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Personal experience from a D-III pitcher

Editor’s note: This article was anonymously published by a former NCAA D-III World Series champion pitcher who hopes to pass on his experience and advice regarding recruitment and playing baseball at the NCAA level.

Few kids who dream of playing in the Big Leagues ever consider the idea of becoming a Division III college baseball player. Most young baseball players develop and hone their game throughout high school, believing they will receive several offers from prestigious D-I programs. While this is true for a select few, ballplayers who want to continue playing at a collegiate level learn the hard way that it is a grind to get noticed from any program at all, especially from a school that is the right fit athletically and academically.

Statistically speaking, as one of the nearly five hundred-thousand high school baseball players you are most likely to become a D-III player if you continue to play at the next level.  Division-III baseball has the most participants out of all three levels of NCAA college baseball – according to the NCAA, 2.8% of total high school participants move on to Division III compared to only 2.1% and 2.2% for D-I and D-II respectively. Playing at the lowest NCAA level doesn’t mean you’ll have the least fun or that you’re not a good player. Several factors can influence a talented player to decide to play at the Division-III level, including include academic programs and majors offered, skill marketability, and actual talent level.

High school aspirations

My own personal experience is similar to what many friends and high school players go through during the recruiting process. Playing in the baseball hotbed of central Texas at the 4-A and 5-A level, I achieved a great level of success, finishing my high school career with a 14-4 record and 0.7 ERA, while also recording five shutouts, two 1-hitters, two 1st team all-district honors and 2nd team all-central Texas. While rattling off this list of achievements required tremendous dedication to the game and may sound amazing, I quickly learned that success in high school baseball is a dime a dozen.

One of the proudest moments of my high school career followed an invitation to play in the Austin-Area Baseball Coaches All Star Game. In front of some of the best baseball players, coaches, and hopefully even college scouts, I was awarded the “best pitcher of the game” for my performance. Following the high of this day, I foolishly expected to immediately become the epicenter of every D-I coach’s radar and have emails piling in to my inbox.

Once again, my hopes were in vain as I gained an appreciation for the grueling recruiting process. My high school success did not translate to fat stack of offers that I had hoped to receive from top schools. My inbox was not completely barren, however, and some smaller schools that had caught note of me reached out via email. Unfortunately, all of these schools either lacked my desired major of engineering or failed to show a real desire for me to join their program.

Searching for a scholarship

When I reflect on my recruiting process, I understand that my approach did not turn out the way I initially hoped for several reasons. Despite my high school success, I could have made a much stronger effort to market my pitching skills. Rather than relying on my accomplishments speaking for themselves through newspaper clippings or word-of-mouth, I could have been much more proactive. For example, I could have personally reached out to schools that were realistic for my ability and provided a great video to capture their attention. In addition to actual visual evidence along, my stats could then support my actual baseball skill.

Regarding talent, there is a physical limit to each player and only so much you can accomplish as an athlete. Throwing in the mid 80’s as a 6’2” skinny righty, most schools simply did not think I had the velocity to compete in Division I baseball. That being said, almost any baseball player can improve their training regime, and in many ways baseball is a game of repetition. For me, I likely should have been playing at higher level of summer ball, when most college coaches heavily focus on recruiting.

Finally, a major component that kept me from finding and deciding on a school was my completely narrow-minded approach of scholarship searching. When I started my recruiting process, my pride allowed me to believe I was too good to even consider or look at any school beneath the D-I level. A lot of high school baseball players, including myself, get so caught up in wanting a scholarship that they miss out on going to a school that may be an otherwise perfect fit. The pressure of seeing other guys from your high school receiving scholarships in football and basketball while your closest teammates and friends even start receiving offers from top schools make it seem like not receiving a scholarship means you are a failure or simply not good enough at your respective sport.

Chasing a scholarship is an amazing goal, and you should believe that if you are truly having the talent and dedication to play at the top levels of college baseball then you deserve to be financially compensated via a scholarship. If this mindset prevents you from considering a smaller program or lower level with fewer or lesser scholarship opportunities, then you might miss out on the best experience of your life. For many other student athletes, finding the right school for is much more important than finding the place that will offer you the biggest scholarship.

Finding the right fit

Towards the end of my senior year of high school, I was extremely blessed to have a school send me a personal email requesting a campus visit and potentially joining their team. This school ended up being the perfect fit for me. The school was medium sized with around 10,000 students, several engineering majors, and a distance of four hours away from my house; far enough to get away but close enough to visit. I received this email during spring break and committed within a week after visiting the campus and meeting with the coaches.

Despite my earlier ambitions for a D-I scholarship, making the decision to choose a D-III program was much easier than expected. Part of me was starting to feel a bit desperate so late in the game and from the entire pressure of recruiting. However, from the moment I walked on campus, I loved everything from athletics to academics at the university. When you are attending the right school and you’re happy with your environment then you’ll enjoy playing baseball more. Also, if you enjoy the school you are attending, I came to learn that baseball isn’t as fun when it must be treated like a full-time job to keep up with the surrounding level of talent that surrounds you. Being able to enjoy your college experience and life outside of baseball is so important, and I did not want to lose my passion for the game.

If you’re at the right school, in the right environment, and you grind coaches will notice. You might not get that scholarship even if you deserve it after playing well but going to the right school for you is priceless. Less talked about is the fact that a lot of players quit during their collegiate careers. Although baseball may take up to 30-80 hours of your week depending on the time of year, that is not all your time. You still have to go to class, study, and socialize. To put it simply, if you make your decision on a school to go play baseball solely for the amount of money a school will give you, you might not enjoy playing or being a student as much as you would have if you looked at more than that single factor.

D-III Discipline       

As a D-III student-athlete, “school comes first” is what most outsiders think about you. This statement can be true but playing in Division III still requires an immense time commitment comparable to Division I and II. In the height of baseball season, an average week for a D-III player entails three 4-6 hour long practices, four games (Tuesday, Friday, and a Saturday double-header), plus individual training work. If you add in the time for batting practice and pre-game warm-ups before games, and another hour of individual positional work, your schedule is already up to 34 hours a week. This doesn’t even include travel, practice preparation, and time to do “prehab”, an injury prevention program similar to rehab. There are always players and teams out there that work harder and put even more time in than you do, but I think it’s safe to say that Division-III is still an extremely rigorous level of competition.

As a huge baseball fan and longtime player, with many friends and connections through baseball, I have met plenty of baseball players and coaches across every level of college baseball. I doubt a single one of these individuals in their right mind would argue that the average D-III baseball team is better than the average D-I baseball team. However, when you look at individual players, there are often plausible comparisons. Many of the D-I and D-II transfers I’ve met share my opinion that plenty of D-III players would be in the lineup of most D-I teams and probably all D-II teams. I don’t say that with the intention to belittle the talent of D-I players but to say there are a lot of guys that can really play the game that weren’t given the looks or developed later than others and can end up dominating in D-III.

In Division-III, we face plenty of teams with 90-mph arms, guys hitting over .400, and dudes with 10+ bombs. Not every team has one of these players, but most have at least one star whose talent shines. For example, in my team’s fourth game of the NCAA Division-III College World Series, we faced a team from the Northeast that had the best defensive catcher I’d ever seen at any level of college baseball. His ability to frame, block, call the game, and lead the defense was awe-inspiring, even while watching from the opposing dugout. My own team’s lineup has featured an entire roster with every player having multiple home runs (except for the shortstop as we like to tease him). Several of my fellow pitcher can top 90 on the speed gun, and some even have multiple 100 strikeout seasons.

My point is that even though most Division-III players never envisioned playing where they are, almost all would say playing college baseball has been the most fun and rewarding experience in their lives. If you’ve never watched a D-III game, it’s easy to think the talent pool is dry and that you could crush all of the competition. That was me until March of my graduation year. However, going to a school where I could compete for a spot as a freshman and be a part of a winning program remains an amazing experience.

At times I have felt the lowest of lows while trying to balance schoolwork, life, and baseball. Yet have also felt the highest of highs, and there has been no greater feeling of accomplishment in my entire baseball career than winning the NCAA World Series. At a school and program where the entire athletic environment constantly promotes hard work and a high level of expectation for playing the game the right way, that feeling of personal and team accomplishment was possible. Do yourself a favor and don’t overlook Division-III college baseball.