USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
The NCAA is probably dominating your perception of college sports. Fair enough, they’re on TV.
But you may not realize that there’s another college athletics governing body—it’s older than the NCAA, actually—that’s worth looking into called the NAIA (National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics).
Comprised of mostly smaller, private colleges, there are more than 250 NAIA schools across the country, and they do offer athletic scholarships.
We talked to our Head Recruiting Coaches who are former college-athletes and coaches at that level and asked them about their experience. Check out what they had to say and why t was their best path to college.
- Kalee Patterson, MidAmerica Nazarene University, softball, Player of the Week
- Joe Leccesi, Saint Xavier University, football, All-American Honorable Mention (also coached)
- Renae Littrell, Doane University, Head Softball Coach
- Eric Williamson, St. Ambrose University, football
- Chris Noble, Holy Cross College, golf, All-American
- Chase Spreen, Lindsey Wilson College, basketball, All-American
Why did you decide to compete at the NAIA level?
Kalee Patterson: I chose NAIA simply because of the amount of scholarship money I received.
Joe Leccesi: The coaching staff was amazing and the campus was great. They offered an athletic scholarship that was appealing and after my overnight visit with the team I was hooked.
Eric Williamson: I had a friend from high school who attended an NAIA program. He said the main difference was size, but the competition was still very elite. I had walk-on offers from a few schools, but being able to play was a priority for me. St. Ambrose gave me that opportunity and I was able to start three of my four seasons.
How would you describe the competition?
Joe Leccesi: Competitive—there are a lot of DI transfers. As a coach of a ranked NAIA program, we’ve beat DII teams before. The players may be an inch shorter or step slower than DI players, but the competition is great.
Renae Littrell: Top 25 NAIA schools are comparable to DII programs.
Chris Noble: Competitive—many of the players and teams in our conference went on to compete at the National Championships.
What were some common misconceptions you heard about NAIA sports?
Eric Williamson: The biggest misconception is that NAIA is somehow the lowest level of competition. There are several athletes who have selected a top 25 NAIA program over a lower-level DII or FCS school. I would recommend visiting a local team at the NAIA level to watch the speed and competitiveness of the game. See for yourself.
Chris Noble: That it’s not as good as the NCAA and not as competitive. Far from the truth—there are numerous individual golfers/teams at the NAIA level that are just as good, if not better than some NCAA DI/II programs.
Did you find you had a good balance between athletic, academics and a social life, or were you focused primarily on your sport?
Kalee Patterson: I would say that softball was the main focus, however, I felt like I had enough of a life outside of softball. I wouldn’t want any different.
Renae Littrell: Our athletes have an amazing balance between all three of these components. One one of the best parts of NAIA athletics!
Eric Williamson: There was a great balance. Typically, during the season, we had football meetings from noon to 1 p.m., and then practice from 3:00 to 5:30 p.m. There was a lot of time to hang out with friends on campus, or study in the library. In the off-season, the majority of our work was in the weight room. I would spend about an hour and a half in the weight room and about 30 minutes going over offense after my workout. The coaches also provided study hall two nights a week for football players who needed additional time to focus on studies without interruption.
Chase Spreen: Balance is there, but being a student-athlete at any collegiate level requires time commitment. Learning to balance schoolwork, basketball, and social life falls back on how you decide to spend your “off-time.”
Why should current student-athletes check out NAIA schools? Any advice?
Joe Leccesi: NAIA offers athletic and academic scholarships, and there’s some very competitive football to be played. From what I’ve experienced, a lot of NAIA programs are a close-knit community with a family feel.
Renae Littrell: High school athletes should check out NAIA schools to find out if these programs fit their specific needs. If they’re looking for an opportunity to balance and succeed at both academics and athletics, then NAIA is a great option. Something often overlooked is the NAIA’s dedication to the “Champions of Character” initiative, which ensures every athletic department offers student-athletes a chance to grow in the core values of the NAIA: integrity, respect, responsibility, and servant leadership.
Eric Williamson: It’s every athlete’s goal to be DI. The reality that hit me is: there’s a very small chance to play at that level. You have to look at other factors in recruiting. The NAIA provides an opportunity to earn an athletic scholarship, receive a great education, balance between football and academics, and a very competitive environment for football. My advice to high school athletes would be to not rule anything out until you’ve watched an NAIA game and visited one of their institutions.
Chase Spreen: There are a lot of high-level, competitive teams at the NAIA level with a lot of scholarship opportunity. The top NAIA programs obtain DI and DII talent across the country.
Learn more about NAIA programs: What is the NAIA And What Does Its Schools Have to Offer Athletes?