It was late June and I found myself multitasking in Orlando, covering AAU Nationals and at the same time pondering the upcoming fall high school season. A text to Tanya Jarvis, head coach at two-time defending Florida 5A champion Bishop Moore and a director of OTVA (and coach of OTVA’s top 16s team), in which I congratulated her about her newborn daughter, brought a puzzling response:
“BTW, I have some things you need to know about HS.”
Last year in August, PrepVolleyball.com had proclaimed Bishop Moore the No. 1 team in the land in the pre-season. The Hornets were young in 2016 and lost only once en route to winning state. I was seriously considering making Jarvis’ team No. 1 again to start 2017.
What were the things I needed to know? I thought Jarvis might tell me she was taking a sabbatical for a year to take care of Finley. But the news was much more dire: rising senior Shannon Crenshaw, a First Team All-Central Florida outside hitter committed to Washington; and rising senior Gracie Ryan, a starting S/RS committed to Arkansas, had chosen not to play their senior year for Bishop Moore. Their plan, instead, was to train during the fall with Blake Rawlins, their club coach at Top Select.
As June turned to July and July turned to August and the start of high school competition in many states, news trickled in about other standout seniors, at successful high school programs, who also had decided against wearing their school colors in their final season.
In Texas, MB Asjia O’Neal, a top 10 national recruit committed to Texas, told her high school coach at perennial power Southlake Carroll, on the heels of winning a 17 Open national championship with TAV, that she needed to rest to be ready for college.
In Arizona, Indiana-bound MB Lexi Johnson stated a focus on academics as her reason for giving up her last year of high school. In Alabama, libero Lacey Jeffcoat, the best player on three-time defending large-class champion Mountain Brook and a Troy recruit, opted not to play her final season after a coaching change.
In Georgia, libero Riley Fischer, a Florida recruit considered one of the best in the country at her craft, quit just before the season started, apparently because of a conflict with her coach about which position she’d play.
In Louisiana and California, seniors who’d made Beach Volleyball commitments, bade farewell to the indoor game rather than play one more year. This includes Kiora Sanchez, who father, Ray, is her high school coach!
Illinois’ Genesis Sheridan, a standout going to South Carolina, decided against playing for Prairie Ridge her senior year even though her younger sister is on the roster. California hammer Megan Faraimo, who led Division II state champion Cathedral Catholic in kills in 2016, decided against suiting up her final season after settling on softball as her college sport of choice.
There may be other seniors I don’t know about who also chose to forego their final season in 2017 but it’s a huge number if just the 10 above. Understand, this isn’t about players not wanting to play on lousy high school squads or being injured or academically ineligible; these are top players on elite high school teams saying, “No, thank you” to one more trip around the sun with longtime teammates.
In 17 previous seasons covering the sport, the only one I can recall who did not compete for her high school as a senior was Hayley Hodson. Hodson used that time to focus on academia and practice with the National Team, then won an 18 Open national championship with Tstreet in the spring. In the fall, she was named National Freshman of the Year after a standout initial campaign at Stanford. One year later, Hodson was out of volleyball altogether, citing the cumulative impact of several undiagnosed concussions and their effect on her well-being.
To recap: one senior star opting out in the past 17 years; 10 in 2017.
“This is so sad,” said Tumwater (WA) head coach Tania Otton, whose daughter, Gonzaga-bound senior Kennedy Croft, is the star of her team. “I’ve been hearing more and more of it.
“Kennedy LOVES high school season. There is something so different about it, compared to club: unity of the team being together every day for 3+ months, school spirit, fans…
“We haven’t been affected by it, thank goodness. It has become a sad phenomenon, as a high school coach, to see this happening. I think one thing that high school coaches have had to do, to help eliminate burnout, is scale back. We used to go to summer team camp, play summer league, go to two summer tournaments. I now go to one tournament. And that is it. The girls are playing year-round. Now, with beach becoming so popular and now an option for scholarship – it’s even more so cutting into high school ball.”
Kathy Gillen is the head coach of Minnesota large-class champion Eagan. Her daughter, senior OH McKenna Melville, is a star on the team and will attend Central Florida to play after graduation. Her theory for why this is happening has to do with overuse.
“Players’ bodies are beat up after 8 months of JO’s,” she explained. “My players didn’t get done until July 4th this year. They played in both major national tourneys (which is also not smart). With only 5 weeks off (or less in the south I think), it’s too much for players that play 6 rotations and are playing at a high level. They need a break and take the shorter high school season off. With most players they wouldn’t be able to take the JO season off with scholarship stuff I would assume.”
Asked whether her daughter ever thought about skipping her senior year, Gillen was both definitive and measured, saying:
“No. She loves the high school season and playing for her school. She is VERY beat up though. She has a couple of bulging disks in her back and her shoulder is sore. In her words: ‘I’ll take November and December to heal.’”
Jim Park used to coach his daughter, Ohio-bound attacker Lauren Park, at Ohio’s West Holmes HS. Lauren Park will be playing her senior year for the Knights, who were 13-11 in 2016, but not before considering taking a pass, largely because she was overused at the high school level.
“The topic was discussed as a way to not wear her shoulder out and hit the weight room to prevent overuse injury,” Jim Park said.
Park said he’s heard other reasons seniors consider skipping their final season, including:
“1. Club season goes so long and starts so soon after the high school season followed by leaving for college in June that there is no down time.
2. Players want to work out to improve their chances of being prepared for the college game and high school seasons don’t do that for them.
3. [Sometimes] a high school team and coach are at such a low level that [playing] doesn’t hold any value for beyond camaraderie with friends.”
Mountain View (CA) head coach Dave Winn echoed the above comments pertaining to kids opting against continuing to play for less competitive high school teams.
“The need to play for your school because of team spirit and helping out the younger players isn’t as high a priority as it used to be,” he observed. “So they may opt to just take the fall off, privately train and save their effort for the club season to prepare for college.”
Winn added that the growing popularity of the beach game may also factor in.
“Beach Volleyball is getting more and more funding in college programs,” he said. “Indoor/outdoor players will start to specialize even more in just beach if they are receiving beach scholarships. I don’t think the pressure is coming from the college coaches. The players themselves that are going to college for Beach actually enjoy that game more than indoor.”
Valencia (CA) head coach Ray Sanchez said that he was ambivalent about his standout senior, a Florida State Beach Volleyball recruit, playing indoors for him this year, even though she was his daughter and this would be his last opportunity to coach her.
“As a coach I’d love to have another talented player on my roster but considering the number of major injuries (torn ACLs, broken legs, torn ligaments in ankles, etc.) we’ve experienced over the past few seasons,” he explained. “It seemed too much of a risk with little to no upside, so she’s going to continue to train on the beach during the fall. Playing indoors would have been fun and finishing her senior season with the girls she’s played with for years, some since they were 12s, was certainly something that was attractive to her, but ultimately she decided to forgo her senior season and stay focused on the beach. If she changes her mind we could always add her to the roster but I don’t see that happening. If she were to suffer a major injury playing for me indoors this season I couldn’t live with myself so I’m actually relieved she decided not to play. The stress of watching those tight plays at the net that happen on a regular basis would have been tough to deal with.”
Of all the reasons given for not playing as a senior, perhaps the most troubling is the decision some players have made to train with their club coach for the fall rather than compete on teams they’ve been a part of for years.
Rawlins, who said he has 10 players from Top Select who committed to do this (for a fee), said the players are driving the bus not him. He noted that the players felt they did not improve during the high school season and that they wanted to prepare to be starters right away at their universities of choice, among other things.
“We are treating this like a spring season in college volleyball,” Rawlins explained. “Being better for the next level is more important to them than winning an award or state title.”
At least one former high school coach, who still works in the club world, didn’t buy the explanation that this movement was being driven exclusively by the players.
“A club in our area tried to start it this year, but wasn’t able to get enough girls and they received incredible pushback from media and high school coaches,” he noted. “It seems the clubs most involved are ones without high school coaches on staff. As a former high school coach and being a director of a club that is full of high school coaches, we would never consider it.
“In the end, it’s a way for these clubs to make money during a time period when the gym is usually empty, but the rent stays the same.
“I was on a college recruiting panel this summer when a kid asked about not playing high school to train. All 10 coaches on the panel (DI-DIII) said they should play high school and that there was no good excuse not to. The typical reasons are: don’t want to get hurt, don’t like my coach, won’t get to play my favorite position, and we aren’t very good. You need to be good at all of those things to be successful in college. You may not play your favorite position. You will need to deal with new coaches who won’t be exactly like they were when they recruited you. You may have to play a new position and be versatile. And most college teams lose…so get used to it and handle adversity. High school should be about pride, fun, and playing with your friends. You could always play high school AND spend time training with your club. In the end, you will have 8 months to train with your club team.”
Most college coaches I surveyed in July shared similar sentiments about giving up the last year of high school to train.
“As someone who went to a small high school and participated in everything, I think it’s sad she is leaving her HS team…especially one that is extremely successful,” said one Division I head coach. “I personally want my players to be well rounded players AND people. Learning to play with a variety of personalities and learn from different types of coaches only makes her more well-rounded at the next level. Even if she was part of a struggling high school, it would be a great opportunity to develop leadership skills and patience. Five months of training with a club vs training with a HS team will likely not make any difference whatsoever in her ability to start as a freshman in college.
“Again, I feel for the high school coach who is likely coaching for very little money, just for the love of the game, and loses one of her best players.”
“I do believe the answer is on a case-by-case basis,” said another Division I coach. “Is the high school competitive? Does the player come from a highly regarded volleyball area/community? Is there a significant difference between the coaching abilities of the high school or club coach? If the answers to those questions lend towards a competitive, technically-sound high school environment, then there isn’t much benefit to NOT playing high school. All things being equal, there is no replacement for actual, live competition. There is a HUGE difference between technical and practical knowledge and while this player will be improving on her skills, she is limiting her growth by not competing and utilizing her skills in a competitive environment. Given the situation you laid out, I would strongly encourage the rising senior to play her high school season.”
A third head coach was much more blunt.
“Where’s her loyalty to her school?” she asked. “To her coach? To her teammates? Anyone can work on their skills. There’s great benefit to playing a team sport with your team. Learning to play in the gray and learn to be a great teammate. She’s depriving herself of a great learning opportunity. And I think it’s selfish. I would question her motives….. and her character. A team is about we and this screams ‘ME!’”
There were some college coaches, however, who held a more moderate view.
“There is something to be said for playing too much ball,” said one. “Some of these kids are playing over 150 matches or more a year.”
“I think training is fine and all, but nothing compares to actual matches,” said another. “However I never get in a kid’s way to be happy. I’ve had committed kids say they aren’t playing on the elite team for their club because the travel/cost is so much, so their senior year they play on the 2s team and just play more local stuff, and I was 100% fine with it. I did have a kid who decided to skip all of club last year. I told her my preference would be for her to play but she decided not to. This was a predicted starter and she came in so rusty it took until about mid-season for her to play to the potential she had and become a starter. She told me after the fact she regretted the decision, but it was hers to make.”
“My job is to care for the kid,” a third college coach explained. “My thoughts are you only get to play high school volleyball once. Personally I don’t want to see a kid give up high school ball. But I tell them, ‘I’ll support you no matter what decision you make. I want you to come to campus healthy and happy.’
“You have to be okay walking the halls every day and every person you see knows you’re the best player in the school and you’re not playing high school ball. You’re making a decision that says, ‘I can face my peers and be okay.’”
John Kessel has worked at USA Volleyball for 33 years and currently is Director of Sport Development. Some coaches told me he always advocates play over practice, so I reached out for his opinion on the matter. His perspective was surprising as well as unique.
“My short response is, if the kid, not the parent, wants to just do club, and it is ok with her high school friendship structure to be just doing that – it opens up another slot on the high school team while getting her the learning she feels she needs.”
Kessel later elaborated further, saying:
“1. It must be the kid’s choice. What he/she has considered from all the angles (with guidance from parents or a guardian), but too often it is not the kid’s choice. When it is, I am fine with it.
“2. When kids choose club over school, it simply opens up the scholastic experience for another kid at the school who would have been cut. For me that is a great thing.
“3. I see the same thread of school ‘need’ in demanding/expecting the kid to be a 3 or even 4-sport athlete. Kid’s choice? Fine. Otherwise, it is BETTER for society when kids only play 1 sport in HS. That is ‘cuz I look at the numbers: 12 varsity VB, 15 basketball, 20 softball. If the 12 kids then play hoops, 3 slots still open. If those 15 then go play softball, just 5 more slots open. So the benefit of scholastic sport, not the winning, the leadership development, the learning how to be on a team, the pride of representing your school – hits only 20 kids. If kids only did 1 sport, 47 kids get that experience….and for me, 47 is way more than 2x the 20…. I mean, why do we do HS sport? To win? Or to develop amazing leaders – the latter being my coaching philosophy in a nutshell and why I coach.”
Personally, I absolutely HATE the idea of a player giving up her senior year for any reason other than injury. When you don’t play high school ball when to do so would put you in the running for state and national championships, you have to explain that to your classmates and your former teammates. The fall will be uncomfortable every day at school because they will not understand. The four Stanford freshmen who started for the national champs last year all played high school ball and achieved at the highest levels. They didn’t take off to train for a season, they didn’t graduate early and they didn’t leave early for summer school. They showed up with everyone else in August and won a national championship.
College coaches also might not understand. One Division I head coach told me she plans on asking all prospective recruits if they plan to play their entire high school careers.
“If the answer is ‘no,’ we won’t recruit them,” she said. “If she quit on her high school team, she’ll probably quit on us.”
Many of you know this, but my son, Tim, accepted a baseball scholarship to Stanford when he was a 15-year-old sophomore. He continued to play football for two more years, set every passing record in the state of Oregon, was three-time state Player of the Year and helped West Linn to the large-class state title as a senior. He never once thought about giving up football to train for baseball and counts his football memories as among his very fondest.
Tim also played basketball for two more years and, though he was not a star, he was part of two state championship teams, moments his is very proud of.
Tim’s high school baseball career spanned three more years. His teams twice went to the state championship and as a senior he was named Oregon Gatorade Baseball POY. There was NEVER any thought to abandoning playing, especially as a senior, to get ready for the next level, which was still one year away. Why would there be?
Twenty years from now, when Tim’s talking to his kids about his high school experiences, he can stress the importance of team, lifelong friendships and memories he made and even some personal sacrifices for the greater good of the school. What will the volleyball players say? “Yeah, we won two in a row but that was enough. I decided as a senior to abandon my teammates and do something only for me.”
“I cannot imagine a reason outside of injury or some sort of abuse (which is typically handled fairly swiftly in high school) that a high school player would forego her senior season on a successful and competitive team,” said Clay Taylor, who once coached Fischer at Harrison HS. “Unfortunately, these players are being pulled in so many different directions by so many individuals. The pressure to please, which I believe is only natural for most teen girls, can be overwhelming. The strongest voice in her circle will gain her and the parents’ attention. Individuals in a team sport often struggle with the concept of team first.”
“I don’t like the thought of this becoming the norm,” said Otton. “High school programs need to pick it up a notch and make their program one that they are excited to be a part of, that they feel ownership in and loyalty to and where they know they will be coached and grow.”