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Archive for Friday, June 20, 2008

Recruiting the young

Trend creates dilemma for college coaches

Lewis Theobald, head coach of the women's soccer team at the University of Central Missouri, speaks to campers at a soccer showcase on Tuesday at Free State High.

Lewis Theobald, head coach of the women's soccer team at the University of Central Missouri, speaks to campers at a soccer showcase on Tuesday at Free State High.

June 20, 2008

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Last summer, University of Southern California men's basketball coach Tim Floyd stirred the already-stormy recruiting pot by offering a 14-year-old, eighth-grader from Illinois a basketball scholarship.

Floyd's offer to 5-foot-9 point guard Ryan Boatwright sent shockwaves through the college basketball community, and was greeted largely by disgust and disdain, as many believed it further corrupted the once innocent land of high school hoops.

It seems it also caused several coaches around the country to raise their eyebrows at the possibilities. That much we learned last month, when University of Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie offered a scholarship to 14-year-old Michael Avery, a 6-foot-4 forward from California. Or wait; is he a guard? That's just the point. At 14 years old, nobody knows for sure what Avery projects to be at the college level. But that only scratches the surface of what's wrong with this picture.

"How do you project what a 14-year-old is going to be down the road," Free State High soccer coach Jason Pendleton said. "Do we even know if he's a decent human being at that point?"

Perhaps. But the scary truth of the matter is those thoughts rarely make a difference. The bottom line for more and more coaches these days is cut and dry: go after the electric talents, no matter how old they happen to be.

With dozens of Web sites across the nation tracking athletes from fifth grade on, it has become almost impossible for an athlete to mature at his own pace or burst onto the scene when he's ready. In today's world, it's all about being seen as early and as often as possible. If you don't, you fall behind.

Because he's able to accept such a cold, hard fact, Pendleton has done his part to help young athletes venture into this cut-throat endeavor.

"I feel like one of my duties and obligations is to expose these kids to as many colleges as possible," said Pendleton, who will wrap up the fifth and final day of his annual Soccer Showcase for girls at 10 a.m. today at FSHS. "If this was an academic setting, we'd do everything possible to expose students to the best colleges out there, so I don't see any difference just because it's sports."

Although he's the organizer, Pendleton's camp is run primarily by college coaches from the area. The Kansas University coaching staff ran Monday's session and was followed by coaches from the University of Central Missouri, Butler County Community College, Washburn University, Baker University, UMKC and Emporia State.

The showcase attracts athletes from all over northeast Kansas, all with their minds set on catching the eye of one of the coaches.

"Any camp where you have this many college coaches is a great way to get exposure," said Jordan Gagne, a 17-year-old senior-to-be at Tonganoxie High. "I'd recommend it to anyone."

This week marked the second year Gagne has attended the camp. She said her play at last year's showcase inspired several coaches to contact her. Unfortunately, many of those coaches Gagne talked with delivered a hard dose of reality.

"I've been thinking about where I might play in college since before my sophomore year," she said. "But I didn't start doing anything about it until last year. By that time, many of the coaches I talked to said I was too late."

Therein lies the message Pendleton hopes the athletes take away from his showcase.

"You have to be an advocate for yourself," Central Missouri coach Lewis Theobald told the campers. "If you really want to play in college, there's somewhere for you to play. Especially if you come to things like this."

At what price do elite-level instructions and exposure come? Many times, the answer comes by way of sucking the life out of the sport these athletes love.

"The pressure's definitely always been there," Free State junior-to-be Hannah Carlson said. "And it just grows and grows each year. It gets annoying, but I know it's for the best. But sometimes it takes the fun out of it. Sometimes, I get to the car and it's all about 'Did you know so and so was watching you today?' instead of talking about how the game went."

The coaching staff from KU's women's soccer program ran Monday's showcase and assistant coach Kelly Miller said the program does its best to curb the rate at which young athletes are recruited. Often times, Miller said, making an offer to an athlete as young as 14 or 15 years old is unavoidable.

"We're trying to slow it down as much as possible at KU," he said. "But at the same time, it often becomes a game of keeping up with the Joneses. The (Free State) showcase is a fantastic idea, but you really wish it was happening during the kids' junior and senior years instead."

Miller said he believed the NCAA would step in to regulate the process if the commitments from young athletes actually meant something.

"That's probably why they haven't," Miller said. "It is just a verbal commitment and there's nothing binding about it."

Or is there? Do student-athletes who aren't yet of legal driving age understand what they're committing to when they choose to give their word to a university? That's the most frustrating aspect of the equation for many coaches. Free State High girls basketball coach Bryan Duncan is one of them.

"A lot of times people in the business of athletics treat 13- and 14-year-old kids as commodities rather than individuals," Duncan said. "And we know that, as human beings, kids that age or going to change."

Duncan doesn't believe the full-court recruiting press is all bad. In fact, he has first-hand knowledge that it can work. Free State juniors-to-be Ashli Hill and Chantay Caron both already have committed to play basketball at Big 12 colleges - Hill at Oklahoma State and Caron at Kansas State - and Duncan said both made solid choices.

"I think they're examples of this being a positive situation," Duncan said. "They both surrounded themselves with good people and made informed decisions that were in their best interest. Unfortunately, though, a lot of kids wind up being used by the process."

Whether the targets are high school girls in the Midwest or big-time basketball recruits across the nation, many coaches, like Miller, are reluctant to cross the line to recruit younger players. But few are stopping.

"I think it's too young," KU men's basketball coach Bill Self told the Journal-World in May, speaking specifically about landing commitments from players who have not yet graduated grade school. "In a perfect world (schools would not land players that young)."

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