Athletes going private could drain high school sports
YORK, Pa. (AP) — Seth Janney was on course to become one of the top athletes in South Western High history.
He was a standout defensive end in football and one of the top wrestlers in the state. He was an honor roll student. He grew up in the district with lifelong friends, teachers and coaches.
But he believed there was something better.
Like transferring to private Malvern Prep near Philadelphia, with its high-powered facilities and coaching. The move was not only to boost his athletic exposure but to prepare him better for college.
So he left South Western before his junior year, becoming another example of a growing trend in York County and across the nation: student-athletes bypassing their public school teams — sometimes leaving their districts altogether — for the hope of greater opportunities.
They are going to private schools, academies or playing for exclusive club teams, options rarely chosen even a decade ago. It’s led local coaches and administrators to wonder if it will become increasingly rare to see the area’s best athletes develop for their home schools.
Some in the YAIAA are worried about even more. That the trend of athletes drifting away will exacerbate the strain on finding and keeping quality coaches and officials. Meanwhile, increased specialization in sports continues to shrink teams.
State and national officials say they are concerned by the trend but aren’t sure of a remedy. They talk of trying to educate athletes and parents better.
“Will high school sports be around in 10 to 15 years?” asked Roger Czerwinski, the former PIAA title-winning baseball coach at West York. He’s now the athletic director at Manheim Township High in Lancaster County.
“My daughter is in the sixth grade and I’m praying to goodness that she has the same opportunities my son has to compete in high school sports.”
. . .
Janney did not hesitate to say why he left York County:
He did it for athletics.
At South Western, he was dominating in arguably the toughest high school wrestling postseason in the country. He won a district title and was a PIAA runner-up at 220 pounds as a sophomore.
Still, he believed Malvern could push him harder. He talked of wrestling daily with better practice partners as part of a nationally-ranked prep team — teammates now headed to the University of North Carolina and national champ Penn State. His transfer allowed him to wrestle in more top national tournaments. And Malvern Prep’s facilities, including training and weightlifting rooms, are more expansive than at South Western and other local high schools.
He believes this all helped him win two prep national titles — then earn a spot at Ivy League Cornell University, where he’s a freshman.
“I feel those kind of programs (like Malvern) attract a lot more college coaches. Most coaches are better paid because those schools bring in more money, so they’re coaching at a higher level,” Janney said. “It’s just a really good shot at getting noticed and recruited. They can make a few calls and put you on the map.”
His parents say they backed his decision to the point of buying a townhouse near Malvern to live with him. Scholarships and financial aid help defer the yearly cost of these schools — sometimes more than $30,000 a year — but rarely all of it.
“If a kid can do it, and private schools want them, it opens so many doors,” said father John Janney. “Seth made a lot of friends who, in the future, could be business acquaintances. A lot of high-end kids. Kind of like the Ivy League of high schools.
“He never would have talked to Stanford or Northwestern without Malvern.”
These transfers and defections are happening more often in most every sport, from swimming, soccer and lacrosse to basketball, football and baseball.
Athletes are readily searching — and being recruited — for promises of better competition, exposure and, ultimately, a greater chance to land a college scholarship. To do this, they travel to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and beyond, sometimes commuting daily.
But is what they’re gaining greater than what they’re giving up?
Only about 2 percent of high school athletes earn some form of athletic scholarship to play in college, according to the NCAA.
The certainty is that money-making clubs and academies promise what most public schools cannot: college-level facilities, higher-paid coaches, smaller class sizes and a training emphasis on the sport of their choice.
The McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md. is less than an hour from York County and boasts stunning facilities, including an aquatics center — with an eight-lane, 50-meter pool — a 5,000-seat stadium with lights, 21 tennis courts, 18 fields, and a 400-meter track.
It even has an equestrian center.
“Most colleges would be envious of our facilities,” said longtime head football coach Dom Damico.
Despite the ever-increasing pursuit of college scholarships — parents are now sending Damico videos of their fifth- and sixth-graders playing football — the benefits of private schools like McDonogh run deeper than sports.
Damico starts with the power of McDonogh’s alumni network and tradition, its $80 million endowment and a student-teacher ratio of 9 to 1. The performance arts center on campus features two theaters.
“Some of our students from Baltimore City, we’re really changing the quality of their life with education and the opportunity to get out of a bad environment,” Damico said. “Hopefully, change their lives as the first kids in their family to go to college.”
McDonogh’s recruiting pull also is strong enough 40 minutes away in York County. Eastern York’s Dalton Hengst, a national-caliber runner, attended McDonogh before leaving abruptly this winter. Sophomore Jackson Bonitz, a former Susquehannock student, plays lacrosse, football and wrestles at McDonogh.
Seth Janney wasn’t much different going to Malvern. In the end, he said it was more of a business decision, the benefits outweighing what he missed of the community sports feel at South Western.
“That’s what me and my Dad talked about: You make a little sacrifice and you’ll be better in the long run.”
. . .
West York’s Alex Shinsky was arguably the top soccer recruit in the nation.
He credits a mix of public and private academy schooling for his development.
He sandwiched the beginning and end of his high school career at West York with a two-year stint at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. There, as part of the United States’ under-17 team, he trained at possibly the nation’s highest-end athletic proving ground.
However, he said staying at IMG would have been too expensive after his two-year run on the national team. IMG costs more than $75,000 per year without financial aide.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Shinsky said about leaving for Florida as a high school sophomore. “For me, I didn’t put the connection together that I’d be living alone for two years ... We were alone 80 percent of the day, so you have to grow up quite a bit and mature.
“It gave me a great perspective on the sacrifices you need to make in life to do what I wanted to do. It was a huge step for me.”
And yet he said he’s also fortunate to not have missed playing for his home high school. He would have regretted bypassing the social and community aspect of playing with the Bulldog teammates he grew up with.
In 2011, Shinsky turned this varied high school career into a scholarship to the University of Maryland as the nation’s top recruit by TopDrawerSoccer.com.
He was drafted by Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire, but injuries ended his pro career after a couple of years and he turned to coaching.
He’s now a 24-year-old assistant at West Point.
He talked about the double edge of the growing academy soccer movement — elite teams that do not allow their players to participate in varsity soccer. The intense regimen of playing for these and other traveling clubs has helped produce more college soccer players from the YAIAA, area coaches said.
Former York College soccer coach Mark Ludwig agrees. He runs PA Classics, one of three soccer academies in Pennsylvania. (The others are based in the Philadelphia and Downingtown areas).
But that also means about 120 of the top soccer players in the state are not playing for their high school teams.
The transfers and defections seem more numerous in sports such as soccer and lacrosse, particularly to private schools in Maryland. That’s an easier route for those in school districts along the Mason-Dixon Line like South Western, Susquehannock and Kennard-Dale.
But this movement is most noticeable in the spectator sports of basketball and football, where entire communities rally around the success of teams. The stories are well-worn about fans standing in lines for hours to get playoff tickets and then loading up buses and car caravans to follow their teams across the state.
Some of these successes have struck like comets, passing through once-in-a-generation. Often, these teams were led by star players who were recruited to leave for more prestigious destinations but ultimately stayed — from Susquehannock’s Bryan Palmer in the early-1980s to Kennard-Dale’s Adam Miller a decade later, to more recently, Eastern’s Andrew Nicholas and Spring Grove’s Eli Brooks.
But will those type of game-changers stay in years to come?
At Susquehannock, 6-foot-4 Jarace Walker, regarded as one of the top eighth-grade basketball players in the nation, plans to attend high school at the IMG Academy. The school, which began as a tennis destination, dived into big basketball business only in the past 15 years, football even more recently.
Here’s a sign of what could have been: Jarace led the Warriors’ freshman team through an 18-0 season this winter, culminating with a junior high tournament title at the Spooky Nook Sports complex in Manheim.
Jarace Walker, an 8th grader at Southern Middle School is quickly becoming a recognized face in the YAIAA basketball world. Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record
Meanwhile, PIAA officials are hearing distress calls from some schools — but don’t have answers, said Melissa Mertz, associate executive director. Their waters are also being muddied by the increasing debates over transfer eligibility and public vs. private school competition.
“It is frustrating for us. We feel the education aspect we offer in sports far exceeds anything in say, AAU. It’s definitely a national issue,” Mertz said.
It’s also a difficult trend to monitor, said Bruce Howard, communications director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, based in Indianapolis. Officials there are in the midst of doing their first fan attendance survey in seven years to gauge any shifts in interest.
He said athletic participation numbers have gone up for 28 straight years.
Leaving for an elite academy “works for some people, and that’s OK,” Howard said. “But other people get caught up in it and don’t realize, just because you play on a travel team or play just one sport, it doesn’t always work out.”
Longtime Central York athletic director Marty Trimmer said he’s concerned about even more. Such as the viability of some high school sports if the top players keep leaving.
“I don’t want to see us go to a world model where there’s no high school athletics. I just think the high school experience isn’t necessarily about winning. It’s about developing the student-athlete, to be the best person they can be in every other aspect of their life,” Trimmer said.
“I don’t think that’s what club programs, that’s what their end goal is, the building and character of the person. It’s about money. Those people are making money ...”
He’s unsure how public schools can continue to hold onto their athletes, especially their best ones. A decade ago, Susquehannock kept four-sport Chaz Powell, who went on to a standout football career at Penn State. But soon after, Abbott said he began noticing athletes leaving frequently.
Three standout, multi-sport athletes left Susquehannock at once for private schools in Maryland a few years ago — to Boys Latin, Calvert Hall and Gilman. The loss made a significant impact in lacrosse and football, where the Warriors have battled number problems for years.
Academies and club teams “tell kids everything they want to hear, and in high school, we can’t do that,” Abbott said.
“You hear it’s about exposure, that ‘We’re going to travel up and down the East Coast. You’re going to get exposed to a lot of college coaches.’ But in high school, if you’re good enough, they’re going to find you. All this exposure and all this travel, I just don’t see an end to it.”
The demands and exclusivity of growing club, AAU and academy programs “are killing” high school sports beyond simply driving away elite athletes. They are turning more athletes into one-sport specialists, said Ron Miller, who recently took over the Dallastown football program after years of leading West York
“I don’t see Tim Tebow coaching those kids. I just see people making a lot of money. I’m ready to go to war with every one of them,” he said of those running clubs and academies. “Something needs to be done on the state level and the PIAA. What these people are doing is wrong — until they prove to me they’re giving kids more than just the opportunity to play lacrosse all year round.”
And yet others see this as a natural evolution of athletics in a changing society. One in which families have become accustomed to driving their children from state to state and paying hundreds, even thousands of dollars, just to play on mid-level club teams.
At Kennard-Dale, which borders the Maryland line, there has not been much impact from athletes leaving, said athletic director Gary McChalicher. Chance Marsteller, one of the most successful high school wrestlers in PIAA history, stayed home.
However, Tiffani McNellis, one of the better female wrestlers in the state and beyond, left for the Wyoming Seminary boarding school in Kingston, Pa. last summer.
“Sometimes people think this is threatening the traditional scope of athletics, and maybe it does. But I think we need to evolve with the times and focus on building programs,” McChalicher said.
“We need to recruit our own kids. We need to make sure kids feel comfortable in our program and fit our program.”
Public schools with tight budgets and rising taxes may have to find ways to do more for their students. McDonogh’s lacrosse team spent the second week in March on a training trip in Delray Beach, Florida.
″(Public) schools have got to figure this out,” said Toby Bonitz, Jackson’s father. He played football at Susquehannock in the mid-1980s and then coached there.
“They have to get smarter and work harder and create a culture and program where kids have to think twice about leaving. Right now, I don’t think they are.”
For the most part, a school such as Northeastern has thrived in keeping their athletes at home to fuel long-term success in boys’ volleyball and baseball. And yet even its stunning run to the PIAA semifinals in boys’ basketball in 2016-17 was not immune to the trend.
The Bobcats missed two potential standout players who transferred and starred for private York Country Day and Trinity. The Bobcats’ glorious run ended abruptly after they simply tired and lost their legs.
Coach Jon Eyster, though, said there’s no point in dwelling on who will stay or leave. He’s accepted the increasing capricious nature of athletes and their families.
He also understands the differing sides of Jarace Walker leaving for IMG and Eli Brooks staying to lead a basketball success never seen at Spring Grove.
Brooks still earned a scholarship to Michigan and started at point guard for the first half of his true freshman college season.
IMG will “personalize things for (Jarace) much better (than in a public high school),” Eyster said. “Will his basketball improve there? Yes it will. Just because of the amount of training he will get. Basically, he’s going to a basketball factory.
“Eli, his game improved in different ways (staying at Spring Grove). He was able to make other players better. Eli was a lot like a coach on the floor. He may not have been able to do that at a basketball academy, not have as much impact on his teammates.
“There’s something to be said for a great player making his teammates better, to be able to learn how to do that,” Eyster said.
. . .
Andrew Nicholas had his chances to leave Eastern York for academies and private schools.
But the YAIAA’s all-time leading boys’ scorer said he never seriously considered it.
He knows not everyone will cherish his reasoning.
“I grew up with all my teammates in high school, knew all those kids since first and second grade. To win a district championship for our high school, they’re memories you never replace.”
Mostly, he’s concerned for the strength of the YAIAA moving forward. He sees a shift since he left high school and he’s not sure how it will change for the better. Nicholas, 24, is a volunteer assistant with the Eastern York girls’ team.
“It’s lowered the competition level immensely. It’s dropped off, in my opinion,” Nicholas said. “You don’t fill the stands anymore.”
Eastern York athletic director Don Knaub relates well to what Nicholson is talking about. He was a starter on back-to-back District 3 title-winning basketball teams at Eastern in the late-1980s.
As he sees more athletes leaving the district he still lives in, he tries to promote the value of what he carries with him from 30 years ago.
That just may not ever be enough anymore.
Not even the thought of fans lining the streets to greet them after winning a title.
“I could have never left Eastern York to play for another school unless I was forced to,” Knaub said. “That’s just me. I don’t know if I could wear somebody else’s colors. I still live in the community. I still see some of those fans who supported me, saying, “I remember when you did this ...′
“You feel a sense of you don’t want to let people down, let the community down. You don’t want to let your school down.”
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com