April 10, 2008

Talented Freshmen Transition to NCAA

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National attention has been drawn to this year’s crop of NCAA men’s basketball freshman, headlined by UCLA’s Kevin Love, Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, and Memphis’ Derrick Rose, as they have been able to lead their teams to success in March Madness. The dominance of these freshmen has made it seem as though the transition to NCAA athletics from high school is an easy one.
In the case of women’s lacrosse, however, the difficulty of the jump from high school to NCAA Division I play should not be underestimated.
According to Cornell women’s lacrosse coach Jenny Graap ’86, different players face varying degrees of difficulty in making the adjustment to the higher level of play. The difficulty of the adjustment is largely dependent upon the experience of the individual player prior to college.
[img_assist|nid=29717|title=Rookie of the year|desc=Attacker Libby Johnson has started in six of the team’s nine games as a freshman.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“If the recruits are coming from a state-championship high school level team, and if they have been fortunate enough to have had excellent coaching and good preparation, then the jump a little less challenging,” Graap said.
Graap thinks that the Red program is very fortunate to receive recruits from top-level high schools that prepare their student-athletes well for college lacrosse.
Additionally, Graap believes that lacrosse experience outside of high school can be very beneficial as well — citing club programs whose teams are often coached by former D-1 lacrosse players as avenues through which players can get exposure to the college lacrosse mentality.
“In our scenario here at Cornell, we are fortunate enough to get a good number of players who have had both outstanding high school experience and also supplemental club or national tournament exposure,” Graap said. “Things like that are the additional experiences that can help them transition into the highest level of college lacrosse.”
A way to facilitate the adjustment process is to give the freshmen as much experience as possible. In this light, Graap views intense practices and the fall season as vital for the growth of her freshmen players.
“There is nothing like getting thrown in there and figuring it out a little bit,” Graap said. “I think that is what our fall season is about- kind of immersing the new freshmen into the culture of the team and into highly competitive practices and training scenarios. … I think that you sort of have to show them what it’s all about and they just have to adapt and get used to it as fast as they can.”
However, a significant part of the challenge is not only to adjust to a higher level of play, but also to adjust to life as a student-athlete.
“The commitment to this team and to this program is a large commitment and one that is going to require some good decision making and some sacrifices, frankly, on the social side,” Graap said.
Red freshman attacker Libby Johnson, who has started in six of the team’s nine games and has registered eight goals and five assists, echoed Graap’s comments, explaining that one of the biggest differences between high school and college lacrosse is the level of commitment that is required.
“Off the field, the biggest transition is the amount of time that is committed to it because it is the only sport that I play now compared to high school where I played more than one,” Johnson said. “The dedication that you have to have to the team is a lot more intense.”
Johnson and Graap also both noted that the captains and other upperclassmen have been instrumental in helping the freshmen adjust to college life and NCAA lacrosse.
“There are a lot of seniors on the team this year and they have all been very helpful with little things in practice like telling me in a respectful way what to do better to make a play better, or taking me aside when we are not in practice and playing around a little bit, or just getting to know each other as friends,” Johnson said. “I think those things really translate onto the field. I think they have done a really great job in being great leaders to help me through.”
Graap has been very impressed with the way that this year’s group of freshmen has handled the difficulties of being student-athletes at Cornell.
“We have a large number of freshmen,” she said, “and across the board they have done extremely well with their academic standards and whatnot. To be thinking about all of the freshmen in the same breath, I would definitely say that I have been impressed with how they have done and the commitment level that they have shown already in their freshman year I think has been excellent.”
Graap points to Johnson and midfielder Michelle Winglee as two freshmen in particular that have contributed immensely on the field. Both Winglee and Johnson have seen significant minutes in all of the Red’s games thus far.
Johnson, whose quick success has positioned her as the squad’s sixth leading scorer, has worked hard from the start and is gifted with natural ability, according to Graap. Those skills have enabled her to play such an important role for the Red so early in her career at Cornell.
“Libby is blessed with athleticism and talent,” Graap said. “She has good height and good physical presence on the field. I think her decision-making in the attacking end has been excellent. She is poised and confident and those factors are influential as well.”
“I guess I came in with a good attitude, and just thought that I had nothing to lose, and so I just tried to work as hard as I could to try and prove something,” Johnson said.
Graap believes that Johnson’s high school experience at Skaneateles High School in New York has been key to her successful transition to college lacrosse.
“Libby’s high school team has been state champions and they have been consistently in the state championship game,” Graap explained. “She was well prepared coming from Skaneateles high school [where she had] an excellent coach. She has done very well, she has started the majority of our games and she has played in every one. All of that is just a testament to how well she has transitioned into the program.”
Johnson explained that playing in such a competitive atmosphere in high school prepared her well for the high level of intensity of college lacrosse.
“I think that was a really important thing, just coming from a winning team and playing with other players that were extremely good,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of people come from teams where they were the best one on their team, but that wasn’t the case for me. It was a very humbling experience in high school. The fact that we had such a good team enabled me to come in with a lot of confidence and to be ready to be part of another really good team here.”