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Recruiting series: Exposure, athlete initiative remain important in catching colleges’ attention

Former Silver Creek quarterback Austin Apodaca said he made some of his biggest recruiting headway attending summer football camps before landing a scholarship offer from Washington State.
Joshua Buck/Times-Call
Former Silver Creek quarterback Austin Apodaca said he made some of his biggest recruiting headway attending summer football camps before landing a scholarship offer from Washington State.

Editor’s note:

Coming Thursday: Today’s story on the importance of exposure to college coaches is the second in a three-part series on prep athletes looking to compete in college.

June 17: Reality bites when it comes to earning athletic scholarships, but the rewards are great.

Coming June 24: The good, the bad and the ugly of recruiting from athletes’, parents’ and coaches’ perspectives.


Shane O’Neill’s dynamic style on the pitch has always attracted attention. But it was one performance in particular that laid out the Fairview star’s future.

The Knights’ all-time leader in goals, assists and points played lights out at High School All-American Soccer Game in December. His evening in Birmingham, Ala., not only earned him MVP, but also played a big role in O’Neill earning a full ride to college.

“(The University of) Virginia came out to watch the game and everything else really just took off from there,” said O’Neill, who over the weekend opted to pass on playing for the Cavaliers, instead signing a three-year deal to play professionally for the Colorado Rapids.

Serendipity certainly plays a role in the recruiting process, whether for a club superstar or run-of-the-mill high school athlete. But even the most skilled and luckiest athletes have to put in the work and learn the process to succeed at the recruiting game.

Typically the time and effort are focused on one main facet of recruiting — exposure. And while the system has grown more complex, with more avenues for an athlete to pursue, recruiting has remained remarkably the same as decades ago.

Even with all the bells and whistles of social media, video and the Internet, the deciding factor for college coaches comes down to live-action performance. And while the powers that be want to see big plays in clutch circumstances, they are not only evaluating how well athletes execute the Xs and Os.

When Drew Pariano hits an event, such as the Junior and Cadet National Championships in Fargo, N.D., he has more than takedowns on his mind. The Northwestern University wrestling coach is looking for certain traits in a potential recruit that will tell him if that athlete has the stuff for his program.

Does a wrestler throw his headgear after a loss? Does he still look hungry after winning a huge match? In short, does he have the character Pariano is seeking in the next Wildcat?

“So many kids are successful, but don’t have the desire to make it at the next level,” Pariano said. “That’s a lot of what I’m looking for, because if a kid won’t evolve at college, he’s not going to be successful.”

Much of the need for college coaches to be so discerning in picking athletes is because most sports have limited scholarship budgets. One wrong move and limited resources can go down the drain.

In some respects, that is why club sports have grown so steeply in recent years. Clubs barnstorm the nation, giving college coaches easy access to scores of athletes. And such tours typically involve multiple days and games, giving coaches a solid read on potential recruits.

Exposure is far from the only thing club sports provide athletes — much of what clubs offer is a network, allowing athletes to build contacts at the college level. But the organizations also show athletes the ins and outs of how recruiting works.

Emma Lazaroff’s lacrosse club, Team 180, is a good example.

“Every year, the girls that move on to the college level come back and talk to the new girls about the process,” said the Centaurus star who committed to Duke University. “When I went through it, they gave us the timelines of the process, how to put together a resume and gave us an idea of when we could contact coaches and when they could contact us.”

Recruiting also is a process many club athletes become involved in at earlier and earlier stages of their careers. A decade or two ago, college recruiting was strictly something high school athletes were concerned about. Now it has now bled over into middle school.

“I started making contact with colleges when I was in eighth grade,” said Kailey Edwards, Legacy’s star guard who committed to the University of Denver. “It was mainly filling out college recruiting forms and letting the coaches know what tournaments I planned to play in.”

Clubs athletics have drawn criticism. Some high school coaches have voiced concern about the organizations being too focused on college scholarships and not building team-focused athletes. But for many athletes and their families, the time and money spent on the organizations are good investments, even though some can run into the thousands of dollars depending on the level at which an athlete plays and a team’s travel itinerary.

With the National Federation of High School Activities Associations estimating there were about 7.6 million high school athletes in America in 2010, any way to stand out from the crowd is worthwhile.

“So many kids get lost in the mix now,” said Edwards’ father, Corey. “A 5-foot-9 guard like Kailey, on paper, is a dime a dozen. She had to do something to stand out.”

Athletes playing strictly for their high school teams are not left out in the cold when it comes to college recruiting.

Football, which has no club counterpart, relies on college camps in the summer for much of its national exposure. It was in summer camps that Silver Creek’s Austin Apodaca sowed the seeds of a roster spot at Washington State University.

But there is also a place for those athletes who limit their playing strictly to high school and don’t attend national events. Only their task is typically doubled.

Being proactive in the recruiting process comes with the turf, no matter the sport or level at which an athlete plays. But it is especially true with strictly high school athletes, given they have geographical limitations. In most cases, local colleges are the teams most likely to give those athletes a look. But that does not mean such athletes miss their shots at the big time, as Marc Cowell’s most recent Division-I athlete, Josh Tinnon, proves.

“He showed a lot of maturity in making it to the University of Northern Colorado,” the Holy Family baseball coach said. “He took the initiative and contacted them first and kept up with them.”

The athletic recruiting process is long, taxing and rewarding. It is a chase after a dream most athletes have had since they were young. But the dream can be a nightmare sometimes.

Perhaps the biggest hurdles to finding a spot on a college roster are the athletes themselves, or more precisely their egos.

“There is a thin line between a Division I and II athlete,” Silver Creek football coach Mike Apodaca said. “It could be being 2 inches too short, 20 pounds too light or two-tenths of a second too slow.”

Apodaca advises his players to remain open throughout the process and keep every level of competition open. Colorado State University-Pueblo football coach John Wristen echoed that sentiment.

“Athletes need to be humble in the process,” the Thunderwolves coach said. “They are who they are, and if they are a Division-I guy or not, it’s not up for them to decide.”

Follow Woody on Twitter: @ElwoodKShelton