Austin Cunningham earned a track scholarship to the University of Toledo, but may not receive it because the coronavirus pandemic ended his season.
Eager to wow prospective college programs, Ira Graham planned for this track and field season to be, in his words, “my redemption year.”
Although the senior at Eastmoor Academy in Columbus, Ohio, is two-time defending City League champion in the 110-meter high hurdles, his performances in 2019 were a shade below scholarship standards for Division I programs. A nagging hamstring injury was partly to blame.
Graham’s future in the sport he loves was riding on a spring season that now won’t happen for him and spring sports athletes around the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. With most schools closed for the rest of the academic year, and administrators overwhelmed by the logistics of reopening in the fall, even the future for fall high school sports like football is unclear.
“I feel like I’ve lost everything I worked for the past three years,” Graham told the Columbus Dispatch. “I realize I’m not alone in this. Sports are important for a lot of people … and for a lot of different reasons.”
Graham carries a 3.6 grade-point average and has been accepted at a handful of colleges. He plans to study graphic design, with an emphasis on visual arts. But without scholarship money from track, Graham’s options would be limited to either trying out as a walk-on or simply hanging up his spikes for good.
“Athletes in track — and in all sports for that matter — need opportunities to be noticed,” Eastmoor coach Jason Lewis said. “These kids haven’t competed since last May or early June. College recruiters don’t have anything to go by but times.”
The temporary shutdown of sports also could prove costly to athletes in other sports.
Spring and summer are prime seasons for boys and girls basketball. College coaches typically flock to AAU tournaments, shootouts and camps to evaluate prospects.
Even football is affected. In Alabama, Fairfield High Preparatory School teammates Ja’Sean Dukes and Keon Handley Jr. are without their fully equipped high school weight room that normally would have been their home for spring conditioning workouts.
But their biggest concern is going into their senior year with no offers from college teams and their final high school season still in question.
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While most of the best athletes have either already signed a scholarship or are entertaining offers before their senior year, it’s the next tier of athletes — the ones coaches call tweeners, like Dukes and Handley Jr. — who have felt the sting of school shutdowns the most.
Without a home gym, and only a rudimentary weight bench and bar in his backyard, each of Dukes’ workouts require him to improvise.
Pull-ups are from a bar hanging in a doorway. High box jumps have him landing on his family’s outdoor air conditioning unit. Cinder blocks double as free weights and extra loads threaded onto his bar for deadlifts, bench presses and bicep curls.
The cousin of former New Orleans Saints cornerback A.J. Davis, Dukes is a college-caliber linebacker in the eyes of his coaches. But a torn ACL last year left some scouts wondering whether he could move laterally.
“I think about it, but I’m not really afraid,” Dukes said. “As long as we’re able to play in the next season, I’ll be all right. I feel like I could get some offers next year.”
Handley Jr. has a home gym but is still missing out on the spring college visits and introductions to coaches and scouts that he was banking on to get a scholarship.
So the 17-year-old safety and cornerback posts his workouts on Twitter and sends them to coaches at his favorite schools – University of Alabama-Birmingham, Memphis, Middle Tennessee, Tennessee and others.
High school players have been employing this strategy more and more over the past several years, but now it’s all players like Handley Jr. have.
“The majority of it is a mental thing to hold myself accountable,” Handley Jr. said. “The hardest thing to overcome is the fear of if life will ever go back to normal.”
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At least those players still have the hope of a final season to showcase their skills. The girls on the softball team at Hilliard Bradley High School in Columbus won’t get to pursue their dream of a championship season.
And seniors like McKenzi Schultz-Apps — who Coach Kevin Moody said “is certainly worthy of a scholarship” — won’t have the opportunity to win one.
“High school is all about your senior year,” said Schultz-Apps, who plays first and third base. “First and foremost, that’s what makes this so devastating. We thought we had the potential for a great team this year.”
With no hope of catching the eye of a college recruiter, Schultz-Apps accepted a preferred walk-on opportunity with Youngstown State a few weeks ago.
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“If I thought someone was going to come forward and help pay my way, I would have waited it out,” Schultz-Apps said. “With us not playing, though, it didn’t make much sense. I had a good vibe with Youngstown State. Hopefully, I can prove myself there and get some of my school paid for later on.”
And yet getting to college isn’t the last hurdle this year’s high school senior athletes may face. With the spring sports seasons canceled at the college level as well, many cheered when the NCAA announced it would extend eligibility for student athletes who lost their final season.
But that extension means some schools may have have more players than they expected. An NCAA baseball team, for example, is capped at 35 players, with a maximum of 27 scholarships. With some players postponing graduation and others missing out on making their mark for the pro baseball draft, some high school players may be crowded out of spots on rosters or in the lineup.
That’s why Penn State baseball coach Rob Cooper is hoping the NCAA will relax roster limits for next season by one or two players. The alternative could be ugly, he said.
“Now you have to look at a kid who passed up opportunities to go elsewhere and look at him and his family and say ‘Hey, I don’t have a spot for you,’” said Cooper, who doesn’t expect to be in that position himself.
For prep athletes who haven’t gotten scholarship offers, Cooper said they can still reroute their plans, like much of the world in the face of the pandemic. Options like going to a junior college, taking a gap year or even attending a prep school after their senior years could keep their college dreams alive.
“I know it may seem easy to say you can still do everything you want to do on your journey, but you really can,” Cooper said. “You can still have an unbelievable experience, it’s just that you may have to take another path to get there.”
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