Recruiting's bumpy ride

The StarNews has followed the college recruiting journeys of five area athletes. From left are Laney football player Larry Williams, New Hanover soccer player Nikki Tiller, Ashley basketball player T.J. Williams, Hoggard baseball player Joe O’Donnell and Topsail volleyball player Carlie Smith. (Photo by StarNews file photo)

Starting in 2011, the StarNews began following five local student-athletes heading into their junior year of high school. All hoped to get a chance to play sports in college, but were just starting their recruiting process. We are examining recruiting through their eyes and how the process affected them.

On paper, Carlie Smith is a sure-fire college volleyball prospect.

She’s 6 feet tall and had more than 300 kills in her senior season. She led Topsail for three years and never lost a conference match. She played in major club tournaments throughout the Southeast in front of college coaches during weekends in the winter and spring.

But even with those accolades, a college scholarship proved hard to lock down. As she put it, there are a million other outside hitters just like her. And she only found the right place after months of frustration.

That’s par for the course for the vast majority of high school athletes who go on to play sports in college. There are precious few high-profile recruits; many have to make hard choices about what to do when things don’t go according to plan.

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Smith’s recruitment seemed like it would never end. UNC-Charlotte seemed interested, then only nibbled. Campbell’s coach appeared interested until she was fired and the program backed off.

She went on visit after visit without finding a place to play. Long months of frustration were punctuated by nightly pep talks with her parents over dinner. Things got more awkward each time another round of acceptance letters came to many of her friends.

“Someone would ask me, ‘Where are you going?’ Smith said. “And I didn’t have an answer.”

At the last weekend in March, Smith had no options. She’d sent fallback applications to East Carolina and UNC-Charlotte to enroll as a student and was thinking about perhaps giving up on playing college sports. Her last hope was to impress a coach at the Big South club tournament in Georgia.

“It’s definitely do-or-die,” Smith said. “It’s 6 a.m. for the first game. I had never been so nervous in my life.”

Smith’s prospects turned on a dime; she caught the eye of Paul MacDonald, head coach at Division II Francis Marion in Florence, S.C. Two days later, she visited the campus, loved it and committed just in time for the start of the April 17 signing period.

In the space of a week, Smith went from having no idea about her future to putting together a financial aid package to go along with a partial athletic scholarship.

Smith’s recruitment seems strange, with long months of no progress followed by a whirlwind conclusion, but it’s close to standard. About 62 percent of college athletes play at the Division II or Division III levels, according to NCAA participation data from 2011-12, and most sign after April 17 in the regular signing period.

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Not everybody wants a scholarship.

Christian Poveromo was a three-year starting quarterback for the Hoggard football team, a program with a long tradition of producing college talent.  He threw for more than 3,000 yards and completed 65 percent of his passes.

But when faced with a difficult decision, Poveromo turned down offers from smaller schools like Davidson and Campbell. He chose to attend North Carolina as a student and try to walk on to the team.

“Ultimately it came down to going to the best school I could go to and trying to graduate and get a degree,” Poveromo said. “It was in my best interests to go to a good school and make sure that I graduated with a good degree. Putting that first in my priority list made the decision easier for me.”

New Hanover’s Nikki Tiller took a hard fall in a girls soccer game on April 11 and broke her collarbone. She already holds the school’s career record for most goals scored in a season as a junior, and Western Carolina showed interest in recruiting her.

But a nine-week recovery period diminishes her chances of a late offer. Tiller won’t be able to play again until the East-West All-Star game in late July.

Tiller had already made adjustments to her post-high school plans. She originally planned to go to a four-year college, but during her senior year, decided to stay local for two years and go to Cape Fear Community College to get her bearings.

“It’ll be easier for me. I’ll actually get to know college before going to a four-year. I won’t be overwhelmed.”

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Even when athletes do sign early, it’s no guarantee of a smooth ride. Ashley senior T.J. Williams signed with the Tennessee-Chattanooga basketball team in November, thinking he’d found a good fit and happy to have the weight off his chest during his senior season.

But Williams’ plans hit a speed bump on March 20 when coach John Shulman left after a contract dispute. That threw Williams and Chattanooga’s other two committed recruits into a bind: ask for a release to re-enter an uncertain recruiting scene, or remain with an uncertain coaching situation.

“It’s different and it’s more of a struggle because you’re not really sure and you don’t know what to say,” Williams said. “Nobody prepares you for that. ... It’s not in the fine print.”

Williams said he originally requested his release, but interim athletic director Laura Herron convinced him to stay. He rationalized that since he was going to play for a new coach anyway, the transition doesn’t seem like a dealbreaker.

“I was going to do that anyway, leaving Ashley to play for a different coach,” Williams said. “As long as it’s not like the Rutgers coach, I’ll be fine.”

His former coach at Ashley, Bryn McSwain, said other schools have nonetheless been calling to inquire about Williams. And Williams does admit he could have handled his recruitment a little differently.

“I thought things would be a lot more smooth sailing,” Williams said. “If I knew this was going to happen I would have waited it out to see what other options came available to me and built relationships with coaches.”

No matter the frustrations, twists and turns and uncertainty, Tiller, Poveromo, Williams and Smith all seem content with their decision.

A few days after the Chattanooga coaching change, Williams tweeted out that he was “still a Moc,” referencing the school’s mascot. Tiller chose to stay closer to home for a gradual progression into college life. Smith chose to be a bigger part of a smaller program.

“Not everything works out,” Smith said. “But later, you’re like, ‘I see why that happened. There’s obviously something better for me.’ It’s really hard to be positive but you just have to approach it like that wasn’t meant to be.”

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