Rodney Hood is not the only Duke student-athlete this year to earn the unusual distinction of being chosen a team captain before ever playing a game for the Blue Devils.DURHAM -- Basketball star
Outfielder Ryan Deitrich arrived on campus for summer school last July as one of the newest members of the Duke baseball program. When second-year coach Chris Pollard had his squad vote for captains in November, Deitrich was one of the selections.
Both Hood and Deitrich came to Duke as transfers from other Division I schools, where they enjoyed success as key performers in their respective sports. Besides talent, they clearly brought leadership qualities to Durham that were readily apparent to their new teammates.
Despite those similarities, Hood and Deitrich fall on opposite ends of the transfer spectrum. Hood followed the more conventional transfer path, leaving his original institution Mississippi State after his freshman season then sitting out a year at Duke, per NCAA regulations, before becoming eligible this season. He has performed at an All-ACC level as one of the Blue Devils’ regular starters while continuing to grow as a player.
Deitrich took a different route in bringing a well-seasoned bat to Durham. He spent four years at Penn and graduated last spring as the top hitter in the Ivy League. Since he saw no game action as an injured freshman in 2010, he had a year of college eligibility remaining — but the Ivy League does not permit fifth-year players. So Deitrich took advantage of the NCAA’s one-time transfer exception and headed to Duke, where he is eligible to play immediately this spring as a graduate student. He is enrolled in the one-year Master of Management Studies (MMS) program at the Fuqua School of Business.
Ironically, Deitrich found out he had been admitted to Fuqua when he was at Duke with the Penn team for a two-game series last March. Just before the first pitch of the opening game, he received an email on his phone with his acceptance notification. He then went to the plate and doubled in his first at-bat. After the series ended, Deitrich let Pollard know that he had been accepted, and Pollard called him later to offer him a scholarship.
Deitrich enjoyed an all-star career at Penn, leading his team in batting with a .350 average in 2012, when he earned second-team All-Ivy honors. As a senior last spring he led the league with a .382 average, was named first-team All-Ivy and claimed the Big Five player of the year award.
“It’s been quite a change from going to school in the city (of Philadelphia) and being close to home, but since day one I’ve loved every minute of it,” Deitrich says of his one-year Duke experience.
“It’s an interesting situation coming in as a fifth-year. I didn’t want to step on any of the upperclassmen’s toes. It’s their program, they’ve been here four years. It’s been a good transition. Everybody has been great in welcoming me with open arms.”
Pollard says the many younger players on Duke’s roster seemed to gravitate toward Deitrich during offseason fall workouts.
“He came in very excited about the season and very set on how much we were going to improve this year, and a lot of guys ate that up about him,” noted senior pitcher and fellow captain Robert Huber. “I think that’s why a lot of guys voted him captain; he brought a lot of energy and excitement for this season.
“It is a little unusual, but a lot of guys saw something in him, especially with our outfield. There are a lot of moving parts in the outfield and with him coming in as a stable voice of the outfield, it was something that we needed and he was able to bring that.”
Deitrich describes his selection as a captain as “one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. It’s really an honor and I take it pretty seriously. To come in here and six months later have these guys trust me that much to name me one of the captains is a great honor.”
Deitrich is one of two graduate student transfers whom Pollard expects to make an impact. The other is pitcher Chris Kono, who picked up his economics degree at Holy Cross while pitching in 34 games over the past three seasons. He posted a 7-2 record across 20 appearances the past two campaigns. Kono and Deitrich are roommates as well as classmates in the Fuqua MMS program.
“Kono projects to be a very key short relief guy out of the bullpen,” Pollard said. “I think he can close out games. I think he can be a left-handed specialist and certainly a very valuable set-up piece.
“Deitrich projects to be an everyday starter in the outfield and projects to hit in the middle of our lineup. I can see him anywhere from two to seven in the lineup depending on how things shake out. They’ve both been very good contributors from an ability standpoint, but also from a leadership standpoint.”
“I have a second chance to play baseball again,” said Deitrich, who is eager for the opportunity to compete in the ACC. “After seeing my friends graduate and get real jobs, I have no excuse but to come out here and play my hardest and give everything I’ve got.
“I came here with the hopes of playing professional baseball. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll have a decent resume with a Penn (history degree) and a Duke masters degree. Plan A all along was to come here and help this team win and go play professional baseball.”
PLAYING THE FIELD
By NCAA rule, undergraduate transfers in the sports of men’s basketball, football and baseball traditionally have had to sit out a year at their new schools before becoming eligible, while transfers in other sports have been able to play right away. Athletes can petition the NCAA to skip the mandatory year on the sidelines, but the awarding of waivers has been so inconsistent and unpredictable that there is now a movement to eliminate that aspect of the transfer process.
The rule allowing graduate student transfers to play immediately has been in effect since 2011. Before that, a transfer’s intended destination school had to have an academic program not offered at his original school for him to be immediately eligible.
With the current transfer epidemic in college sports coming under increased scrutiny — prompted in part by the relative flood of movement in college basketball — it’s possible that all of the exceptions and waivers will be eliminated in the near future, requiring everyone who transfers to sit out a year, whether graduate or undergraduate. The NCAA leadership council is expected to consider the topic at its April meeting.
Compared to the 400-plus undergraduate basketball players who changed addresses last year, graduate student transfers are less statistically significant but often create high-profile visibility. One of the most prominent nationally was quarterback Russell Wilson of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, who graduated from N.C. State before moving on to Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in his only year. Last spring basketball player Tarik Black made headlines as he went looking for a new destination after graduating from Memphis. Duke was one of his potential targets before he picked Kansas (where he started against the Blue Devils in the second game of the season, but picked up three fouls and played only six minutes).
A handful of Duke athletes over the past decade have completed their undergraduate careers as Blue Devils and played final years as grad students elsewhere. Perhaps the most accomplished athlete to do it was Zack Greer, Duke’s all-time goals leader in lacrosse, who used his final year of eligibility in 2009 to pursue a graduate degree in business while playing for Bryant University — under his former Duke coach Mike Pressler.
Former football tight end Ben Patrick went to Delaware for a year after graduating from Duke in 2006, led all Division I-AA tight ends in pass receptions, and parlayed that success into a spot in the NFL draft and, eventually, on an NFL roster. In 2010 baseball pitcher Michael Seander completed his Duke degree and jumped to Georgetown to enter a sports management graduate program while working in the Hoyas bullpen. He also happened to launch a music career at the same time and is now rather prominent in the hip-hop world.
Another who benefited from a graduate transfer was quarterback Sean Schroeder, who moved to Hawaii (with coach David Cutcliffe’s blessing) after graduating from Duke in three years. Stacked behind Thad Lewis, Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette, Schroeder never played a game at Duke. But he started 19 of 23 contests for Hawaii over two years, passed for 4,832 yards and 39 touchdowns, and was named the team’s offensive MVP this past season.
Moving in the other direction, Duke welcomed Polish swimmer Piotr Safronczyk into Fuqua’s MMS program two years ago after he graduated from Bridgeport with multiple NCAA Division II championships. He won an ACC title and earned All-America honors for the Blue Devils at the 2012 Division I NCAA meet. Last year’s NCAA champion Duke men’s lacrosse team included defenseman Dan DiMaria, who had previously graduated from Harvard. He was the lacrosse program’s third grad transfer in four years.
An unusually high number of grad student transfers are competing for Duke teams this year. Along with Deitrich and Kono from baseball, the women’s track team features distance runner Audrey Huth from Northwestern, while the NCAA runnerup field hockey team enjoyed the services of Cherry Seaborn, another MMS student who graduated from Durham University in the United Kingdom last spring. The men’s soccer team relied on a grad transfer as its starting goalkeeper last fall, bringing in South Carolina graduate Alex Long, who played all but seven minutes of the 2013 season.
Like soccer coach John Kerr, who needed a solid keeper after the departure of long-time starter James Belshaw, baseball coach Pollard was seeking a few veterans to help complement some of the young players in his program reconstruction.
“We went looking for fifth-year guys,” he said. “We were looking for guys with college experience to take advantage of that NCAA rule, which can really help us. We went looking and stumbled across Deitrich and Kono relatively early in the fall (of 2012). There’s not a formula to finding those guys. They have to kinda fall into your lap a little bit. But both of them have been better than advertised.
“Both those guys are going to have a major impact on our season. Both have been a big shot in the arm.”