|Derek Rongstad started his college career at Division I UW-Milwaukee, then transferred to UW-Whitewater when his Division I team changed coaches.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Ryan Scott
The cultural saturation of big-time Division I basketball sometimes causes us to stereotype athlete transfers as a bit of opportunism – players trying to maximize exposure or playing time. There’s a bit of a mercenary vibe, especially with the proliferation of the graduate transfer in recent years.
That’s really not the whole story. In fact most transfers, even at the highest level, transfer to a lower level of competition. Last year, I wrote about recruiting and roster selection from a coach’s perspective, exploring how the type of institution affects what kinds of students get recruited and the challenges that exist on the school’s side.
This year I wanted to learn about how athletes find the right fit for themselves and balance academic, social, and financial variables along with a desire to play basketball. I chose to focus on transfers, because they have, by necessity, explored those questions not once, but twice, in selecting a school out of high school and then their transfer destination.
“One of the things we battle all the time is getting a Division II or low-level Division I transfer and they think they’ll come to Division III and it’s going to be easy and that’s never the case.”
- Pat Miller, UW-Whitewater men's basketball coach
One thing that really stuck out – beyond the varied and unique situations that precipitate transfers – is that rarely is it about escaping a bad situation. Nobody said, “I was miserable and had to leave,” but more often, “I think there’s something better out there.” It was about finding the right fit.
In the end, we all only get one college experience. It's about finding the best way, not only to maximize those four years, but to have the experience that will best set each student up for what they do the rest of their lives.
I couldn’t find hard numbers for Division III, but the most recent study of Division I men’s basketball players show a full 13 percent of rosters are comprised of players who transferred from another four year institution, and that doesn’t include junior college or graduate transfers. Those are big numbers and they’re increasing every year. The same goes for women, where 10 percent were four-year transfers in 2015-2016, per the NCAA.
“Right now, with the way AAU programs position themselves and sell themselves, there’s a high value on getting scholarships for kids. That’s their calling card for their program,” says UW-Whitewater men’s coach Pat Miller. “Often times kids are at schools because they’re on scholarship, not because they want to go to the school or the school is a good fit for them.”
Obviously that’s one reason among many, but finding the right fit is the key, whether it’s deciding between scholarship and non-scholarship levels or campus environment or supporting career aspirations.
“I was looking for a really good academic school. Middlebury is exceptional in that category,” says Zach Baines, who played three semesters for the Panthers in Vermont before transferring to Occidental near Los Angeles. “I didn’t really understand all the other things that come with college life. I have a lot of family on the west coast, so it’s a close-to-home feeling. I don’t miss minus-13 degree weather and bundling up every day. I had a nice time at Middlebury, but I’m having a better time out here. Occidental is still a great academic school, but it feels a little more comfortable for me.”
Some might say the other stuff is trivial. If academics and basketball make sense, you can endure the rest. But you only get one chance at being a college student and, for many, it’s important to find the best possible experience. At least, that’s the Division III perspective.
“The big difference between scholarship and non-scholarship levels is how you’re managed,” adds Miller. “When you’re on scholarship, it’s more of a full time job. Whereas in Division III, what we have to offer is more of a balance between your academic life, your athletic life, and your student-activity life. Our students have the ability to do all three of those things and sometimes still work.
It’s not just on the student-athlete to figure that out either. Coaches have to work hard to make sure players, especially transfers, are choosing their program for more than just what’s on the court. Miller says Whitewater receives “anywhere between 10 and 25 inquiries each year. A lot of them are very high level players who have one year left and their sole interest in being back in school is to generate numbers so they can go overseas and play. We won’t take guys like that.”
One of the guys he did take is junior Derek Rongstad, who never intended to be a transfer student. “I really wanted to find a school that was going to challenge me academically because long-term that’s what matters,” says Rongstad in typical Division III fashion. “I also wanted to go somewhere I had to earn playing time and work for everything as a basketball player. Being a walk-on at [Division I] Milwaukee seemed like the right fit.”
“My coaches were fired after my second season there. I felt like I was hitting my stride and thought that, had I kept progressing at the rate I was, that I would see more playing time the next couple years. When the new staff comes in they rebuild in their own way. After a semester with them I felt like I didn’t fit in quite as well with the new staff.”
“Derek did everything the right way,” says Miller. “He was very respectful, gave deference to his teammates, and eased into his role. The issue is when guys come in and don’t do those things. That’s where it can be a difficult transition.”
“I’d argue we’re at a higher level of play than many Division II schools,” continues Miller. “One of the things we battle all the time is getting a Division II or low-level Division I transfer and they think they’ll come to Division III and it’s going to be easy and that’s never the case.”
Rongstad agrees. “The level of competition here is right up there with what I was seeing before. It’s not a big step down by any means.” That’s a point of pride for us in the Division III world, but something many people have to learn through experience.
Gabrielle Harris had a partial scholarship to Division I Coastal Carolina but she also has a father who wanted her to stay close to home in New Jersey. It took a year at William Paterson before she figured out the best environment for her. She looked at Division I programs Monmouth (N.J.) and FDU-Teaneck. “I wanted to challenge myself at the Division I level, but when I visited FDU-Florham I knew it was the place for me. Coach [Marc] Mitchell and my dad are like the same person. They’re so similar, and being at a smaller school will really help me on academics.”
"It was difficult [to leave], but everyone at Dickinson – my teammates and coaches – were very supportive of my dreams."
- Jule Brown, who transferred from Dickinson to NYU to prepare himself to be a sports agent
Jule Brown, now at NYU, has had quite a sojourn to find his place. He intially committed to the University of Pennsylvania and then de-committed late in his senior year of high school when the Quakers changed coaches. “I was recruited Division I from my sophomore year, but it was very late in the recruiting process and a lot of the other schools that were recruiting me didn’t have roster space.”
“I had interest in high academic schools. I know basketball is going to end at some point. I wanted to go to the best school possible. Dickinson really helped me out. I owe them a lot for taking me on. I don’t think they just saw basketball talent, but the person I was and that was very humbling to me that they took a chance and allowed me to be admitted so late in the process.”
Brown had a good experience during his two years at Dickinson, but realized he needed something different to best pursue his career ambitions.
“I’ve always wanted to be a sports agent. If I wanted to be an agent, I think there’s no better place to be than New York City. I only applied to NYU. I was always ready to stay at Dickinson. I was very comfortable with my relationships there. Dickinson meant a lot to me, taking me in so late in the process – I really appreciate that. It was difficult [to leave], but everyone at Dickinson – my teammates and coaches – were very supportive of my dreams.”
“We’re a young team,” Brown says of his new team at NYU. “I’m glad to be able to take what I learned from Coach [Alan] Seretti and apply it to this new place. I wouldn’t change my experience for anything.”
Sometimes, though, the bumps in the road actually are regrets. “Looking back at it, I should’ve chosen Skidmore from the beginning,” says junior transfer Dakpe Liljep, who was reunited with high school teammate Edvinas Rupkus in Saratoga this season.
"Coming from Africa,” says Liljep, “I was looking for a school that would give me a full scholarship. But going to [Division II] Chestnut Hill, I wasn’t challenged academically the way I wanted to. I wasn’t being pushed.”
Rupkus understands that tension. In fact, it was the reason he ended up in the U.S. in the first place and what allowed him to turn down Division I offers for a place at Skidmore.
“I wanted to attend an academically strong school and play basketball at a high level. I had opportunities to play basketball in Lithuania, but I couldn’t do both things at the same time.”
It’s difficult to know how to balance basketball with academics, campus culture and future plans. Deciding what to sacrifice and when can be a difficult and life-changing proposition. And then, every once in a while, things come together in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.
“The degree comes first,” says Zach Smith. “It just so happens I had the best basketball experience I could’ve gotten out of it.”
Smith averaged nine points and five rebounds per game in two years at Pitt-Bradford where he was enrolled in a civil engineering program that required him to finish his degree at the main campus in Pittsburgh. “That was tough,” says Smith. “It was basically like I was graduating; it was very emotional playing those last few games at Bradford.”
Shortly after the season ended, Smith had a conversation with coach Britt Moore (now at Elizabethtown). “Coach really went to bat for me,” says Smith. Moore worked connections at the main campus, making calls and sending game tape. “The process went on for probably two months,” says Smith. “Eventually [then-Pittsburgh head coach] Jamie Dixon called me and said they were interested in having me as a walk-on.”
For a life-long Pitt Panthers fan who thought his basketball days were over, it was a pretty unbelievable experience. Smith certainly has made sacrifices. “It was difficult to adapt to the Division I basketball time commitment. The first semester was pretty taxing.” But, in the end, he didn’t have to sacrifice his basketball dreams to pursue the degree he wanted.
Obviously not every player has things work out as magically as they did for Zach Smith, but things seem pretty great for Dakpe Liljep, Derek Rogstad and Jule Brown, despite their various challenges along the way. Things seem to have worked out well for Ed Rupkus, as well, and the thousands of other Division III basketball players who find the right fit from day one.
Perhaps the best way to sum up, though, is the wise words of Meriel Rongstad.
“The best advice, I got from my mom,” says her son Derek. “Both for my decision in high school and the decision to transfer she said there’s really no wrong decision. Whether you go one place or another, you have to trust yourself. If you make the decision you’re comfortable making, it’s not going to be the wrong decision.”