Plenty of anticipation and media attention came together Wednesday on National Signing Day, when athletes from across the country made official where they will play their sports in college.
But the process of arriving at such a decision is a winding road that starts much earlier.
‘You showed an interest’
For most athletes, it’s not all about being pursued by coaches trying to woo them. They play an active role in the process by reaching out to programs they want to play for on the next level.
Maia Caldwell-Booker, a freshman sprinter at the University of North Carolina, experienced that element of recruiting during her standout career at West Hall. The two-time 100-meter state champion (2013, 2014) regularly contacted college coaches by email to introduce herself, her skills and how she could help their program.
“That sets you apart 10 times more than anybody else because you reached out to them,” said Caldwell-Booker, a freshman for the Tar Heels. “You already showed an interest in their school.”
Kayla Robles, a 2013 Flowery Branch graduate who plays soccer at Valdosta State, also made a habit of sending introductory emails to college coaches. She estimated that she contacted 30 schools, including almost every Division II college in Georgia.
During spring break of her junior year at Flowery Branch, Robles didn’t head to the beach. She and her parents went on college tours around Georgia. Valdosta wasn’t even on their schedule, but they called a day before going to the campus, and Mel Heinz, then the Blazers’ coach, welcomed Robles the next day and talked to her for an hour.
“For me, I’m all about personal interaction,” Robles said.
‘People in your corner’
Local athletes lean heavily on their coaches on the high school level to help them get on the radar of college coaches.
That was definitely the case for Marcquel Woodard, who is a freshman cross country and track and field athlete at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. His recruiting coach at Gainesville High, Wayne Jones, contacted colleges, mentored Woodard and had him fill out questionnaires for schools.
“It was exciting thinking about the future,” Woodard said. “But it was also kind of stressful because you didn’t really know where you wanted to go and you didn’t want to make the wrong decision and end up somewhere for four years that you didn’t want to be.”
Amid all the pressure that goes into recruiting, Caldwell-Booker said it’s important for student-athletes to not let too many people try to sway their college decision.
“It’s always good to have two or three people who you know are definitely in your corner and have your interests at heart,” she said, noting that West Hall teacher Christopher Turpin, track coach Trevor Catrett and principal Scott Justus played that role for her.
Not all sports have enough scholarships to offer full rides to every player, meaning most of their athletes get partial scholarships. Caldwell-Booker and Woodard both noted the importance of grades in getting as much financial help as possible.
Marissa Ivey, a 2013 Flowery Branch graduate who plays basketball at Berry College, said her high school coach, Hazel Hall, put together film and talked to coaches to promote Ivey.
The Berry sophomore guard, who hit a school-record 160 3-pointers in her Falcons career, said being coachable is important so AAU and high school coaches will have something positive to tell their counterparts on the next level. Ivey also stressed the importance of realizing a college decision is about much more than sports.
“Choose the best school and then play your sport there,” Ivey said. “I chose Berry for Berry and their academics. Basketball happened to be the gift that fell into my hands.”
Coach and parent
Joe Dix has seen recruiting from the standpoint of coach and parent. Dix is in his 11th year as the boys basketball head coach at East Hall and has worked with the Vikings’ program for 19 years. His stepson, Frank Davis, is the all-time career leader in 3-pointers made at Tennessee Tech, where Davis played from 2006-2010.
Dix, who is a Duke fan and follows some future Blue Devils on Twitter, said it’s amazing how much access the average fan has to information on recruits.
“The kids have to work really hard to have control over the situation so that it doesn’t get out of hand,” Dix said.
One of his current seniors, forward Kyvon Davenport, has fielded enough interest that 20 schools have come to watch East Hall play or practice.
“The biggest surprise is the sheer amount of work that is required to recruit one kid,” Dix said. “Sometimes that’s probably the most overwhelming thing. You have one offer and then all of a sudden you have 10.”
In the recruitment of his stepson, Dix said one of the most surprising parts was two schools who offered Davis, then never made contact again. The coach said it’s shocking for kids to see how quickly some schools move on.
Dix confers with his players about whether they want to know if a college coach is in the stands. With Davenport, he doesn’t tell his senior until after the game so the forward won’t go into audition mode. Other players have preferred to know.
Dix is also quick to emphasize to his players that college coaches are looking at the big picture. He points to a night when Georgia coaches fell in love with Walter Hill’s game. Hill scored four points in that contest.
“There’s no certain number of points that’s going to get you recruited,” Dix said.
A story Dix recalls from Davis’ recruitment was Davidson College in North Carolina telling Davis he would have a scholarship if one player turned the Wildcats down. The other guard decided to go to Davidson. He was Stephen Curry, who led Davidson to an Elite Eight appearance and is now one of the premier guards in the NBA for the Golden State Warriors.
Caldwell-Booker is grateful for the opportunity to be at a Division I school. She also knows it’s easy for athletes to lose an offer with so much competition for the most coveted spots on the college level.
“Stay humble throughout the process,” Caldwell-Booker said.
She enjoyed visiting schools and home visits. The toughest part was telling other schools she hadn’t picked them.
Tavia Sykes, a 2013 Flowery Branch graduate who is a guard for Georgia Regents University in Augusta, said kids should appreciate being recruited. She suggested focusing on more than a big name, considering what to study, how much scholarship money is available and the fit with a certain school.
“Don’t take anything for granted, even the little things,” said Sykes, who was Region 8-AAAAA player of the year as a senior at Flowery Branch.
She considered visiting the schools and seeing the rhythms of college life the highlight of the process. Sykes also enjoyed the passion of the coaches she encountered.
“It’s exciting knowing people want you to be a part of something they’re excited about too,” Sykes said.
Woodard said a major misconception is that committing to a school is the end of the process.
“Keep working hard every day no matter what offers you get,” Woodard said. “Work ethic is key. Once you make that decision, you’re going to have to keep working.”