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Varsity Blues: Alternatives to the high school game abound

There was some blood on his T-shirt — no one’s quite sure whose it was — and little time to worry about modesty. Tyree St. Louis didn’t want to miss a single repetition at the combine, so he quickly found a new shirt and slipped off the old one.

In front of everyone.

This was a big deal only to his uncle, Michael Brown, who observed the more subtle changes over the past few months that made St. Louis comfortable with the idea of being shirtless in front of hundreds of people.

“Before, he was Baby Fat Central,” Brown said. “But he had so much confidence in taking off his shirt in front of everyone, like, ‘I’ve been lifting weights and eating right.’

“Now he looks like he’s ready to go in the boxing ring.”

St. Louis’ transformation has come a long way from home and his former high school, Tampa Bay Tech. Instead, the junior offensive lineman took his formerly soft 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame and untapped potential to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, possibly portending the sort of shift in football that has been happening with the country-club sports — tennis, golf, swimming — for several decades.

More top high school-aged athletes and their parents are shifting their approach to games, specializing in sports at earlier ages, pursuing competition through travel teams and offseason leagues and consulting with private trainers and instructors.

The end game? Improved chances for college scholarships and, for the truly elite, a shot at a professional career.

But the increasing influence of club and summer teams — more specialization, fewer multi-sport athletes — and the year-round sports cycle for teenage athletes have, in the eyes of many, diminished the importance of the high school sports season.

The building tension centers on which model does — and will — best serve the interests of the kids.

“I’m very concerned that in five years from now, our better student-athletes will be playing travel and not have time for high schools and won’t play high school,” said Phil Bell, athletic director for the Pasco County school district. “And that high school experience will be gone. I think we’re starting to see that. … I’m very concerned that the high school version of athletics is going to look like a community sports program.”

High school or club?
More and more of the area’s best teenage athletes never even compete for their high schools in golf, tennis and swimming. In basketball, baseball and volleyball, the summer all-star games and out-of-town showcases are as important to the college evaluation process as a district championship game.

Soccer has already seen a shift toward club over high school. Boys programs with developmental academies, like the Clearwater Chargers and IMG, force players to choose between club or high school soccer after expanding their schedules from seven months to 10.

Even in usually resistant-to-change football, 7-on-7 competitions, college football camps and combines have become increasingly critical to the next-level aspirations of athletes.

“I personally put more emphasis on club season because it’s where all the recruiting happens,” said Berkeley Prep senior Sidney Brown, the reigning Tampa Bay Times’ all-Suncoast Volleyball Player of the Year and a recent Stanford commit. “For more sports, club is more important. If you just play high school ball, you’re probably not playing in college.”

That shift has created the sort of environment where St. Louis, who played only one season of varsity football at TBT, left behind his old friends for professional-level training at a school once famous for churning out tennis prodigies.

His uncle, a former offensive lineman at Hillsborough High and Savannah State, heard about IMG’s fledgling high school football program, which is led by former Heisman Trophy winner and Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke, from some family friends.

Brown researched the program online, started the application process, then set about convincing St. Louis’ mother and other family members about the importance of the opportunity.

Many of the same coaches and staffers at IMG who work with aspiring NFL draft picks will work with the high school football team, according to the program’s website.

Brown thought St. Louis, who didn’t play organized sports until trying out for TBT’s football team as a freshman, needed that sort of aggressive training program to make the most of his potential.

“Tyree didn’t have the tools in place (in Tampa) for what he needed,” said Brown, who said the family has to pay some of the associated costs (which can exceed $66,000 for a given sport) but didn’t go into further detail. “It’s an investment. I just know that what he’s got there he wouldn’t have gotten here.”

In only a few months since transferring to IMG, St. Louis has packed on nearly 20 pounds of muscle and picked up four of his five college scholarship offers from larger Division-I schools — USF, Kentucky, Louisville and Tennessee. He did have an Arkansas State offer while at TBT.

Of course, not everyone is as pleased with the launch of IMG’s football team.

East Lake football coach Bob Hudson has told IMG he will no longer send his players to camps or clinics there; several coaches in Manatee County have said they will not put IMG on their schedule; and many others have expressed fears about losing their players to the program.

At least one other bay area player, former Palm Harbor University receiver Shane Dixon, has transferred to IMG in recent months.

It could be argued the shift in youth sports got its start at IMG in 1978, when tennis guru Nick Bollettieri started his first academy in the gulf-side resort town. IMG bought the academy in 1987, adding golf and eventually other sports to its curriculum.

Around the same time, and ever since, summer travel teams and showcase events in basketball and baseball gained popularity with young athletes and their parents. Though costly and time-consuming, many have come to believe the events offer more exposure and competition, if not better instruction, than high school competition.

“I’ve been very unimpressed with how little some high school coaches know about the recruiting process and NCAA rules,” said Rob Walker, founder of the East Tampa Thunder travel basketball program. “We’re trying to change the culture of Tampa basketball and we hope our kids take it back out to their high schools.”

One-sport wonders
Colleges have added to the appeal of travel teams and leagues, restructuring their recruiting calendars to put an emphasis over big all-star or “elite” events rather than traditional high school ball.

That’s been a concern repeatedly echoed throughout bay area schools. High school coaches and administrators increasingly fret  about the influence of travel and club ball, which has been blamed for everything from rampant transferring to the overuse and burnout of athletes to an overall lack of respect for the school game.

“I think more kids think that (travel ball) is a natural progression for them to be college players,” said Tampa Prep boys basketball coach Joe Fenlon. “There are kids who play for the next level and don’t play for the name that’s on the front of their jersey.”

Many high school coaches and administrators say travel and club coaches overstate the likelihood of players securing a scholarship.

“The problem is AAU coaches build these kids up so much now that just about all of them think they’re getting a Division-I scholarship,” Largo boys basketball coach Phil Price said. “That’s just not true. It’s such a small percentage that are at that level.”

Additionally, the push for a full ride has meant the steady decrease of multi-sport athletes in high school. That’s created something of a year-round cycle, forcing kids to drop other sports to focus on one.

In baseball, for example, some coaches have talked about star pitchers who were discouraged from throwing in their senior season so as not to overuse their arms and ruin their college or even professional aspirations.

“The summer ball stuff has gotten so big it can almost be too much,” said Tampa Jesuit baseball coach Richie Warren. “And at certain high schools you see it …the top kids don’t play at their high schools. That kind of stuff would be terrible for the area.”

Dan Gould, a Michigan State professor and the director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, says specialization leads to overuse injuries — pitch counts get too high, players use the same muscles and hurt them.

In fact, Gould said, playing multiple sports can help. Playing soccer can make footwork better for a basketball player, for example.  Further, Gould has data showing that most professional athletes didn’t specialize in one sport until they were 15 or 16, or even later.

Others say there’s no real conflict, noting travel teams in most sports — with the notable exception of soccer — don’t have competing schedules with high school teams.

Robinson volleyball coach Christen Garcia, who got her start coaching locally with the Tampa Bay One club team, said the different seasons can actually help with the development of players.

“People want club coaches …they know the quality of club coaches,” Garcia said. Club volleyball ”really did shape the game locally. There’s so much more competition now. The girls are starting at a younger age, going back to their high schools and contributing to success of those schools.”

The last frontier in Florida has been football, which only recently has adopted some of the characteristics of other sports with all-star 7-on-7 teams, including national champion Team Tampa.

It’s only a matter of time, some say, before football becomes like every other sport.

“Mark my words,” said Tarpon Springs football coach Ron Hawn. “Sometime in the near future, we are going to have middle school 7-on-7 tournaments. Football is on the fast-track to becoming what basketball is with AAU.”

That near future is already here.

Last month, Team Change Factor out of Orlando beat the North Broward All-Stars 22-11 at the IMG Academy Future Stars 7v7 tournament for players in grades 6-8.

Illustration by the Times’ Cameron Cottrill.

Staff writers Matt Baker, Bob Putnam, John C. Cotey and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at janderson@tampabay.com or on Twitter @jdhometeam.

What they’re saying
“You cannot fight AAU and exposure. You have to adapt to it, because it’s here. … I  just think when you have so many more opportunities and so many more ways that kids participate in athletics, I think it takes something away from the high school experience and the season.” — Mike Quarto, former Gulf girls basketball coach

“We’re all so much year-round now. I mean, there’s AAU track now, there are spring wrestling clubs. …And we’re just as guilty, with 7-on-7 now all summer. … You’re almost making kids choose.” — Brian Emanuel, Alonso football coach

“I don’t think kids participate and get the full gamut of what high school is about. I think that comes from this ‘Going to college, going to college, going to college,’ and that’s not all bad. … At Chamberlain, we don’t have that many female athletes, so we have to share, and I think we have a chance to taste everything.” — Bob Diez, Chamberlain softball coach

 “The purity of sports is long gone, it really is. It’s hard to find purity in sports anymore. Along those lines, and it’s one of my big mantras that I’ve always had as Berkeley AD is, multi-sport participation. And specialization is just taking over. And I think kids are just losing out on so many opportunities to play various sports because at an early age they’re being told, ‘If you want to go to the next level, you have to specialize’ and nothing could be farther from the truth.” — Bobby Reinhart, Berkeley Prep athletic director/boys basketball coach

“The days of athletes being seasonal are long gone. …You only get four years to play high school ball. That’s it. You only get four years. Are you gonna look back, six or seven years down the road and wish you had done something different?” — Shelton Crews, Executive Director of Florida Athletic Coaches Association

About this series
Almost any high school coach around — and we’ve interviewed dozens lately — will agree some thorns have sprouted at the grassroots level. As the millennium continues to blossom, prep sports are evolving in some areas but regressing in others. Media coverage surges even as parental patience dissipates. Club and AAU teams, as well as specialization, are complementing some sports while killing others. And amid it all, coaches still earn only a few dimes an hour for their toil. Our five-part Varsity Blues series examines the biggest problems in 21st century prep sports and what solutions — if any — can be forged.

Catch up on earlier parts of the series here.

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