Their college athletic career wasn’t supposed to end up like this.
All three girls were highly recruited after winning back-to-back state high school volleyball titles as juniors and seniors. Their team from Centennial High School in Bakersfield, California was a California volleyball powerhouse, finishing with a “national championship” and #1 ranking by USA Today.
Schools were interested, coaches were calling, offers were made. Every starter on the team won a college scholarship. Sarah Slayton signed with a Division I school in Utah. Alisa Bennett took a full-ride offer from a volleyball power in Texas. Kim Stainer stayed in California to attend school at a big Division I school.
However, that’s just the beginning of the story. Instead of enjoying what would probably be the prime of their college athletic career, these three student-athletes find themselves out of college athletics and unhappy with how they handled the “recruiting game.”
“When I was going through the recruiting process, my coach was completely different compared to how she was when I got to the school,” says Slayton. “She was very controlling. And, I didn’t pick up on that when I was going through the recruiting visits.”
Bennett was having a similar experience with her coach in Texas. “My coach was not good at interacting at all,” says Bennett. “He was a great teacher, but an absolutely horrible person to deal with on a daily basis.” She adds, “My coach called me almost every day while he was recruiting me, but after I signed he didn’t talk to me until I got to the school and started practice.”
“I had always played volleyball because I loved the game,” says Stainer. “But my experience at the college level took the fun out of it.” Stainer’s coach recommended that she red-shirt her freshman year at the west coast Pac-10 school. She did, but was activated late in her freshman season when a player ahead of her on the depth chart was injured. The coach insisted that Stainer play, even though it would mean losing most of her freshman year of eligibility. “I had a coach who was a huge success at the college level. I was kind of intimidated to question his motives.” Stainer was activated towards the end of her freshman season.
All three girls also had complaints about how college athletics turned out to be different than advertised by the coaches they spoke with during the recruiting process. “Our coaches and the athletic department said that they put academics before athletics,” said Bennett. “But when it came down to it, at our program, you ended up putting volleyball before anything else.”
Bennett uses the example of practice during the summer and off-season. NCAA rules prohibit coaches from conducting official practices during certain times of the year. Bennett’s coach technically obeyed the rule, but still put pressure on the team to run practices. “The coach called them ‘Optional Mandatory Practice,'” Bennett says with a smile. “It means that you didn’t have to work out with the team during the summer, but there was this implied pressure to do it anyway. It was crazy.”
Slayton had a similar experience. “During my freshman year, including the summer afterwards, I only got ten days off from playing volleyball. They don’t tell you about that when they are recruiting you,” says Slayton.
Stainer chose her school for the opportunities that it would give her as she planned for her post-volleyball career. Surprisingly, says Stainer, she found that there were no options available to her if she was going to be a part of the volleyball team. “I had always played volleyball because I was good, and it was fun. My experience at the college was taking all of the fun out of the game,” says Stainer. Hoping to pursue modeling and acting, Stainer began to pursue those opportunities in between volleyball and school. Once the coach found out about Stainer’s outside interests, an ultimatum was issued. “He basically said that either I give 100% to volleyball of leave the team,” recalls Stainer. “I finally left. It just wasn’t at all what I expected.” Stainer still attends the school, and is finding success in her other ventures. She landed a leading role in an upcoming MTV weekly series, “The Discomaster,” which is scheduled for release in June.
Older, and a lot wiser, the three standout student-athletes have a lot of advice for high school athletes being recruited. Most importantly, they say, an athlete needs to do their homework on the school and coach that is recruiting them. “You need to look for interaction between coaches and players in practice and at games, if you are visiting the school,” says Slayton. “Ask the players what their opinion is of the coach and the program. Ask lots of questions.”
“Any coach that is recruiting you is going to wine you and dine you and tell you everything that is great about their program,” says Stainer. “You have to look past all of that. You need to ask as many questions as you can.”
According to Bennett, there was one instance where the coach told certain players he viewed as unhappy with the team not to talk with two recruits that were coming to visit practice. Bennett’s advice? “Don’t talk to the athlete that the coach loves and sends with you to show you the campus. Talk to the athlete who is standing off in the corner. Get the whole picture of the program.”
And, looking back, all three girls that they might approach the entire recruiting process a little bit differently if they had the chance. “When I was getting recruited, I ruled out a lot of schools just because I thought they were too small,” says Slayton. “Don’t rule out a school that is recruiting you just because it isn’t a big name.”
“When I went to visit the school that I eventually signed with,” says Bennett, “it was the most fun I had ever had in my life. I thought the players were great, it was a great school, and a fun town. Those really aren’t good reasons to choose a school, looking back. If I could do it over again, I think that I would choose a smaller school….maybe one that was closer to home.”
“One of the schools that recruited me threw myself and another recruit a surprise party,” says Stainer, who ended up rejecting that school’s offer. “It makes you feel special, but athletes really have to take a serious look at the whole package that’s being presented. You have to look at the campus, the coach, the school…everything. You really need to plan for life without your sport, if it comes to that.”
“Research everything and know what you want,” adds Stainer. “You shouldn’t rule out any school that is recruiting you. Keep your options open. If something doesn’t work out with the school you sign with, you want to be on good terms with other school who were interested in you so that you can transfer.”
All three athletes are confident that their futures are bright, even without their volleyball careers. “I’m not bitter about how everything worked out,” says Slayton. “But I realize now how different college athletics are compared with the great experience I had at the high school level. It’s more of a business, and an athlete just has to be prepared for that going in.”
Dan Tudor, President of Recruit, Inc. a national athletic scouting and recruiting service, has four key points that his organization stresses to the student-athlete clients that they work with when searching for college sports scholarship opportunities:
“Don’t rule out an opportunity just because you haven’t heard of the school,” says Tudor. “The perfect college with the perfect coach may exist at a school that you haven’t heard of yet. Keep all of your options open and do the research into each school and program.”
“It’s an athlete’s responsibility to question the coach who is recruiting them. Ask tough questions. You have to remember that the coach’s job is to sell you on his or her school. That is their job. Your job, as an athlete, is to make sure that school is going to meet your needs as a student, as well as an athlete.”
“If you are seriously considering a program, try to visit the school and watch a practice,” says Tudor. “See how the players are reacting to the coach, and if it’s a good atmosphere in the gym or on the field. And, if you can go to a game, watch how the coach acts on the sidelines. How does he interact with players? How do his players respond to him? Remember, you are gong to be one of those players in the near future. Make sure you’re going to enjoy working with that coach.”
“Try not to get overwhelmed by the flattery or hype that a coach is going to give you during the recruiting process. As I said before, his job is to sell the benefits of his school. Ask you questions, and read between the lines when he’s telling you how great everything is going to be. No matter how awed you are by a college coach, you need to be on your toes and asking tough questions. Remember, this is your future. Take it seriously!”