March 10, 2021

While Ivy Stance on Grad Student Eligibility Praised, PU Coaches See No Impact for Tiger Sports Programs

GOODBYE HUG: Members of the Princeton University field hockey team celebrate after scoring a goal in a 2-1 win over Virginia in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. Players in the Class of 2021 who competed for the squad along with all other Ivy League senior student-athletes were recently granted a one-time waiver by the league to compete as grad students for the same college where they received their undergraduate degree. The excitement over the change in policy is tempered at Princeton, which has no known students who will take advantage of the provision. The Tiger field hockey team, for example, has seven seniors on its roster and six of them will play as graduate students next year at other schools while the other has a job lined up. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Displaying a flexibility prompted by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ivy League announced in mid-February that senior student-athletes would be eligible to compete in 2021-22 as graduate students at the same university from which they receive their undergraduate degree.

Any excitement over the drastic reversal in the longstanding Ivy policy that prevented graduate students from competing is tempered at Princeton University, which has no known students who will take advantage of the provision.

“We had a group text letting them know that this announcement was coming,” said Princeton field hockey head coach Carla Tagliente.

“I had some private conversations with some of them on the side about the possibility and what it meant. Most are committed to play their grad year somewhere else.”

The announcement came via email to senior students. The Ivy League Council of Presidents will allow the one-time waiver just for next year. Their message noted “this change is a direct result of the pandemic and will not be available in future years.”

The announcement came more than a month after Princeton admission to graduate programs closed. The latest graduate school admissions date was January 4 for the German and Architecture programs. Princeton student-athletes would already have had to apply – and be accepted – in order to be able to take advantage of the athletic policy change. Other Ivy institutions may have later graduate school deadlines.

“I think for one year if it helps a few students, I don’t know how many will do it, but great,” said Princeton football head coach Bob Surace. “I don’t think we’re in a time to nitpick about imbalances. If a student can do it and they can come back for a year, let’s do it.”

Surace’s squad saw half its seniors defer their final year at Princeton and half enrolled this year, and some of them have explored playing elsewhere after they graduate. Many of Princeton’s athletic programs already were facing reduced numbers of possible graduate school candidates after student-athletes from the original Class of 2021 took gap years this academic year. The Princeton women’s lacrosse team has no seniors. The Tiger women’s soccer team had six seniors but only three of them are enrolled this year and none of them are in the process of trying to play as Princeton graduate students.

“I think they’ve had their experience,” said Princeton women’s soccer head coach Sean Driscoll. “None of them have said anything to me about it. I think they have bigger fish to fry.”

There are Princeton seniors who are planning to compete in graduate school but not at Princeton. The Tiger field hockey team has seven seniors on its roster. Six of them will play as graduate students next year, Tagliente said, and the other – Marge Lynch – already has a job lined up.

“I think there are one or two of my players looking at the feasibility,” said Tagliente.

“There’s a group of players that are looking and exploring to see if there’s any flexibility. It’s late. They’ve already put closure on their Princeton careers and moved in another direction.”

Princeton’s field hockey team reached the national championship game in 2019, the last season in which they played. The Ivy League canceled the 2020 fall and winter seasons, and announced recently that this spring would not have any Ivy season competition, but could see some non-conference play if COVID-19 numbers improve.

“We are currently in Phase 1,” said Princeton men’s lacrosse head coach Matt Madalon. “Our first day was February 1. Our university is doing a good job of getting our student-athletes back and getting them medically cleared and getting the teams back together and up and running. We’re in our second week of practice and we’re off and running.”

Madalon also doesn’t know of any senior athletes who are looking at returning to the university for next year to play. Neither does Princeton baseball head coach Scott Bradley, who has several seniors already set up to play as graduate students at other schools. Coaches don’t see large numbers of student-athletes in the conference being able to compete under the new waiver.

“I think there would be very few, if any,” said Tagliente. “You could make the argument Princeton has very few programs and they’re hard to get into.”

The Princeton men’s basketball team has just two seniors, Jerome Desrosiers and Ryan Schwieger, and they have both accepted spots to use their final year of eligibility elsewhere with Desrosiers headed to Hawaii and Schwieger to Loyola-Chicago.

“This has been a year of adjustments for everyone, and student-athletes across the country have had careers impacted by this pandemic,” said Tiger men’s basketball head coach Mitch Henderson.

“I am happy to see avenues opened up inside the Ivy League for members of the Class of 2021 to potentially compete for their institutions as graduate students while pursuing post-grad educational opportunities.”

While coaches were happy to see the Ivy League adjust their stringent rules in the face of the pandemic, the timing of it made it little more than a gesture for many rather than a truly accessible option. Any
student-athlete qualifying for the new waiver would have had to start down that path well in advance.

“Nobody knew where we were going to be back in July or August,” said Surace. “Our seniors, the guys that would have been graduating, made their decisions back then.”

Surace noted that the NCAA transfer portal is crowded with seniors looking for a chance to play one more season of college football. All Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) players were granted an extra year of eligibility after this fall. Rosters can only swell so much, and schools have budgetary issues after missing out on revenues this year. Staying at their Ivy institution could provide a player a spot if they had previously planned to return for graduate school.

“Nobody has reached out to me,” said Surace. “If players reach out, I’ll support them.”

It’s a theme oft repeated by Princeton coaches. They have been willing to help their student-athletes any way possible. The new option for graduate students, though, hasn’t been met with a lot of enthusiasm.

“I’ve said if any of them want help I can help them,” said Driscoll. “But no one has expressed an interest in it.”

Most seniors who are enrolled already have their post-graduate plans in place. Some are ending their athletic careers after a year in which no Ivy program has yet to play a game in any sport. Some are looking to finish elsewhere, even after the late announcement of the possibility to stay in their current program.

“They had to put closure on this,” said Tagliente. “COVID is difficult for everyone. The decision to not have a season in the fall. When you finish your career playing, whether it’s your choice or not, you have to put closure on it. Where you have more struggle is when you don’t have control how your career ends.”

Her players will be taking control by finishing their careers at other schools. The Tiger field hockey seniors will be leaving to play for some other outstanding programs unless there are some last-minute changes.

“They all have great opportunities in front of them,” said Tagliente.

“There’s a silver lining. They still have the opportunity to play at great schools and get degrees at great schools. They all moved past Princeton in their heads. They came to terms with their decisions and were ready to move on. You feel for them, but I’m happy they’re landing on their feet too.”