By Claire Wanzer
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
Picture this: Your name written on a huge digital scoreboard, a red carpet rolled out for you to walk into a giant arena, a room filled with every type of gear you could want - from shoes to shirts to coats - a wooden locker with your name plate on top, and a smiling coach who says, "You are going to be a star here. We will give you everything you want and more."
This description is the epitome of how many people would picture a college recruiting visit. In reality, this image is far from the truth.
At big schools, this may be true. I wouldn't know, because I was never recruited by the UConns, Dukes and Notre Dames of the collegiate sports world. And neither are the majority of potential college athletes.
While college sports are well known and loved in households, few see, and even fewer endure, the stressful, frustrating and, at times, heartbreaking process that brings athletes from their local YMCAs to NCAA National Championships.
Because sports are enjoyed as games, people forget that collegiate athletic programs are businesses. A coach's job, salary and reputation depend solely on the performance of their teenage and early 20-year-old employees. Because the stakes are so high, the pressure to recruit and bring in the best players is crucial.
Budgets, set numbers of scholarships and limited resources within athletic programs create the framework for competition between high school athletes looking to play at the next level. Not every player can go to a big-time school with seemingly unlimited resources. The majority of athletes grind in travel competitions, exposure tournaments, camps and showcases just to be seen by a scout. A smaller number of athletes get interest from colleges, an even smaller number get an offer. Only the smallest number holds multiple offers to choose from.
College coaches will do anything in their power to get the players they think will produce wins, championships and job security. I remember head coach Geno Auriemma was asked how UConn became so dominant in women's basketball. His response was simple: "Because we recruit the best players."
Because recruiting is the backbone of the multimillion-dollar industry that is collegiate athletics, it is treated accordingly: As a true business. Recruiters may use longtime dreams to sell their programs to players they want. The fragility of a high school athlete's collegiate dream, contrasting with sharp numbers of scholarships, is where conflict comes in. Tough deals and tougher decisions are the hard reality behind college sports. Many people don't recognize this behind the flashiness and glamour of game-winners and ESPN highlights.
In high school, this West Coast native was a soccer phenom. She committed to a high-level PAC-12 university in her sophomore year. However, in the middle of her junior year, Akira tore her ACL while playing in a high school soccer game.
After talking to her future college coach, her scholarship was revoked. This left her behind in her recruiting. She had cut ties with all colleges when she committed to the PAC 12 school, so she was forced to start from scratch despite not being able to participate in any games for the next seven months.
"I had to start completely over," Akira said.
When she returned to club competition, Akira quickly received a scholarship from her current university to play soccer and run track, as well. This college was giving her the best deal financially while still allowing her to pursue her dream of playing at the Division I level.
The only issue: "I didn't even visit the school before I came," Akira said.
This proved to be a challenge. She was recruited without ever stepping foot on campus or meeting the team. She never met her future teammates in person or saw the style her new team would play.
After completing her freshman season, Akira decided college soccer wasn't the fit she wanted. Although she stayed at her university, she currently does track solely.
Playing collegiate sports is not restricted to players from the U.S. Players from across the globe compete for scholarships, and are often highly sought-after by college coaches. Because European players may be older than their American peers in their recruiting classes, coaches often look to recruit them for their experience and poise.
Emerald took an extra year in school in her home country, England, to get more exposure and hopefully offers.
"I was stressed because time was running out," she said. "If I didn't get an offer that year, I wouldn't know what I'd do."
With an ocean separating her from potential universities, Emerald had to use online game footage to get noticed and FaceTime coaches to keep in touch. She had less than three opportunities to be seen live by the college coaches, putting the pressure on her performance. The stakes were extremely high in order for her to get a chance to play in the states.
After her final game in a tournament in the U.S., she received an offer from her current college. She took an official visit to the college. Her trip was paid for by the program and it was one of her two Division I offers.
Although Emerald was unsure about coming all the way from her home to a cold, far, foreign country, the full-ride scholarship and chance to continue playing made the decision to commit a no-brainer.
Another soccer player, Bree, was recruited from Canada to play at a university in Ohio. She is black and, on her visit, met another black player.
"I was under the impression that there was an equal amount of diversity there," Bree said.
Finding comfort in this, she committed to play for the school's soccer team.
However, after arriving in the summer of her freshman year, Bree said she was shocked to see there were only white players on the team. The coach had failed to inform her the other black player had transferred out.
Bree didn't face any issues of racism, but she said she did experience underlying feelings of being left out by her teammates. Bree quickly decided to transfer from this school and find somewhere to play where she would be more comfortable.
She found a new fit at her current university.
"They needed a center back ... and they needed a center back that had experience," Bree said.
Because of her position, eligibility and experience at the Division 1 level, she was the only candidate for the job.
Disclaimer: Personally, I believe everything happens for a reason. So, despite the heartbreak and disappointment, I know I am where I am meant to be.
In sixth grade, I told my coach I wanted to play basketball in college. I worked hard, stayed out of trouble and earned grades to keep me in line to achieve my dream. I played travel basketball for various teams, from the local level to premiere statewide teams.
Right before the beginning of my sophomore year, my mom told me to make a list of colleges that I was interested in, colleges with good size, had majors I was interested in, not too far away or were in a competitive league. I came up with my list of schools and emailed their coaches asking them to come watch me play during the upcoming evaluation periods.
In my next tournament, the scouts watched my team and my dream school contacted my travel team's coach about me.
After speaking to the coach at my dream school, I was asked to visit. I did, and I was immediately offered a full scholarship: Books, gear, meal plan and all.
"We love the way you play. You're just great out there," the head coach told me.
I was sold. I was wooed by the pristine campus, cute college town, famous ex-players, arena ... you name it. After the visit, I told the assistant coach that I would definitely commit in August after I finished my final tournaments for the year.
However, I never got the chance.
In an exposure tournament, the head coach of my dream school watched me as I fell, twisted my ankle and sat out the rest of that game. The next game, I missed a lot of shots. I was nervous and made it obvious.
The only call I got about my dream school after that was from my travel coach to tell me that they had revoked my offer.
Although this event broke my heart, embarrassed me and broke me down, it taught me a lot. My mom said I had two options: quit or keep trying.
Today, I'm playing college basketball.
But through the rest of my recruiting process, I had a chip on my shoulder. I was skeptical of what coaches said to me. How much was the truth and how much was merely sales fluff? I recognized that this process was more than a just my love for the game.
This was business.