Fast-forward to the modern era of heightened attention on sports in general in our culture, with its ESPN 24-hour news cycle. Young people can now get a highlight disk of their best plays custom-made for college recruiters. Parents may hire a personal trainer for their child to improve individual skills in the sport of their choice. Recruiting starts early, jet-propelled by the Internet and electronic communications.
Welcome to the Brave New World that young athletes and their parents already know and have been negotiating at least since the 1990s. The Holy Grail? Landing a full-ride athletic scholarship on a Division I college team. And for the .01 of 1 percent who make it: the pros.
Enter the travel team competition, pitting young athletes against visiting organizations that bring unfamiliar names and situations to the events and, with them, the opportunity to underscore success.
Joe Palatella, La Jolla High School’s All-CIF volleyball hitter-blocker, sees the blue skies of travel team competition and highly skilled coaching that have accompanied his skill development by leaps and bounds since his freshman year.
“Since the Mizuno 18-1’s Coast Darrel team is so talented,” Palatella texted, referring to his club team, “we would be playing on the top courts, playing the best teams and getting all those reps. It’s a lot of work, but if you love volleyball and you want to get better, then it’s the way to go.”
Joe, a 6-foot, 5-inch leaper entering his senior year as a Viking, mentions USC, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Miami as colleges with talented volleyball teams he would love to play for next year. Surely, he would be the first as well to talk about the enjoyment and success he has experienced on the La Jolla CIF Division III championship team in 2013 and the team’s march to the Division I semifinals in the recently completed 2014 season.
Across the La Jolla High campus, Riley Young, headed to LSU next month to play for the Lady Tigers, sharpened her skills playing for coach Dave Jones, who coaches both the boys and girls teams. Young savored her fleeting times with her classmates as a senior this spring and enjoyed social activities like the prom that are part of the school experience.
“I love how social activities are involved with school,” says Young, who leaves August 17 for Baton Rouge. “I like on the school team how close we all are.” Regarding her club experience, she comments, “A club team is good because you can pick the coach you want to play for. The competition is much better than high school is. It’s different not having it tied to campus, because you’re playing with girls all around the county versus with the girls you go to school with.”
Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team that brought cheers in the just-completed World Cup, complained that American athletes lose the opportunity for full-time concentration on their sport by attending college and combining studies with play. Athletes from his native Germany and other countries across the world can enter a sports academy at a young age, with their parents’ blessing (or pushing) and begin to receive professional coaching with an eye toward the pros. Witness Barcelona soccer and Lionel Messi, an Argentinian who transplanted himself halfway across the world and is now a three-time Ballon d’Or (Ball of Gold) winner, emblematic of the best player in the world.
Coach Paul Baranowski, varsity head coach of the La Jolla High boys basketball team, sees both sides of the road. Baranowski, with 20-plus years' coaching, has also directed travel teams.
“I have mixed feelings about the inherent conflict which exists for players,” the Viking coach says. Sometimes players have to choose to play for the school team or a club team only. CIF recently reaffirmed by vote its rule against an athlete playing for a club team concurrent with the high school season. Club soccer teams have ongoing competition year-round. Some travel squads don’t allow team members to play for their high school teams.
Baranowski cited the value of travel teams in the interest of an individual player's improvement. But he cautioned that families should gain information about coaches before signing up.
“My preference,” says the third-year La Jolla head coach, “is that high school players prioritize school team commitments ahead of club participation.”
Jones, the Viking volleyball coach, is also a classroom teacher. Contacted during his teaching day in summer school, he voiced some strong opinions about travel clubs and non-teacher coaches in general.
“I think there’s a huge difference between (club and school teams),” Jones said. “The biggest difference I see are the intangibles that are taught in school, versus on the club teams. When you look at attitude and leadership (being emphasized), those things come in as factors on club teams, but not as much.”
Jones talked about the fact high school athletes carry out their activities in a school setting, with accompanying support and accountability. “Wherever you go or whatever you do, you’re representing La Jolla High,” he said. “On the other hand, when you’re playing for a CIF championship, you have the support of your whole school.”
Baranowski and Jones agree that athletes are told they need to participate in regional and national travel competition because of exposure they will receive to college recruiters.
Regarding walk-on coaches who are not classroom teachers, Jones reserved his strongest opinions.
“I don’t think it’s good to have walk-on coaches in high schools,” he said. “They don’t have the pedagogy... the understanding how to work with the students. I’ll give you an example. I’m teaching summer school at Clairemont High. I looked on their website, and 80 percent of their coaches are teachers. I’d say it’s more like 15 percent at La Jolla High.”
Jones said the valuable contribution club coaches bring is high-quality instruction in individual skills, a fact that he tries to take advantage of by inviting club coaches in to teach his team members.