Discover what DII athletics are really like

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.

Throughout the recruiting process, it’s easy for families to become somewhat single-minded, living by the mantra “Division I or bust.” Working hard for the honor of competing at a DI school is certainly a great goal. But statistics will tell you DI is not for every student-athlete, and statistics will also tell you there are thousands of opportunities outside of Division I.

Enter: Division II schools. Currently, there are around 314 DII institutions, and over 109,000 student-athletes competing at the DII level. About 56% of DII athletes receive some kind of financial aid. But the numbers only tell a small part of the story. To better understand the DII experience, I interviewed seven former DII athletes and coaches.

  • James Walton, Truman State University, football and track & field
  • Shawn Pynn, Gannon University, baseball; also coached baseball at a DII school
  • Stefan McGovern, San Francisco State, baseball; also coached baseball at a DII school
  • Doug Wallace, Saginaw Valley State, football
  • Chris Vincent, West Virginia Wesleyan College, football
  • Brandiss Ward, Lake Superior State University, volleyball
  • Renae Littrell, Missouri Western State College, softball

Why did you decide to compete at the DII level?

Stefan McGovern: I never really had DI aspirations; it was always about finding a place to play where I could study what I wanted.

Brandiss Ward: This was the best fit for me athletically. I was an undersized setter, so a lot of DI schools were out of reach for me. The coach had me on campus for a workout (perks of DII—you can do that!) and he offered me a position on the team that day. I fell in love with the coaching staff, school and team.

What were some misconceptions you had going into DII sports?

James Walton: I had no idea what Division II athletics was all about before getting to Truman State. I thought that, because I wasn’t playing for a Division I or I-AA school, that I had failed as a high school athlete. I was glad to have my education paid for, but I always saw myself on the big stage competing against the teams I watched on TV growing up.

Brandiss Ward: Honestly, I had a lot of misconceptions heading into my career. At my high school, we only had two players play collegiately before me, so I knew all about the DI level but very little about DII. I was always concerned that people would think I wasn’t a good volleyball player because I didn’t go Division I.

How would you describe the level of competition?

James Walton: I was a big fan of the level of competition at the Division II level. I would constantly see athletes with Division I level abilities on the football field and on the track. Being in the conference I was in (MIAA) allowed me to compete against the best-of-the-best in Division II, and I believe that was a big factor in the success I had in my respective sports.

Shawn Pynn: People think DII ball isn’t very good, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The competition is exceptional on the high end and still very good across the board.

Doug Wallace: My team competed at a very high level, playing with and against guys who went on to play in the NFL.

Renae Littrell: There was a strong level of competition. Good DII schools can compete with mid-major DI schools.

Did you find a good balance between athletic, academics and a social life?

Shawn Pynn: The DII practice model schedule is very similar to the DI schedule, so time can be a little tight but it is very doable.

Brandiss Ward: The balance at LSSU was amazing! I graduated with my Bachelor’s in Education, so I needed to do observation hours at the local school. My coach was very supportive of my schedule, and we often adjusted the practice schedule to mine or my teammates needs. I had the ability to focus on my schoolwork, volleyball and even maintained an on-campus job.

Renae Littrell: In my opinion, the balance is the best part of the DII level. We were able to have a complete balance while still competing at a high level on the field.

Why should current high school athletes check out DII schools?

James Walton: The ability to have a reasonable professor-to-student ratio allows for a greater success with your classwork because you can establish personal relationships with your professors. If you are a fringe Division I or Division I-AA caliber athlete, there’s a good chance that you are a premier Division II athlete. Division II college coaches are always looking for that edge with their teams and knowing that you will have a fair opportunity to be the best athlete you can be within your sport is a beautiful thing.

Brandiss Ward: Typically, you’ll see with Division II, “I chose Division II.” This is key! You have to make your decision for you. Look at the big picture of your decision. Are you looking to have a balance between athletics, social life and academics? If so, Division II could be the fit you’re looking for. Look past the misconception that Division II is inferior. You should be checking out Division II schools, and honestly, any other division level, because the right fit might surprise you.

Renae Littrell: The opportunities for scholarship are there. It’s important all athletes spend time researching and visiting DII schools to really get a true feel for these programs. Misconceptions or miseducation can make athletes miss out on these opportunities early. There are many great advantages at the DII level, which you have to fully experience to appreciate.

READ MORE: What NCAA division is right for you?

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