Mark and Ileta Sondrol spend a good portion of their spring and summer in gyms. Their youngest daughter, Sarah, is a rising junior at Wilson Memorial High School, but when the high school season ends she is part of the Virginia Belles AAU basketball team.
Players wanting to play college basketball almost have to join a travel team and play in grassroots, or AAU, tournaments. The Sondrols know that. Daughter Jordan just graduated from Wilson Memorial and will play next year for Shenandoah University. A big reason she got the attention of the Winchester school was through her play in the summer.
It’s all about exposure. It’s also all about money.
A few years ago it wasn’t too bad for the Sondrols, with both daughters playing locally for the Valley Basketball Club. Ileta Sondrol estimates that each player had to pay between $125 and $150 to register. Uniforms belonged to the club, so there was no cost there, but it cost $10 or $15 for each parent to get a tournament pass.
And then there was the cost of transportation and food on the weekends when there was a tournament. Usually the games were close by, no further than Charlottesville or maybe Roanoke, making it possible to drive back-and-forth each day.
Now though, with the Belles, expenses have increased. It costs $750 per player to register, plus an additional $125 for the uniform. And the tournaments are farther away.
Ileta Sondrol estimates her family spends $500 a weekend for hotels, meals and gas, plus another $35 to $40 for weekend passes to the tournaments. They attend about six tournaments each year. Last summer, both Jordan and Sarah played for the Belles.
When the girls ask about a possible family trip to the ocean, Ileta just laughs.
“These weekend trips are your beach,” she said. “It is your vacation.”
Those expenses, and the time commitment, are serious concerns parents and athletes need to consider when deciding what travel team to join.
Frankie Lewis runs SQBA, an AAU program based in Madison County. He said they try to keep the cost per player as low as possible, but there are expenses involved. Teams pay to enter tournaments and Lewis estimates those run anywhere from $400 to $1,000, depending on the size. Then there’s the cost to use a gym for practice, equipment and insurance. It adds up.
Fundraising is one way SQBA, and many grassroots teams, help cover the costs. Each player in Lewis’s organization has a goal amount to raise, but if they fall short that money has to come from the players’ families. SQBA does the typical fundraisers, holding car washes, raffles and bake sales as well as asking for donations.
A lot of weekends when the teams aren’t playing in a tournament the players and coaches are hustling to raise money for those tournaments.
“We have to grind to be able to get out here and travel and get out to places where these kids can be seen,” said Lewis.
Former Robert E. Lee High girls coach Jeremy Hartman has a son in middle school that is starting to attract attention for his basketball play. He’s had offers to play for travel teams outside of the area, but Hartman isn’t ready to drive four hours for practice twice a week for a seventh grader.
For now, Hartman believes he can teach him the skills he needs. Plus, his son plays for the local Staunton Heat program that Hartman coaches.
“We don’t go far,” said Hartman. “You’re putting a burden on parents and you’re putting a burden on kids to do fundraising.”
In addition to the cost of playing, there are other questions parents and players need to ask when considering which program to join.
“You want to make sure their style of play fits your style, that they’re going to help you develop,” said Tayler Dodson, a rising junior on the George Mason basketball team and former Spotswood High School star. “You want them to be honest with you so ask them where they see you playing in college and what position they see you playing.”
Devon Byrd, who will be a junior at Christopher Newport University this fall, thinks it’s important to find out what tournaments the teams will enter.
“If you play in the small local tournaments chances are you won’t get looked at by many coaches,” said the former Fort Defiance player. “Going to the big exposure tournaments you have all types of division coaches looking at you.”
And what exactly are those coaches looking for?
On the road
Like most college coaches at this time of the year, Bryant Stith is living out of a suitcase as he travels from one basketball tournament to another.
The first full week of July found the Old Dominion men’s basketball assistant in a pair of South Carolina cities — Spartanburg and North Augusta — before he headed for Kansas City, Missouri. This past week it was Suwanee, Georgia, and Dallas.
Stith, the all-time leading scorer for the University of Virginia, said seeing players in person is a must because he can find out things that he just can’t from watching film.
“It allows you to see things besides their playing ability,” said Stith. “Is (a player) coachable? How is he with his teammates? What is the reaction when he makes a good play? What is his reaction when he faces adversity? It gives you a more comprehensive view of the prospect.”
Coaches aren’t just looking for the player who scores the most points or makes the most spectacular dunk. Coaches are looking at players on both the court and the bench. The intangibles — the things Stith mentioned — are sometimes more important than the highlight-reel plays.
Bridgewater College women’s coach Jean Willi knows most of the players can score and play defense. What else is she looking for?
“Are they still into the game (when they’re on the bench),” said Willi. “Are they encouraging their teammates when a teammate comes off the floor? Do they say anything when the coach takes them out? Do they go down to the end of the bench and look at their parents like, ‘OK, here I am?’ ”
It’s all things that players need to be aware of when playing in the summer. Playing for a travel team has become crucial for exposure to college coaches, but Hartman wants players to understand there are other options.
“We’re at the digital age now with Vine, Snapchat and Twitter that, if you can play, they’ll find you,” said Hartman.
He said players should take advantage of self-promotional avenues and attend basketball camps. Those can attract attention from coaches as well.
“It helps,” Hartman said of grassroots basketball, “but I don’t necessarily think that it’s the be-all, end-all.”