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More prep athletes choosing club sports over schools

Leanne Mueller has precious memories of playing varsity soccer at Hoffman Estates High School in the 1980s: the cheers of classmates from the bleachers, bonding with teammates on long bus rides, clipping articles from the local paper about the team’s big wins.

But when her 16-year-old son decided three years ago to not even try out for the Schaumburg High School soccer team, she realized how times have changed. A standout who began playing club soccer in grade school, Christopher Mueller told his parents he thought he would get more out of year-round participation at Sockers FC Chicago, an elite soccer academy in Schaumburg.

And this summer, before his senior year started, Christopher accepted a scholarship to play soccer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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“I can’t say I’ve never had any thoughts that, ‘Gosh, I wish he would have had some experiences wearing the jersey down the hallway and having all the kids know who you are,'” said Mueller, 42.

“But it’s a half a dozen of one versus a half a dozen of the other. … In the end, I don’t have to pay for college, and my son is going to get a great education.”

Welcome to the reality for today’s high school-age athletes.

In an era when children begin playing sports as toddlers, join traveling teams by middle school and choose from an explosion of youth sports clubs offered throughout the Chicago area, many high school sports teams — especially soccer, volleyball, gymnastics and tennis — are far from the only option for teen athletes.

And with more and more clubs moving to year-round seasons, students and parents, often motivated by college scholarship desires, say they are being forced to make tough decisions about whether to get involved in high school sports at all.

Proponents of elite club sports contend that, for the area’s top athletes, their organizations offer training, competition and attention from college recruiters they may not get otherwise. In fact, last year U.S. Soccer mandated that players on its 80 affiliated academies not play high school soccer.

“We are looking at the elite player who’s committed to reaching the highest level,” said Neil Buethe, spokesman for U.S. Soccer, which oversees three academies in the Chicago area that operate on a 10-month-per-year schedule.

The situation frustrates many high school coaches and athletic directors, who dispute the claim that college recruiters will not find stellar athletes still playing on school teams. Some high school officials question the motivation of outside clubs that are in the business of making money.

Still others argue that high school athletics can offer lessons and experiences that go beyond sports.

“For the vast majority of kids, high school athletics is an experience we should not be missing,” said Jim Konrad, athletic director at Naperville North High School. “It pains me that our kids are being forced to choose.”

Decades ago, the dilemma of club versus school sports did not exist. The Illinois High School Association, which governs and regulates high school sports, expressly prohibited high school athletes from playing on nonschool teams during the school year. In turn, there were few outside sports clubs trying to recruit teen athletes, said Jim Flynn, who served as the IHSA’s assistant executive director for 32 years, beginning in the 1970s.

Just before the 1982-83 school year, the IHSA relaxed its rule, responding to parents’ complaints. From then on, high school athletes were allowed to play on outside teams in their offseasons, Flynn said.

In the years that followed, the number of sports opportunities available to young athletes tripled in the Chicago area, from park district travel teams to private clubs.

Sports such as baseball, basketball and football, which were already heavily represented at schools and in community recreational programs, continued to attract top players for school teams — and still do today.

Meanwhile, clubs for other sports, which were not as commonly offered, saw particular growth, said Jason Sacks, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance Chicago, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing youths and high school athletes a positive sports experience.

And with that growth came new attitudes from both parents and youths about sports participation, Sacks said.

“The focus has really shifted from, ‘Hey, let’s go out and have fun and play sports’ to ‘Who is the best player out there, are they going to get a scholarship?'” Sacks said.

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