot of early mornings and late nights. It is the sacrifice they have to make to be the best student AND athlete they could possibly be. And it is our job to make sure we are continually pushing them to achieve this goal.
Being a Division III athlete can be more of a commitment than being a higher-level athlete. Division III sometimes gets unfairly labeled because it is the lowest division in the NCAA and there is an assumption that D-III schools do not focus on athletics as much as other divisions do. The truth is that we do put in a lot of time and effort in what we do, and we know it pays off in the end.
Being able to work with these outstanding young athletes on a daily basis is what makes this job worthwhile to me. Seeing the time and work commitment these young men put in every day makes me proud to be a part of their lives and part of their future. The best thing any young adult can do – if there is an opportunity – is to play a team sport at the collegiate level. The camaraderie that is gained and the lifelong friendships that are established are truly unparalleled.
High school coaches and players should understand that Division III athletics is an option for many players who may overlook that level of competition because of all the misnomers that exist.
About the Author:
Justin Lunt is the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.