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Specialization in youth sports part one: DeKalb’s Newport excels in volleyball, softball

Published: Monday, Sept. 9, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Monica Maschak – mmaschak@shawmedia.com)
Sophomore Morgan Newport sets for the DeKalb varsity volleyball team and pitches for the varsity softball team.

Her pencil may have shaken with every bump in the road, but Morgan Newport had little choice – the then-freshman starting pitcher had to do her homework on the bus to and from DeKalb softball games last year. Otherwise, her ability to play club volleyball may have been compromised.

Newport had already begun the process of whittling down sports, making the tough decision not to play basketball in high school, but her weeks were still packed with practices, camps and games.

When her sophomore year began this fall, she once again began her double life as an athlete. During the week, Newport dedicates herself to being a setter for the DeKalb volleyball team, but on weekends, she’s busy practicing and playing in college showcases for the Wasco Diamonds softball team.

For now, her two sports fit together nicely, and she’s able to remain a member of the ever-dwindling club of multi-sport athletes.

“I think it is a good test, because there’s a lot of different things that could happen,” Newport said. “I really like volleyball and I really hope to continue it, but we’ll see.”

When Newport’s junior year rolls around and college recruiting heats up, she may have to make the decision that so many of her peers have already made: pick one sport or risk falling behind.

Over the last few decades, it has become commonplace for college coaches to recruit freshmen and sophomores, which makes college exposure during those years imperative. The wide availability of club sports and off-season training has made it ever-easier for kids to pick one sport and work on their game year-round while the watchful eyes of recruiters look on. The situation has forced kids who have a passion for multiple sports into a bind.

“Freshman and sophomore year, unless you are on a Division I radar, I think it’s very possible to play as many sports as you want to play and explore your options and see what you enjoy,” said Kishwaukee College volleyball coach Stephanie Gooden, the former DeKalb High School coach who also has extensive experience coaching club volleyball. “Once you hit your junior and senior year, unfortunately, the way the culture is, you have to start specializing.”

•••

Ray Gooden didn’t have to choose one sport in high school, so he played practically all of them.

Volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, water polo, wrestling, hockey, baseball and football were all on the current Northern Illinois volleyball coach’s schedule at one point or another when he was a student at Evanston High School in the late 1980s. Without the worry of early college recruitment or an unrelenting offseason schedule, he could afford to try everything.

“It had nothing to do with college at all,” said Gooden, who lettered twice in volleyball at Ohio State. “It was a badge of honor to play more sports. It was like, ‘Hey, I’m a three-sport athlete.’ That was the sell. You wanted to be a three-sport athlete.”

But as a college coach, Gooden knows that he’s part of a group of adults that’s making a high school career like his all but impossible.

Outside of football, college coaches rarely identify athletes by watching high school games, so gaining precious exposure during club season is a must for recruits.

“We mostly identify them in their club seasons,” NIU soccer coach John Ross said. “If you go out to a tournament and you can see 100 [club] teams play and 50, 100 players, you can watch them in a weekend. When you go watch a high school team, you’re going to watch 22 players, and time-wise it makes more sense [to watch club teams].”

For coaches at mid-major schools like NIU, snapping up recruits as early as possible is imperative. Recruitment of top prospects begins during an athlete’s freshman year, and if Ross and Gooden don’t procure commitments from top players before they become nationally renowned, their chances dwindle.

“We try to find kids before they start to blossom,” Gooden said. “Once they start to blossom, our chances to snag them up from a Big Ten school is pretty slim. If we can get them early, we’ve got a pretty good chance, you know.”

•••

DeKalb pitcher Katie Kowalski wanted to make sure she emerged as an elite player as early as possible in her high school softball career, so she decided to hang up her basketball shoes before eighth grade.

Instead of playing basketball, she’d work on pitching with a coach for at least a few days every week during the winter. The decision paid off – she was an All-State third-team selection her freshman year before thoracic outlet syndrome slowed her for much of the last two seasons.

She thinks about what might have been during an occasional driveway basketball game with her brothers, but those feelings of nostalgia don’t last long.

“Sometimes I miss it and I’m like, ‘What if I would have stuck with it and played?’” Kowalski said. “But I’m happy with the decision that I made for myself because I think that’s going to get me further. Even if I did play basketball, it wouldn’t be at the competitive level that I play softball.”

Sometimes, chasing a scholarship means not playing a high school sport at all.

Sycamore goalkeeper Drew Moulton decided not to play for the Spartans last season, instead electing to play for her club, Eclipse, during the spring.

Her decision is part of a growing trend in the soccer world, where a player’s junior season is an important time for recruiting. Former Kaneland goalkeeper Jordan Ginther, who will play for Purdue this year, elected to play for her club team instead of Kaneland her sophomore year. She won a national championship with the Naperville Fury, then played for the Knights for the next two years.

If Moulton picks her college before her junior season begins next spring, she may play for the Spartans.

But for now, college exposure is her top priority.

“I think that I want to play with Sycamore either this year or next year,” Moulton said. “But I want to make sure I’m seen by colleges and I get to a college before because I don’t think that a lot of coaches came to a lot of our games, but with Eclipse they were going to lots of showcases and I was being seen by lots of coaches.”

… … …

Wayne King tried to buck the trend of specialization when he created Club Fusion Volleyball in Marengo 14 years ago. King, a former volleyball and track and field coach at Rochelle before moving on to coach volleyball at Kishwaukee, wanted kids to be able to gain exposure at a national level while playing other sports.

“At a younger age, I think sometimes parents look at kids that are 10, 11, 12 years old and they try to determine what their future successful sports are going to be,” King said. “I think that each sport can complement.”

The single-sport trend still seems to have overtaken Club Fusion’s top athletes. While King doesn’t want his coaches telling kids to specialize, the athletes may not always have to be told if they’re serious about earning a scholarship.

On Club Fusion’s top national teams, almost every player specializes late in high school, and King doesn’t necessarily view that as a negative.

“It’s not like back in the 70’s when I was in high school and you played three or four sports because there was nothing else to do,” King said. “There are plenty of other things for these kids to do to draw their attention, so you can take one sport and specialize in it, or the sport that you truly have the biggest passion for, and there are plenty of other activities for you to do.”

DeKalb quarterback Jack Sauter felt himself becoming disenchanted with basketball after his freshman year. In another decade, he may have played basketball to stay in shape for the sport he truly cares about, but off-season training is now widely accessible to football players, even without a club system. During the winter and spring, he went to Don Beebe’s House of Speed in Aurora and Moose(L)Up Redemption Club in Sycamore, when he wasn’t working out at school.

Volleyball Player of the Year Ratasha Garbes didn’t have to think twice about specializing her freshman year. She played for Sports Performance, a top national club in Aurora that mandates that its athletes specialize.

“I’d say that if you want to play in college someday and you want to go to a bigger school and you’re really serious about playing after high school, then I definitely recommend going to a club and specializing in volleyball, I’d say, freshman, sophomore year,” Garbes said.

… … …

In the coming years, Newport will face the decision of whether she’ll try to keep up with athletes who specialize or whether she’ll join them.

For now, she’s able to balance her time between high school volleyball and the Wasco Diamonds, which produces several Division I recruits each year. But playing both sports could be tricky once she enters Wasco’s 18U age group, which also practices during the week. If she sticks with volleyball, her importance to the team will likely increase each year, so missing games may not be an option.

Newport hopes she can balance the two sports she loves, but she knows that in today’s world, that’s not a simple proposition.

“There can be some late nights, but I think you can learn ways to balance,” she said. “I’m just going to see how this year goes, and I’m also taking a lot of honors classes, so I’m going to see, I also need to do well in school … I’ve been thinking about it, but I haven’t really decided.”

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