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Fasten your seat belts baseball fans, the ride is about to get bumpy.
Major League Baseball’s ruling on Friday to reduce the June amateur draft from 40 rounds to five rounds further complicates an already-overcomplicated situation for college programs and high school seniors.
This decision means that only 160 college and high school players will be drafted next month, leaving college programs in a predicament.
The NCAA Division I council voted to allow seniors to retain their final year of eligibility, meaning they will still be occupying spots that were supposed to go to incoming freshman. For seniors considering declaring for the draft anyway, the reduction in the number of rounds may push them back to school for another year. Similar measures were also passed on the Division II and III levels.
Division I baseball rosters are already limited to 11.7 scholarships per year, often split among 30-plus players. Now, rosters could balloon up, leaving coaches with the tough decisions of divvying up the money further or reneging on promised scholarships.
Even if they can work out the money, divvying up playing time could cause even more headaches.
“This affects every college program one way or another,” Fairleigh Dickinson University first-year coach Rob DiToma said. “No one was planning for this situation in the preseason.”
The jolt could be felt as far down as the junior college level, a level that has several perks that more players could be interested in as opportunities dry up elsewhere.
Impact on recruiting
DiToma took over at FDU last June after spending the previous six seasons as part of the Fordham coaching staff.
He won his first game as a head coach in his season opener on Feb. 19 and the Knights were 4-9 before the season was halted on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
First-year FDU baseball coach Rob DiToma was hired last June to head the Division I program based out of Teaneck. (Photo: Courtesy of FDU Athletic Department/Larry Levanti)
“We have a pretty big class coming in for next year considering it’s my first real recruiting class since taking over the program,” DiToma said. “We only have two seniors on our current roster that were in their final year of eligibility. So from a numbers standpoint, we’re still in a good spot. Both seniors are trying to work out their future, but they’re planning to return for another year of eligibility next spring.”
He said he’s stayed in touch with his committed high school seniors by holding Zoom conferences and sending them workouts. He’s assured them that nothing has changed in terms of their recruitment.
Division II and III programs and athletes face the same problems as their Division I counterparts.
“Some of our seniors are graduating and have other career and future plans lined up and some won’t be returning for a number of other reasons,” said Mike Lauterhahn, who is in his 13th season as coach at William Paterson University. “We’ve spoken with our seniors and they’re welcome to return if they choose to do so. But we’ve never over-recruited as a program anyway and the high school seniors that we recruited and that are committed to us will have a chance to complete for playing time next season.”
William Paterson University veteran baseball coach Mike Lauterhahn feels the new NCAA eligibility rule doesn’t overly affect his program in 2021. (Photo: Courtesy of Larry Levanti/William Paterson Athletics)
With all the changes over the last two months, DiToma said he expects to see new rules and guidelines governing both college programs and high school athletes that could carry over for years.
“In terms of recruiting high school athletes, you’re already projecting a few years out to begin with,” DiToma said. “We’re looking at holes and positions we need to fill and we’re recruiting based on that. High school sophomores and juniors are being recruited now. With college seniors opting to return for another year of eligibility due to the coronavirus pandemic, that could likely have an effect the next four to five years down the road.”
Impact on the players
Former St. Joseph Regional standout Matt Cocciadiferro was in his final year of eligibility at Division I NJIT this spring. He wasn’t expecting to stay in school past this season, but that’s become a realistic possibility.
St. Joseph’s Matthew Cocciadiferro hit a home run against Don Bosco during a 2016 game. (Photo: NorthJersey.com file photo)
“I’m fortunate to be in a win-win situation,” said Cocciadiferro, a Dumont resident. “I have a few MLB workouts lined up over the next few weeks. If I don’t get drafted or sign as an undrafted free agent next month, I have the opportunity to return to college next year and take advantage of an additional year of eligibility. I’ve spoken with my coaches and I have some pretty good options. We’ll see what the future holds.”
The future may look even more confusing for current high school seniors.
Rutherford pitcher Jacob Gomez has been committed to Old Dominion University since early in his freshman year. Last November, the lefty officially signed a National Letter of Intent with the Norfolk, Virginia-based Division I program.
Rutherford sophomore pitcher Jacob Gomez was named to the All-Bergen County third team. (Photo: Edward Kensik/Special to NorthJersey.com)
Gomez said he’s been in constant contact with the ODU coaching staff since the coronavirus outbreak and since the NCAA updated its rules and guidelines.
“I do see there being more athletes competing for roster spots. But for me personally, I don’t see how this changes my focus and situation,” said Gomez, a four-year starter and three-time All-Bergen County selection. “If anything, I’ll have to work harder. I’m being offered an opportunity and a spot on the team. At the end of the day, I have to earn my way and prove my value. I’m always working towards perfection and that’s what I’ll be chasing when I report to college.”
Junior college baseball could see a spike
The winner in all of this could be the often-overlooked junior college route.
Many NCAA coaches already rely on two-year junior college programs to help round out their recruiting classes because players can transfer to NCAA programs without having to sit out for a year. Junior colleges have long been a good landing spot for players who did not get any offers while in high school or needed additional time to mature and improve in the classroom.
“From a pure financial standpoint, JUCO baseball is attractive and makes sense for some players coming out of high school,” said Johnny Johnson, who coaches Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. “There’s also the opportunity from an academic standpoint and the competition is very good. You’re going to see junior colleges and athletes benefit in the future.”
There are three divisions of junior college baseball, and teams in the top two divisions are allowed 24 scholarships for baseball. That’s more than double the NCAA Division I limit of 11.7, and close to three times the NCAA Division II limit of nine. Unlike NCAA players, many junior college players receive full scholarships.
“Roster space at four-year college programs is going to be an issue and it’s going to give high school players something to think about,” said County College of Morris coach Brian Eberly. “Junior college baseball is going to be a realistic and attractive alternative for a lot of athletes going forward.
The junior college route could also serve as a stopgap for high school seniors who want to declare for the 2021 MLB Draft.
Unlike four-year programs, in which players have to wait until after their junior season to become draft eligible, junior college players can sign a professional contract after their first or second year of college.
“People underestimate JUCO baseball and all that it offers,” Eberly said. “We’ve had fifty players over the years from our program go on to play in the professional ranks and last year we had two graduates sign professionally.”
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