The Path To Stardom, D1 or Bust, Maybe Not?
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When you take a look at professional sports, it would come to the surprise of no one that the vast majority of the athletes come from NCAA Division I programs. Touted as the best collegiate league in the world, the NCAA Division I leagues across all sports and both sexes consistently finds itself filled with the best athletes coming out of high school in not just America, but the entire planet. The phrase “D1 or bust” gets thrown around a lot in the amateur ranks and to the common fan of sport it may seem true; but how much validity does that phrase truthfully hold? Although NCAA Division I is the home of the majority of high-level professional athletes, it is not the only home. Hundreds of athletes have had fantastic professional careers in their respective sport that did not play NCAA Division I, and today, we will take a look at the journeys of a handful of athletes that made it to the top from outside the Division I ranks.
Bethany Balcer (Spring Arbor University, NAIA)
Bethany Balcer has already made a huge splash in the National Women’s Soccer League. The 23-year-old Balcer was named to the 2019 All second team as well as earning league Rookie of the Year honours. Balcer is also a member of the U23 United States women’s national team! Her fantastic resumé truly does come from humble and unfamiliar beginnings in the college ranks. Balcer played four years at Spring Arbour University in Spring Arbour Michigan. Balcer was a four-year starter for the cougars who compete in the NAIA first division. Balcer led the cougars to four straight tournament final four appearances, winning two national championships in the process. Balcer’s decorated college career in the NAIA helped jump start her pro and national career, in which both are off to fantastic starts!
Mark-Anthony Kaye (York University, USPORTS)
Mark-Anthony Kaye had an unorthodox pathway to the top to say the least. The Toronto, Ontario native is a current member of Los Angeles FC in the MLS, as well as a frequent call up for the Canadian Men’s National Team. With all his success, Kaye actually began his soccer journey in a much smaller market, York University. Kaye spent two seasons at York University in Toronto, Ontario where he had tremendous success. Playing for the Lions, Kaye scored 18 goals in 29 games, earning OUA Rookie of the Year as well as CIS All-Second Team honours in his rookie year. Kaye was able to lead his team to a Provincial Championship in his final year at York in 2013. After his two fantastic years in the Canadian University setting, Kaye left to join TFC Academy in the MLS Second Division. With spells at Wilmington Hammerheads and Louisville City along his journey before arriving in Los Angeles, Kaye’s path to top level soccer is one of the more unique ones!
Bubba Watson (Faulkner State Community College, NJCAA)
Bubba Watson is one the most successful men’s golfers in the modern era. His 14 professional wins include two Master’s championships. Watson has also represented the United States at four Ryder Cups and two President’s Cups. While Watson has had success throughout his entire golfing career, it hasn’t always been on the highest of stages. Watson started his golfing journey at Faulkner State Community College in Baldwin County, Alabama. Watson spent two years at Faulkner State where he was a Junior College All-American. After two successful years in the NJCAA, Watson transferred to the University of Georgia where he helped lead the Bulldogs to a SEC Championship in 2000. As successful of a career as Watson has had, his humble beginnings in a small town in Alabama is arguably the most remarkable thing about his career.
Joey Lye (Williams College, NCAA III)
Joey Lye is one of the most decorated athletes in Canadian Women’s Softball history. Lye has been a member of the Canadian Women’s Softball since 2010, winning three bronze medals at the world championships and two silver medals at the Pan-Am games. Lye’s success at the national level was a direct translation of her success at the collegiate ranks, the atmosphere however, was a little bit different. Lye was a two-sport athlete at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, excelling in both Softball and Hockey. In softball, Lye was a four-time All-NESCAC and NFCA New England Region First Team selection at shortstop. She set five all-time school records in batting average, runs scored, hits, total bases and stolen bases. As a senior, Lye led the nation with a .563 batting average, setting a new Williams single-season record. She also set a school record with 22 stolen bases and was named the 2009 NESCAC and ECAC Division III New England Player of the Year. Playing at a school with an enrollment of roughly 2000 students, Lye took the opportunity and made a great career out of it.
Ben Wallace (Virginia Union, NCAA II)
Ben Wallace is remembered as one of the most dominant defensive presences in NBA history. Wallace’s tough demeanor and shot blocking ability earned him four NBA All-Star selections, Four NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards, five All-NBA selections, and an NBA Championship in 2004. Mostly remembered for his time with the Detroit Pistons, Wallace’s journey to the top was unlike most others in the NBA at the time. Wallace first played college basketball at the junior college level at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland for two years. He then transferred to Virginia Union, an NCAA Division II school and as a member of the Panthers, he led the team to the Division II Final Four and a 28–3 record. As a senior, Wallace was named to the First Team All CIAA and was selected as a First Team All-American. Wallace’s journey in the junior college and NCAA Division II ranks helped build his toughness and confidence which helped guide him to a successful NBA career.
These are just some of the examples of the journey’s that athletes have taken on their way to success. Opportunities to play collegiate sports come in all shapes and sizes and although some may have more perks than others, the most important factor is the fit. Whether it be NCAA Division I or USPORTS if you are good enough, national and professional opportunities will come, regardless of the league you play in.