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Club play, self-marketing are important in earning an athletic scholarship

Posted: August 10, 2009 10:28 p.m.
Updated: August 11, 2009 4:55 a.m.

For many people, the prospect of earning a collegiate Division I scholarship can seem elusive and even impossible.

Many athletes have turned to club teams, not only to help them improve in their respective sport, but to streamline their exposure to potential college suitors.

Basketball, volleyball and swimming are three such sports that rely heavily on club teams.

So what does it take to earn a scholarship in one of them?

Basketball has proven to be one of the toughest sports for local athletes.

At least for the boys.

The last boys basketball player to earn a scholarship to a Division I school was Canyon High alumnus Cody Anderson in 2008, who signed to play for Montana State University.

You have to go back to 1992 to find the next such player, when Hart graduate Ali Peek was awarded a scholarship to Mount St. Mary’s College.

The girls have been much more successful thanks to such players as Taylor Lilly and Tatianna Thomas (University of Oregon), Ashlee Trebilcock (UCLA and Ohio State), Kelley Tarver (California State University, Bakersfield), Daviyonne Weathersby (California State University, Fullerton) Nikki Leon (California State University, Bakersfield), Megan Ford (Cal Poly Pomona, Division II) and Chelsey Hastigan (Western State College of Colorado, Division II).

The list goes on and on.

Former NBA champion point guard and four-year starter at the University of North Carolina Kenny Smith weighed in on the subject of earning a basketball scholarship.

“Three questions the scouts ask that we talk to daily: ‘Is he a good kid?’ That’s the No. 1 question,” Smith says. “No. 2 question is, ‘How are his grades?’ No. 3, ‘Can he play?’ In that order.”

But Smith says the scouts aren’t the only people who should be asking questions.

The athletes should be asking them, too.

Whether on a club team or high school team, the essential element for a player to earn is scholarship is exposure.

Therefore, Smith says athletes need to ask themselves, “How many people from my school (or club team) have played Division I sports?”

The more Division I players that have passed through the program’s doors, the odds increase that coaches and scouts will attend games.

As a result, Smith, who has been involved in the club scene for 20 years, says he has help approximately 200 players earn scholarships to Division I and II programs.

It is also important to join the right club, especially since programs seem to pop up daily.

“Our relationships are able to get you seen and get in the right building to be seen,” Smith says, later comparing the concept to a popular television show. “Just think of American Idol. Everyone watches it. ... Until they are on the right stage no one knew they could sing.”

The right stage is also key because coaches are primarily limited to the month of July to watch games, Smith says.

The former NBA star not only represents all these principles, he utilized them to land a Division I scholarship of his own.

A self-described “decent kid” who excelled in school, Smith played at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y., a school that produced Division I players annually, Smith says.

He also played AAU basketball, and the simple fact his stage was New York City played to his advantage.

But in the end it all comes back to character, and a lot of hard work, he says.

Many of Smith’s concepts are echoed by Walt Ker, who leads another sort of hardwood athlete.

After 35 years as the head volleyball coach at California State University, Northridge, which included three women’s Division II national titles and founding the men’s program, he knows what it takes to land a scholarship.

“The coaches do all their identifying in the club process,” Ker says. “I don’t know one college coach that has gone out to identify kids by watching a high school match and practice.”

Once the player is identified, a coach may still go and watch a high school match.

And for the athlete, playing both high school and club ball means year-round improvement.

“I would very much encourage every player to play high school,” Ker says. “(Club and high school) are not mutually exclusive.”

Still, it comes down to a numbers game.

For a coach to scout talent, it is more advantageous to attend a club tournament, such as those held at the American Sport Center in Anaheim which boasts 22 courts rather than a high school match on one court.

If four teams are assigned to a court for a tournament at the American Sports Center, with different morning and evening pools, coaches can potentially see 176 teams play on one day.

“On a rare occasion I would go watch a high school match, but it was not the normal (mode of operation) for sure,” Ker says. “It is just a pure logistical thing.”

Plus, the level of competition is raised and coaches see the best players from the best schools consolidated onto fewer teams.
Ultimately, responsibility largely lies with the individual to market their abilities to schools.

“You need to be really proactive,” Ker says. “Put together a video tape and send it out to a series of colleges you might be interested in, as well as letters.”

This was the process Ker says the family followed in order to get his son Tony, a three-time Foothill League Player of the Year, CIF-Southern Section Division II Player of the Year and two-time All-Santa Clarita Valley Player of the Year, to UCLA.

“Make sure you make contact with them,” Ker says.

Like volleyball, swimming too requires marketing.

However, Steve Neale, Hart’s boys and girls swimming head coach since 1984, says the process can even reach bargaining.

Since very few scholarships are handed out — 9.9 for men and 14 for women — many are awarded on a percentage basis.

For example, a school might give out an 80 percent scholarship and offer the athlete a grant, loan or on-campus job.

Some programs even offer increasing scholarships based on performance.

So what does it take?

“Six years of total dedication and hard work on behalf of swimmer and the family,” Neale says. “It’s very competitive. The percentage of kids that get swimming scholarships has to only be 2 to 3 percent.”

The time frame doesn’t just include high school, but involvement on club teams.

The athlete must also be considered an All-American, achieved by surpassing time standards modified yearly by the National Interscholastic Swimming Coaches Association.

Participation in junior and senior national meets can give the athlete exposure and extra motivation to meet the All-American times.

“Swimming has to be a way of life,” Neale says. “It’s a tremendous financial commitment from the family, and time commitment. You have to be doing everything right.”

Still, your hard work can slip away in the blink of an eye.

Such is the case of Hart graduate Nick Korth, who had accepted a partial scholarship to the University of California, Irvine, before the men’s swimming and diving program was cut starting Aug. 1.

The program, along with four others, fell victim to cost cuts according to the school’s official athletic Web site.

Not considered a revenue-generating sports, male swimmers face another major roadblock when pursuing scholarships: Title IX.

Title IX states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Therefore, the total distribution of scholarships between men’s and women’s programs must be equal.

Because football receives 85 scholarships, men’s swimming, men’s gymnastics and men’s volleyball take the brunt of the school’s downsizing in order to compensate, Neale says.

So many athletes turn to clearing house Web sites in order to streamline their times to coaches nationally, Neale says.

All three coaches agreed that no matter the sport, an athlete must begin the process early, be intentional with every decision and work his or her hardest.

“Free room, free books, free food, free education, travel, tutors — no one is just giving that away,” Smith says.


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