NCAA Lacrosse and the Fifth-Year Option

by Jackson Helie

How a guaranteed red-shirt year will affect the PLL and the future of Lacrosse

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COVID-19 has devastated almost every sport in the United States, especially the 2020 college lacrosse season. The season ended abruptly, about 4-5 games in, ruining the dreams and aspirations of every player and fan in what would be one of the most highly anticipated seasons in the last 10 years. Players such as Michael Sowers (Sr., Princeton), Grant Ament, Mac O’Keefe (Sr., Penn State), Jeff Teat (Sr., Cornell), and so many more generational talents may have lost the opportunity to play their best seasons. However, as stated by the NCAA, all spring and winter athletes will be given an optional red-shirt year (an extra year of sports eligibility, even if they’ve already played 4 years). The additional red-shirt option extends to the professional side of the sport, as well. The Professional Lacrosse League (PLL) built their advertising for this upcoming season around the addition of these outstanding college stars. Now, the season could be greatly affected by college player’s decisions to either remain in school for their fifth year or go straight to the PLL.

The college lacrosse world was shocked in early March as some of the best players the sport has ever seen wouldn’t play more than five games in their last season. Michael Sowers, arguably the fastest and most talented playmaker since Jordan Wolf in 2013, had the Tewaaraton award (the Heisman award of NCAA Lacrosse) in his hands, averaging nearly 9.4 points per game, in just 5 games. He also broke the Ivy League single-game points record with 14, tallying 3 goals and 11 assists. However, Sowers was not the only Ivy League standout. Jeff Teat, an attackman for Cornell, who before his junior season started for a formidable Team Canada roster during the world championship, was considered to be the best Canadian talent in the last decade. His stats are incomparable to Sowers as teams shut him off for 1-2 quarters every game. Finally, in the Ivy League, there was T.D. Ierlan, having been called the greatest face-off man ever. He went 393-519 his Junior season, which is an unheard of 75% at the X.

Here is a list of some of the other senior talent (all career statistics):

Dox Aitken, Midfield, Virginia: 121 goals, 32 assists, all-time Virginia midfield scorer

Grant Ament, Attack, Penn State: 91 goals, 189 assists, record holder for most assists in 1 season

Mac O’Keefe, Attack, Penn State: 189 goals, 41 assists

Michael Kraus, Attack, Virginia: 131 goals, 109 assists

J.T. Giles-Harris, Defense, Duke: 2019 first-team All-American

Jared Bernhardt, Attack, Maryland: 131 goals, 60 assists

Ethan Walker, Attack, Denver: 142 goals, 77 assists

The PLL prepared for the addition of these new players, promoting them heavily. However, Sowers, Teat, Ierlan, among other Ivy League players cannot remain at the collegiate level as the Ivy League has announced it will not give the fifth-year option​. Although the addition of these young talents will improve the viewership of the PLL, talents from the ACC, the Big East, and the Big Ten still have not decided whether to declare for the draft. The only one to declare, as of now, is Grant Ament, taking Penn State out of title contention. Out of so many top-notch players, only four have made the decision, or been forced into, joining the PLL. If players from the ACC, Big East, or Big Ten decide not to join, the PLL still has an extremely young and strong core of players along with players from the declining Major League Lacrosse (MLL).

However, one thing that will certainly be damaged is the marketing of the PLL. For the last four years, fans have enjoyed watching the epic showdowns amongst these college greats. Now, they have the chance to take it into the big stage and compete professionally. Similar to the NBA and NFL marketing of new talents such as Zion Williamson and Joe Burrow, the PLL looked to these new players to expand their audience. With only a select few of the college players, profit and viewership could very well go down, even though they are coming off a spectacular first season as a league.

All of the college players eligible for the draft will thrive in whatever league they choose. No matter the outcome, the future of lacrosse is growing more now than it ever has, and it is all thanks to the emerging college talent.