Signing Day nerve-wracking for most prospects

Hoggard senior Joe O’Donnell has signed a letter of intent to play baseball at N.C. State. Many area prospects will sweat out the process through the national signing day for their sports (Photo by Photo illustration by Mike Spencer)

It's the biggest decision many high school athletes will face, and one they all hope to make: when to sign on the dotted line?

Committing to play college sports and signing a letter of intent is an arduous process. It's the culmination of years of effort and, while it's the ultimate reward for many high school athletes, it's also an enormous commitment.

That decision arrives from a mixture of work, skill, and more than a little panic.

Early relief

When Hoggard senior Joe O'Donnell called N.C. State baseball coach Elliot Avent in November and verbally committed to play for the Wolfpack, the Vikings pitcher's biggest emotion was relief.

"To finally make your decision after a long two years, it's probably more of a relief than anything," O'Donnell said. "It felt like a lot of weight came off my shoulders."

O'Donnell's journey exemplifies just how stressful and difficult the recruiting process is . Only a small percentage of high school athletes even get the chance to play in college, and only after years of showcase play, recruiting trips and dead-ends.

O'Donnell was lucky enough to have multiple suitors – North Carolina, N.C. State, and UNCW were all interested in the right-handed pitcher. Choosing the Wolfpack came after months of weighing options.

"It's definitely a lot more work than you think," O'Donnell said. "Because you have to look at lot more things than most people would expect that you're looking at. Academics play a big part, and obviously what role you'd be in on the team."

At the top of O'Donnell's list was a desire to be able to contribute right away. But he also said there were a litany of other factors : campus life, academic offerings, how he fit in with the team, and the final wrinkle of scholarship money.

That's a lot of factors for a 17-year old to weigh on his own. O'Donnell relied on parents – including a father who had played in college – friends and coaches for support. 

Laney football coach Greg Ditz agrees. One of his offensive linemen, senior Larry Williams, committed to East Carolina in November, and junior linebacker Coult Culler is receiving Division I interest.

"You try to give them guidance and show them the best way," Ditz said. "You try to guide them in the right direction and you want to lend them your shoulder and always be there."

O'Donnell said that signing his name on a letter of intent was more than worth the trouble.

"It's definitely a moment like none that I have ever had," he said. "And it's something that I will definitely remember forever. "

Still searching

O'Donnell can breathe a sigh of relief, but Carlie Smith continues to toe the line between stoicism and panic, with occasional forays into hysteria. 

O'Donnell was one of the few local athletes to sign early in November. Smith, a senior volleyball player at Topsail High School, is one of the many more still searching for a place to play. She's spent the past few months trying to get a small list of colleges to extend an offer, and won't sign until the regular period in April.

Smith wants to be selective in finding a school, even under the pressure of the recruiting process' final months.

"I want to go to a school where I like the school as well as the team," Smith said. "I want to go and get a good education and like where I'm at and also like play volleyball. So I have to find a school where all of it fits together."

But as time goes on, Smith still hasn't found the right fit. High school coaches say that's common and that frustration is part and parcel of being recruited.

"The recruiting process in general is a pretty frustrating process for high school kids," Ditz said. "Unless they're a D-I athlete for sure, it can be. You see other kids getting offers and you wonder when your time will come."

After two years waiting for her time, even small things can set Smith's mind into a frenzy.

"Just sitting in class something will make you think about it," Smith said. "And you'll go off thinking, ‘OK I need to do this and this and this before my next tournament, I need to make sure he's coming and this school is coming and I need to find out when so I can tell them what court to come to.'"

It's a situation familiar to students waiting on college acceptance letters – the only difference is athletes are hoping for a scholarship and a chance the play. Smith said she considered giving up volleyball in college and questioned during the summer if the entire process was worth it.

But, Smith said, once she started playing again for Topsail, she realized what she wanted to do. Now she's among the many high school athletes hoping to sign in the coming months.

"I could just go to school somewhere," Smith said, "But I want to play. I've got to play."


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