Division I, II or III? What is the difference? What is the lifestyle? What is right for me? One thing people are surprised about is that the top teams in a lower division would beat a LOT of the lower teams in a higher division. I asked three people I work with, who are currently playing or just graduated, their thoughts on their Division and to provide some insight into the experience for juniors considering college tennis.
Division I, Stony Brook University
Growing up as a kid, playing Division I tennis has always been my goal. I’ve always dreamed of having the privilege of playing tennis at the highest collegiate level possible and competing against the premier teams. Stony Brook University made that happen. The competition was similar to playing a Super Six every weekend...intense and competitive. I got to play against top tier schools and world renowned colleges such as Harvard & Yale, and I enjoyed feeling like I was playing the best that college tennis had to offer. We travelled across the country for some of our matches and would leave campus early in the week, while classes were still in session. The purpose of this was to have time to practice at our away court to prepare us for our matches throughout the weekend. With these long road trips, a lot of time and energy was spent communicating and meeting with my professors ahead of time to plan logistics since I had to miss a lot of lectures and exams. The result of this was that I often had to take exams at an earlier date than my classmates, and there wasn’t as much time to study.
Since athletics is such a high priority and players are given scholarships, it takes a lot of effort to be able to balance both as well as you can. There are advantages to being a Division I Varsity athlete though. While they vary from school to school, one of the benefits of being an athlete at Stony Brook was getting priority class registration over the general student body (an extremely valuable perk). My college put a huge premium on fitness and weight training which arguably can wear college athletes down. We had to wake up as early as 5:00 a.m. and train three-to-five hours a day. From there I would go to physical therapy and then straight to class for the rest of the day which, for me, put myself at a disadvantage academically compared to the general student population. There were times that I would rather have athletics take a back seat to academics. Although I sometimes felt that I was overtraining, I really enjoyed traveling and playing matches. I am so happy I had the privilege to see what D1 tennis was all about.
Division II, St. Leo’s University
All-American and National Freshman of the Year
Division II is often overlooked as a college tennis option. I feel that the generalized view is that every Division I team is better than every Division II team and that is why those schools are Division II. However, the true factors that determine what division a school competes in are infrastructure, sponsors and the size of the school. Of course, this doesn’t always correlate to athletic ability. Especially in sports like tennis where there is not as much money invested in and revenue generated for the respective college. In many of the bigger sports there remains a big talent gap between Division I and Division II, especially sports that receive large television exposure. For tennis though, this is not the case.
A lot of top players play at a Division II school because D2 has less strict eligibility requirements for those who have tried playing professional tennis. Division I only allows students to have a previous "professional experience" of a maximum of three months after graduating from high school, while D2 allows students a full-year of pro tennis after high school. Because of this, some players who would have a major impact on a Division I roster are “relegated” to Division II.
In my opinion, the Top 10 tennis teams in D2 would probably be inside the Top 40 in D1. What D2 lacks compared to Division I is the depth of talent after the top teams and players. Additionally, while there are scholarships available to student-athletes, they are not as abundant. However, in international sports such as tennis or soccer, the talent gap between the top D1 and D2 universities can be very minimal since many strong international players in these sports simply do not qualify for Division I eligibility-wise, even though these athletes might qualify skill-wise.
In my opinion, the differences between a D1 and D2 university in the academic realm are minimal, and students can have that "college experience" at either.
Division III, Brandeis University
College tennis has always been regarded as a sport of high endurance and mental toughness. As the sport grows in recognition, competition has grown stronger and divisions have become a lot tougher. More and more top high school prospects are choosing Division III tennis and teams are filling up with strong 4-and-5-Star players. Division III tennis athletes not only compete at a high level, but have a college experience that is well-rounded, both academically and socially. Unlike some Division l and Division ll teams, tennis is not the first priority. Athletes are pushed both on and off the court in order to pursue their academic dreams as well as their athletic ones. In fact, the commitment to Division III tennis is quite manageable and athletes can still belong to three-to-four academic clubs, and take a rigorous course schedule without feeling overwhelmed.
Additionally, competition among the Top 15 Division III schools has grown dramatically in the last few years. Each recruiting class seems to be stronger than the year prior due to the fact that more parents and students are recognizing the added academic benefits of a Division III program. In fact, Top Division III schools like Emory, University of Chicago and Brandeis can compete with the higher ranked schools in Division II and mid-ranked Division I schools.
It is important for athletes to manage their expectations while choosing their future school and career. In fact, there are 195 countries in the world, all of which have similar tennis programs to the United States. Athletes that are not ranked in the Top 10 in the nation should choose schools based upon academic fit and potential future careers rather than pursue the path of professional tennis. Division III offers that opportunity and still allows ample time to network and have a strong social presence on campus. Therefore, I believe that the popularity of Division III tennis will rise in the upcoming years.
Ricky Becker is The Director of Tennis at the prestigious Pine Hollow Country Club and independently coaches high-performance juniors year-round predominantly at Bethpage Park Tennis Center. As a player, Becker was awarded Most Valuable Player for the 1996 NCAA Championship Stanford Tennis Team and 1989-1992 Roslyn High School Teams. He was ranked number one in the Eastern Section and fourth in the United States in the 18-and-unders. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 516-359-4843 or via JuniorTennisConsulting.com.