A young son or daughter makes a traveling team in soccer or baseball or basketball and does well, cracks the starting lineup at the varsity level in high school as a sophomore, earns some all-conference honors, maybe some all-state recognition and seems destined to earn an athletic scholarship to play for an NCAA Division I college program.
Then it’s just a matter of playing “Paper, Rock, Scissors” to determine which scholarship-offering school to choose.
If only it were that easy. For all but the very elite, the pursuit of Division I athletic scholarships is anything but smooth sailing.
In some cases, the schools will find the athlete.
“It started off in spring of my junior season,” said Hortonville’s Kegan Gennrich, a University of Wisconsin wrestling recruit. “They started sending letters and emails. I got a lot of postcards and flyers through the spring.”
But how do schools find out about athletes like Gennrich?
Northern Illinois University baseball coach Edward Mathey, whose 2012 team had New London’s Jake Hermsen and Kimberly’s Jamison Wells on the roster, pointed to multiple sources.
“We received information on players from several sources — coaches’ recommendations, camps, showcases, letters from players and professional scouts,” Mathey said.
University of Wisconsin-Green Bay men’s soccer coach Daniel Popik has similar sources in finding future Phoenix players.
“My staff and I attend showcase events, recruiting tournaments and any other youth soccer club events,” Popik said. “Also, through references from the prospect’s coaches or from coaches who noticed a prospect they played against.”
In other cases, athletes must become marketers to make themselves known.
“I become aware about prospects from emails that they send me and my staff,” Popik said. “If I know prospects are interested in Green Bay, I will try to have either myself or my assistants watch them play.”
That pretty much describes how Appleton North’s Chris Whalen became a UWGB recruit.
“One of my buddies (Kirby Allen), who I played with in high school, played there,” Whalen said. “I went and watched him play and set up a visit with the coach. They came and watched me play. They liked how I played and that’s how it all started.”
Tapping into technology
Some athletes take marketing themselves to an entirely higher level.
“I went on a few recruiting websites,” Illinois State swimmer and Appleton East graduate Erica Halley said. “I got my name out there. Then I started getting some mail.
“I wanted to go far from home but close enough where my family could come see me swim. My coach contacted me off the website. It kept going off that.”
Think Linked-In or e-harmony, but for athletes and colleges.
“They ask what you swim, your best times and height, what my major would be and a little bio about yourself,” said Halley about the information that goes on the website. “On the website I went to, I posted a video of myself swimming. That can kind of help. You can see how that person swims as well.”
With Halley and Gennrich having gained the attention of coaches, and emails, letters and calls coming in, both athletes needed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“For a while, there were 20 to 30 that I was in contact with at one time,” Halley said. “I didn’t really narrow it down right away. With Division I, there was a big difference. Some were littler schools and some were bigger. I went on a few visits. Some schools were different than what I was looking for.”
Some athletes, such as Kimberly’s A.J. Klein, will use their tech skills to put together a video showcasing their athletic successes and ship it off to prospective colleges.
“I talked with my dad and told him that I wanted to play football,” said Klein, who plays linebacker for Iowa State. “We got game film from my junior year and put together a highlight tape. I started finding addresses and sending tape, an intro letter and other info to schools I was interested in. I sent stuff all over the country, to top-ranked and smaller schools.”
Gennrich did research on the schools that were interested in him.
“I looked at the school’s history and its success,” Gennrich said. “I checked out how successful the coaches were and stuff like that.”
Making the call
So with coaches targeting student-athletes, what happens to the recruit when it comes to decision time?
“I took a visit to North Dakota State,” Gennrich said. “I had other visits scheduled but canceled when I decided on Wisconsin.”
Klein suggests taking as many campus visits as possible.
“What kids have to know is they’re the ones in charge,” he said. “Take as many visits as you can. You’re the person in charge. Don’t feel like you’re not in charge.”
Nathan Disch, a standout pitcher heading into his senior season at Appleton West High School, announced last week that he has chosen a D-I offer to play at the University of Jacksonville. He chose the Florida school over his other finalists, Butler University, UW-Milwaukee, Western Kentucky, Northern Illinois and Illinois. He was sold on Jacksonville, he said, because of a combination of baseball and academics.
“Compared to others, Jacksonville was a smaller Division I school,” Disch said. “I want to major in business finance. They have a good major there for that. The smaller classrooms, the smaller school environment really appealed.”
Telling the schools that you didn’t choose of your decision may be the hardest part, the athletes said.
“That was one of the hardest calls I’ve made,” Halley said. “I’d be talking to them for months. It was nothing they did or against them or the program or school. It just didn’t feel like a home for me. It was hard to tell them that I was just not very interested. A lot of them were super nice.”
Overall, though, the entire recruiting process was worth it. Gennrich ended up at the school he wanted and Halley found the school she wanted, with a fine swimming program and an excellent special education program.
“The whole recruiting process was fun,” Gennrich said. “It’s a neat experience. I enjoyed it because it’s only going to happen one time. It’s a little hectic. It’s a little bit stressful. The worst part is telling a coach you’re going someplace else. To tell them after they’ve spent money on you is tough.”
And if that scholarship doesn’t come your way?
“There’s no shame,” Klein said. “If you have a passion for the game, I don’t think it matters if it’s D-I, D-II or D-III. It’s the determination to push through. Don’t have your heart set on one place or level. Opportunities come in different shapes, sizes and locations.”
— Jim Oskola: 920-993-1000, ext. 252, or firstname.lastname@example.org