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Future of sports in the SCV: Clubs are the key to college

Travel teams maximize exposure, competition, but will the overuse eventually have a negative impact?

Posted: July 30, 2010 10:17 p.m.
Updated: July 31, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

In a market like the Santa Clarita Valley, high school sports are the undisputed king as far public interest is concerned.

Many of the events are embraced by each school’s community, and often the sports are sources of considerable pride.

But what many high school sports lack is the visibility that is needed to obtain college scholarships offered for athletics.

So in many high school offseasons, top players apply their talents to local traveling club teams.

Those club teams in basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball, swimming and track and field have grown so prominent, many say that it is nearly impossible to get a college scholarship by playing only in high school now and in the future.

“It’s very difficult to move on if you don’t (play club basketball),” says Allen Adrian, head coach of Valencia-based Impact Basketball. “I can’t remember the last time a kid went to a major college and didn’t play club.”

Basketball is one of the most pronounced club sports, with recent Amateur Athletic Union all-star teams gaining national exposure on television networks like ESPN.

That is what most club coaches acknowledge as the main function of club sports: visibility.

In a sport like softball, where the high school and college seasons run concurrently, travelling club teams are essential for local talents to gain notoriety.

“It’s never going to change,” says Gary Fausett, head coach of the Valencia–based So Cal Choppers softball team. “They are seen by hundreds of coaches and it’s the best way to get a scholarship.”

The impact was best illustrated this summer, when Valencia High’s junior-to-be Karlie Habitz verbally committed to play at Penn State based on her performance in summer travel tournaments, after batting .298 as Valencia’s starting catcher.

“Travel ball plays such a pivotal role for high school softball,” says Donna Lee, head softball coach at Valencia High. “They just don’t get scholarships through high school. They get seen in travel ball.”

In addition to the opportunity and visibility that comes with travel ball, the athletes also get superior training and competition, a way for athletes to gauge themselves against the best.

“The level of competition is just better,” says Walt Ker, the coaching director at Newhall-based Legacy Volleyball Club. “Speaking for my sport, there is no question. If you look at the outstanding players, 98 to 99 percent of them have been proactively involved with club volleyball.”

Ker exemplifies another benefit of the club game: elite coaching.

Ker won three national titles coaching women’s volleyball at Cal State Northridge, and he spent 10 years coaching CSUN’s men’s team and won another national championship as a UCLA men’s assistant in 2006.

That type of experience is common among club coaches on high school-level teams, unlike youth programs, which often use parents or volunteers.

That may be changing, however, as some sports are beginning to focus on younger and younger age groups.

“I think we’re one of the few sports that has professional, full-time coaches at the club level,” says Jeff Conwell, head coach of the Canyons Aquatic Club. “You don’t see that on an 8-and-under soccer team, but USA swimming is a bit more evolved and you’re seeing the other sports catch up. You’re seeing other sports like soccer and volleyball that now have professional coaches. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago.”

Club swimming, like many other club sports, attracts dedicated athletes that often specialize on one sport.

“They are swimming with a group that is more advanced and more dedicated than someone who is just interested in the high school season,” Conwell says. “Not to take away from what those athletes are doing, because sometimes they are just as talented, but you might have someone on the high school swim team that will run track, play football or basketball.”

“These are swimmers,” says Conwell, as he points toward a group of Canyons Aquatic Club swimmers training in the pool at the Santa Clarita Aquatic Center.”

With the specialization of so many athletes in club sports, overuse is a hot topic among coaches. So much so that high school and club coaches can feud about how much time shared athletes spend training or playing.

“Some of the high school coaches demand that their players not play travel ball,” says Fausett. “(They say) these kids are overworked, they throw way too much and they don’t want to upset their high school coach and club coach. We try to meet them halfway.”

Overuse is one of the main reasons there are limited club teams in high school-aged baseball and none in football, which are particularly taxing on athletes physically.

“We go year-round, so there’s really no need for club teams,” says Casey Burrill, West Ranch High’s head baseball coach. “It’s also difficult on the pitching. There’s only so many throws in an arm in a year. If a kid pitches more he has a chance to get injured.”

Fausett sees similar problems with softball, even though the strain on underhand pitching is not as stressful as overhand. He even acknowledged his own mistakes.

“I did something I should have never done,” Fausett says, referring to his use of Habitz at catcher in 17 consecutive games in summer travel tournaments, because the Choppers’ other catcher dropped out before trips to New Jersey and Colorado. “She had to ice after the games. That shouldn’t happen. We’re lucky she didn’t get hurt.”

Some coaches, like Fausett and Lee, find ways to complement each other’s programs. But others battle over training and game times.

“There’s no use fighting it,” Lee says. “But (other coaches) don’t communicate. They whine and complain about it but they don’t go to the source.”

With current examples of successful partnerships between local clubs and high schools, the future may be tightly associated club and high school teams working together. Swimming is leading the way again in this category, as Canyons Aquatic Club features two high school coaches on its staff.

“We really want to work as a team,” Lee says. “We want to make the Santa Clarita Valley better. For the longest time Orange County has been dominant (in softball), but we’re holding our own now.”

While it may be tough to determine whether the potential benefits outweigh the disadvantages of club sports, what is apparent is the path to higher levels will continue to run through the clubs, not the high schools, whether it’s needed or not.

“In reality, I don’t think it’s necessary, but it’s become (expected),” Adrian says.

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