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Tips for Student Athletes Looking to Go to Division I Colleges

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It’s hard for a high school student to have anything but great feelings about heading to the University of Pennsylvania. It’s an Ivy League school with an amazing campus. It also provides the kind of jump-start that can lead to a prosperous and fulfilling career. And if the student is an athlete, there’s the added attraction of Division I competition. 

Tori Klevan appreciated all of that as she headed into the second semester of her senior year at Lower Merion High School. Then, on Jan. 30, Penn’s head soccer coach, Darren Ambrose, announced that he was leaving the Quakers after 15 years to take the top job at Vanderbilt University—and he was bringing assistant coach Ken Masuhr with him. 

The entire Penn program was shocked. So was Klevan. She was especially upset that Masuhr was leaving. He had been her club coach at FC Delco, and he was a major reason she had chosen to Penn over other schools.

Masuhr had advised Ambrose to take a look at Klevan when she was starting with FC Delco. He had helped increase Klevan’s confidence, convincing her that she was good enough to play D-I. When Masuhr left, Klevan could’ve been thrown into turmoil, unsure of her future and questioning her decision. Instead, she forged ahead.

“She was upset Ken had left,” says Sandy Klevan, Tori’s mother. “But her attitude was, ‘I’m going to Penn. I don’t know who the coach will be, but, hopefully, everything will be great. I’m going to make the best of it, and whatever happens, happens.’”

Tori Klevan’s approach was the result of a decision based on both the sport and  the institution—what it could offer and how comfortable she’d feel when she wasn’t on the soccer pitch. 

“She had to like both the school and the team,” her mother says. “Clearly [I and my husband] had to say to her, ‘Make sure you like it there, even if you’re not playing.’ The coaches even gave her that same message.”

Choosing a college is tough enough for students and their parents. Trying to pick the right school, completing the applications, then suffering through long weeks of waiting while institutions make their (sometimes hard-to-believe) decisions can lead to serious stress. Add the extra layer that comes when the student is an athlete worthy of recruiting, and the situation can be even more confusing.

Parents like the Klevans, who’ve been through the sometimes-surreal recruiting machinations, have acquired a certain wisdom about the process. So have Ron and Colleen Bacskai, the parents of two children involved in Division I sports. A 2015 Malvern Prep graduate, Brendan is at Drexel University, where he’ll play on the Dragons’ golf team. Maddie, a senior at Episcopal Academy this year, has committed to attending Princeton University and playing field hockey next year. 

The Bacskai children’s commitments capped a three-year stretch that included several campus visits, considerable contact with coaches, participation in camps and showcases, and more than a few of ups and downs.

“First and foremost, student athletes have to focus on school,” Ron says. “If they have good grades and good test scores, they’ll be in better shape when an offer comes along. We’ve reinforced that [at home].”

Maddie’s first recruiting contact came during her freshman year, when a coach from Duke University reached out. Brendan was first approached during his sophomore year. Both were active on school teams, club teams and, in Maddie’s case, national teams. So they had ample opportunities to impress coaches. 

It’s important for athletes to attend various showcases, especially those at schools they’re interested in. That way, they can demonstrate their talents to the people they most want to influence.

“Student athletes have to focus on school. If they have good grades and test scores, they’ll be in better shape when an offer comes.” 

During his 10 years as head football coach and associate athletic director at the Haverford School, Michael Murphy has directed many players through the recruiting process. But it wasn’t until his daughter, Meredith, a rising sophomore lacrosse player at the Agnes Irwin School, developed enough talent to be recruited that he really began to understand the process. “For 10 years, I’ve given advice to kids so that they would wind up where they should be,” Murphy says. “Now, with an athlete under my roof, I have a much different perspective.”

Murphy has learned that, though it’s important for high school athletes to attend camps or showcases at colleges, they shouldn’t go to every one. That can get expensive, and it’s often not easy for someone to distinguish herself from 400 other players. After spending a summer going from one campus to the next, Murphy understood that volume shopping isn’t always the answer.

But his 15-year-old daughter is enjoying the process. And when a teammate at school or on her club team commits to a college, there’s excitement—and pressure. “Parents are under pressure to say to their children, ‘Hold on. Take your time,’” Murphy says. 

It’s important for parents to speak with coaches, but they shouldn’t speak for their kids. Murphy has been told again and again by coaches that one of the reasons they wanted to work in the university ranks is that they don’t want to deal with parents. So it’s one thing for an athlete to let a school know that he or she wants to attend, and quite another for parents to tell coaches they want their children to go to school X or Y. “Parents can’t be too overwhelming,” Murphy says.

That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t talk to coaches. Kids don’t understand the vagaries of financial-aid packages, for example. Though top-flight football and basketball players are offered full rides, athletes in other sports don’t get the same option. A Division I lacrosse team might have 10 full scholarships to distribute among 30 players. A few students may get everything paid for, others get halves and quarters, and some nothing at all. 

Ron Bacskai recalls discussing money with the head coach at Duke, commenting on how it complicates decisions. “If you’re in a position where money is your No. 1 concern, there’s some negotiating to be done,” he says. “But be honest with coaches about what you’ve been offered by another school, because all the coaches know each other. I’d recommend not to take the first offer right away. Compare and spend time looking for the best fit for the student. We’ve seen some students who’ve chosen to go to schools and then have left school later on.”

In the end, it comes down to fit. Players are excited to be recruited, but they need to focus on getting good grades, finding the right school and making sure they feel comfortable with their future teammates. They must also recognize that playing a sport—especially in Division I—is a huge time commitment. 

“It’s kind of your life at that institution,” Murphy says. “That’s a conversation parents should want to have with their kids. If you want to be more of a normal student, maybe you choose to play Division III sports.”

Finally, parents must understand how competitive the process is. Coaches are looking for the best players, and many parents are hoping athletics will pay for some or all of their kids’ college bills. It’s important for families to be proactive.

“Some of it is who’s in coaches’ faces, so being proactive pays off,” Murphy says. “You’ve got to get into their faces.”

Then hope they stick around. 

Illustration by Craig Larotonda.

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