U.S. Sports Scholarships: Eyes On The Prize

Talent alone is not enough to land a lucrative U.S. sports scholarship. Canadian high school sports players, regardless of their physical abilities, must keep their eyes on the prize and actively market themselves to U.S colleges – and should start in Grade 11 – if they’re hoping to be courted by a coach from the States.

Talent alone is not enough to land a lucrative U.S. sports scholarship. Canadian high school sports players, regardless of their physical abilities, must keep their eyes on the prize and actively market themselves to U.S colleges – and should start in Grade 11 – if they’re hoping to be courted by a coach from the States.

It’s a sunny May afternoon, the kind of day avid gardeners such as John and Cindy McKinnon enjoy getting their hands dirty. But instead of working in the yard, they’re sitting underneath fluorescent skies inside a hangar-style high-school gymnasium in Vancouver decorated with faded championship banners and a few wooden benches. On the court their daughter Sasha, 18, clad in a pair of baggy blue Team USA shorts, grey No. 7 jersey and white Nikes, dribbles the ball past a defender and makes a basket. Because there isn’t a scoreboard inside the wood-paneled gym, they’ve set up a portable unit to keep score but it’s still difficult to see who’s winning. The game lacks the drama and intensity of the AAA senior girls’ high-school championship final a month earlier when Sasha scored a team-high 15 points to lead her team to victory. But that doesn’t bother the McKinnons. They rarely miss a chance to watch their daughter play basketball – even if it’s a mean-nothing three-on-three tournament like today. Ever since she was a skinny eighth grader, McKinnon’s hoop dream has been to play big-time college ball in the NCAA. She always figured her basketball skills would earn her a U.S. scholarship and free education, which would give any parents something to really cheer about. But months earlier, when the possibility of Sasha landing a full-ride scholarship to a U.S. university was no longer looking like a slam-dunk, John, an operations manager at a heavy-equipment dealership, and his wife went to Plan B: figuring out how to come up with $100,000 to pay for their daughter’s post-secondary education. It wasn’t like she didn’t have the talent to play in the States. A slashing 5-foot-9 guard, McKinnon was among the most highly recruited B.C. high school hoopsters during her senior year at Langley’s Brookswood Secondary in 2005. McKinnon averaged 13.8 points and 3.9 rebounds a game and led her team to a 37-0 record in the regular season and second straight provincial championship, where she landed on the tournament’s first all-star team. She earned the MVP award at the B.C. high school all-star game and completed her Cinderella-like season by collecting the B.C. basketball female high school athlete of the year award. Talent alone, however, is not enough to land a lucrative U.S. sports scholarship. Canadian high school sports players, regardless of their physical abilities, must actively market themselves to U.S colleges – and should start in Grade 11 – if they’re hoping to be courted by a coach from the States. Provided the athlete meets the school’s academic requirements, the coach is usually free to offer up a scholarship. Last year, 10,124 girls played high school basketball on 759 teams across the province, but only a handful of those players will ever sign a letter of intent to play basketball at a U.S. school. McKinnon’s high school coach Scott Reeves is pragmatic when handicapping the odds for Canadian basketball players earning U.S. scholarships, even despite the recent success of Victoria-raised guard Steve Nash, who was recruited by just one American school, Santa Clara University near San Francisco, yet recently nabbed the NBA’s coveted MVP award. Says Reeves: “It’s more common that kids are getting Division 1 scholarships, but for the amount of kids playing high-school basketball right now, the odds are not good.”

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG PRESSURE When Ciara McCormack tore a ligament in her knee during the pre-season of her senior year at Yale, she didn’t lose her financial aid. Students on athletic scholarships at U.S. schools don’t have to worry about their financial aid being cancelled or reduced because of an injury. Similarly, scholarships can’t be pulled if a player fails to make the team or doesn’t play like a star. Still, there’s always added pressure on student-athletes, in the classroom and on the field. Because financial aid is only doled out one year at a time, even athletes who’ve agreed to a ‘four-year full-ride scholarship’ must have their money renewed each year. “They can’t guarantee a four-year scholarship, but there’s an understanding, subject to the [athlete] maintaining academic standards and meeting athletic expectations,” explains Barry McCormack. “If you put in the effort you will get your scholarship renewed.” Ciara McCormack (in blue) says she had little trouble performing on the field and in the classroom – it was just a matter of time management. “I found it made me have to manage my time better. I ended up getting better grades [during the soccer season] because I was better organized.” Still, she admits she was attending an Ivy League school where scholastics trumped on-field successes. Many of her friends who accepted full-ride scholarships to athletic powerhouses, felt more pressure to perform on the field – and even play through injuries. Unlike Canada, university sports in the States is big business – and athletic departments are measured in wins and losses and bowl appearances, which only increases the stakes.

Just ask Barry McCormack. When his daughter Ciara, a gifted soccer midfielder, told him that she wanted to pursue an athletic scholarship in the States, he mailed out nearly 150 letters to colleges and universities after she finished Grade 11. It turned out to be a crash course in the odds-defying feat of earning a U.S. sports scholarship for McCormack, an engineer in Vancouver. After diligently researching U.S. schools via the Internet and poring over college directories from Chapters, McCormack kept track of the responses using an Excel spreadsheet. When they didn’t receive a reply from a school they’d write a second and, sometimes, even third letter. In some cases they included videotapes of Ciara’s fancy footwork on the soccer pitch. “We got some response,” admits McCormack. “But not a lot.” Feeling somewhat dejected, McCormack came across a 1997 Sports Illustrated article about the dearth of scholarship opportunities presented to a then little-known Canadian high school basketball recruit named Steve Nash. McCormack photocopied the article and mailed it off to some of the U.S. schools they were pursuing. The family’s perseverance paid off, eventually. Ciara received several scholarship offers in her Grade 12 year at North Vancouver’s Handsworth Secondary and eventually picked Yale University. “They liked somebody who doesn’t give up after the first try,” explains McCormack. Ironically, although she’d been offered a full-ride scholarship – which typically covers tuition, books, room and board – to New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, worth US$30,000 a year – Ciara opted for the Ivy League, where none of the schools offer academic or athletic scholarships. She did, however, qualify for financial aid, based on the school’s economic means formula, which covered the cost of the US$23,000 annual tuition. The family was still on the hook for the roughly US$8,000 for room, board, books, spending money and airfare. “We still had $10,000 to make up but that was do-able,” adds McCormack. “It was her decision; she wanted to go there.” In 1997 on a plane trip home from Yale, McCormack started working on a powerpoint presentation about winning a sports scholarship to a U.S. university, which led to a popular seminar series for players, guidance counselors, parents and coaches throughout the Lower Mainland. Last year he published two books on the subject: Winning a U.S. College Sports Scholarship and The Canadian High School Athlete’s 10 Steps to Winning a U.S. College Sports Scholarship. “A lot of people take the passive approach,” explains McCormack. “I think the problem is parents think if their kids are good enough they are going to be scouted and offered a scholarship.” Since Ciara McCormack packed her soccer kit for Yale in 1997, U.S. schools have become more active recruiting north of the border. Sue Keenan, executive director of B.C. School Sports, said the high-school athletics organization doesn’t officially track the number of local athletes who accept U.S. sports scholarships, but she does have anecdotal evidence that U.S. recruiters are more visible in these parts than ever before. [pagebreak] “It’s a trend that is definitely on the increase for sure,” notes Keenan. “I think the Steve Nashes have helped. We have an incredible talent pool here.” She goes on to say that many elite B.C. athletes are also “academically astute, so they’re the whole package.” And with the cost of tuition rising exponentially at Canadian universities – which don’t offer full-ride scholarships to athletes – an athletic scholarship at a U.S. school is no longer just about playing on the NCAA stage. It has become, for some, the only way they can afford to get a post-secondary education. According to Keenan, U.S. schools recruiting B.C. high schoolers have a particular interest in certain sports, such as volleyball, soccer, football and basketball. Sasha McKinnon’s enviable hoop CV, which included a spot on the Canadian junior national team, led to eight scholarship overtures from schools in Canada and the U.S. Despite the courtship from other schools, McKinnon had just one destination in mind: Utah, a NCAA Division 1 school where her basketball idol, Kim Smith, made the successful jump in 2002 from B.C. high- school basketball. McKinnon had planned for a college hoop career since her freshman year at Brookswood. Her coach, Scott Reeves, recalls asking McKinnon what she hoped to accomplish through basketball. “She said ‘I’d like to go play basketball in the States and get an education paid for through basketball.’” Reeves leveled with her: NCAA schools don’t just mail-out scholarships. It would require a lot of hard work to wrest a scholarship away from the one of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. and international students vying to reach the NCAA each year. She was game. Starting in Grade 8, the young McKinnon started arriving at the Bobcats’ gym every morning at 6:30 a.m. when her father dropped her off on his way to work. The school janitor would have the lights on and one basketball set out for McKinnon to work on her dribbling and shooting before the rest of the players arrived at 7 a.m. By Grade 10, McKinnon’s gym-rat work ethic started to pay off. “From Grade 7 to Grade 9 I wasn’t the best player on the team,” admits McKinnon, “but I kept going to open gyms all the time and my coaches would work with me. I wanted to get a Division 1 scholarship. That was my goal. It was like a mission.” When McKinnon wasn’t suiting up for the Bobcats, she played on a club team. And when she wasn’t suiting up for the provincial team, she played on the national team. That kept her parents juggling vacation time so they could grab courtside seats in gymnasiums across Canada and the U.S. – and even to Puerto Rico last summer for the FIBA under-19 championships. “They supported me just because it was a dream,” McKinnon says. McKinnon’s parents said their daughter’s dedication – which included hitting the books as hard as she hit the offensive boards and asking for personal training sessions, not sweaters or jewelry, for Christmas – was matched by her high-school coaches, Reeves and Neil Brown. “They have to have dedicated coaching,” says Cindy McKinnon. “The coaches gave the kids a dream, a Division 1 team if they wanted to earn it.” Reeves was also a big help off the court, making calls on his players’ behalf and entering his teams in high-profile tournaments across Canada and the States to ensure they’d have the opportunity to showcase their dribbling and shooting skills with college scouts in the stands. Without a coach like Reeves in her court, there’s no telling if McKinnon would even be in a position to possibly have her education paid for through athletics.

TURNING THE TABLES: A STAR CALLS THE SHOTS Jeff Tambellini had no problem scoring a hockey scholarship. The son of former NHLer Steve Tambellini had, after all, netted 21 goals and added 30 assists in 54 games as a rookie for the Chilliwack Chiefs in the B.C. Hockey League in 2000-01. The 5’11”, 186-pound forward was also an all-star in the classroom, earning a spot on the honour roll at Sardis Secondary School in Chilliwack. “Tambellini was easy to find,” explains Gordon “Red” Berenson, the legendary crewcut-sporting coach of the Michigan Wolverines. “He was one of the best young players in the league.” Berenson is no slouch himself. Since taking over the Michigan program in 1984, Berenson has won a pair of NCAA championships and taken his team to the NCAA tournament for 15 straight seasons. That on-ice success is largely the result of recruiting top high- school hockey players, many of whom hail from B.C. – such as Canucks forward Brendan Morrison. NCAA Division 1 recruiting guidelines prohibit colleges from contacting high school players before July 1, following their completion of Grade 11. On that summer day, Tambellini, now 21, was ambushed hard, receiving nearly 40 letters, stacks of media guides and endless phone calls from prospective coaches. “The first morning you’re allowed to get calls was the probably the biggest shock to me,” recalls Tambellini. “I think I was on the phone for the whole day talking to schools.” At age 15 Tambellini decided to suit up in the B.C. Hockey League (BCHL). Although the talented forward could easily have played Canadian major junior hockey, the express lane to the NHL, it would have meant forsaking his NCAA eligibility. “I made the decision a to play at least one year in the BCHL. Once I got to play in the BCHL and saw the hype from college scouts and the amount of people watching the games, I just continued there.” In turn, Michigan coach Berenson realizes that competition for blue-chip hockey players is as intense as the game on the ice, so the Wolverines coaches and scouts scour North America for talent. “We’ve been recruiting in B.C. for a long time. We’ve had some really good players come out of that league.” For aspiring collegiate players, Berenson has this advice: excel in school and on the ice and the college scouts will find you. Typically, he adds, the Wolverines team doesn’t recruit kids out of midget hockey. “We’ll know about them in midget but we’ll wait until they prove themselves like Tambellini did.” But not all players wait around to be scouted. Berenson receives letters, emails, DVDs and faxes regularly from players interested in playing at Michigan: “In some cases, those kids end up coming to your school and in some cases they don’t, but at least they’re on the radar. Because of a rule prohibiting schools from contacting players prior to completion of their junior year in high school, however, Berenson said many unwittingly lose out by playing major junior. “Unless the parents are really well informed, they may let their son lose his eligibility at a young age and then it’s too late.” [pagebreak] That mistake can be costly, especially for parents. A full-ride hockey scholarship at Michigan University is worth US$35,000 per year. After stickhandling around scholarship overtures from just about every school in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), along with offers from Harvard and Yale, Tambellini signed a letter of intent to play for the Wolverines on Nov. 21, 2001. “When it came down to it, there are a lot of great hockey schools but very few offer both the hockey and the educational part,” says Tambellini. “It’s not cheap to come down here. I sure wouldn’t be here without a scholarship.” Tambellini will almost certainly depart from the university with a degree. Michigan’s ice hockey program has ranked near the top of collegiate hockey’s graduation rate since Berenson took over behind the bench. After scoring a goal in his first-ever game with the Maize and Blue, Tambellini finished his freshman season as the team leader in goals (26) and was later named CCHA rookie of the year. That summer the Los Angles Kings drafted him in the first round, 27th overall, at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. “You’re not going to get bypassed in the draft because you go to U.S. college hockey,” Berenson says. “[Tambellini] will have a degree from a good school that he can take back and build on. We’ve had kids go on to law school and medical school after their careers so it’s a great scenario. Not everyone is not going to make it to the NHL.”

McKinnon’s on-court training sessions with Mission, B.C. native Kim Smith at the Canada Basketball Nike Centre for Performance British Columbia (CP-BC) in Coquitlam, proved to be a lucky bounce. “[Utah] found out about her through Kim Smith,” says Reeves. “That’s how Division 1 schools work; they use their players an awful lot for recruiting.” Utah coach Elaine Elliott, who has coached the Utes for 22 seasons, says it’s important for aspiring college players to somehow catch the coach’s eye: “You have to take advantage of whatever opportunities exist, whether that’s playing on teams that travel to the States in the summers, or getting involved in the Canada Basketball development programs and camps. American coaches are starting to understand that players with [scholarship] aspirations are involved in that development program, so we try to follow that as closely as we can.” It works both ways. Elliott says she routinely receives basketball resumés and DVDs from high school players hoping to join her powerhouse program: “It’s a good way to try and get yourself in front of any schools you might have interest in. We certainly look at every one.” However, she adds that player DVDs are pre-screened by an assistant coach. “You just better make sure it’s a good one. Looking at a DVD of somebody you don’t think can play, you’re not going any farther with them. If they are not good enough, I may never see them.” Elliott first saw McKinnon play live, at the Canadian junior national try-out camp in Toronto last summer after hearing about her from Smith. Elliot, who has recruited a half-dozen Canadian high-school basketball players in recent years, made a trip to Langley in October to watch McKinnon in a scrimmage game. McKinnon scored a three-pointer the first time she touched the basketball. Although she knew McKinnon had game, Elliot didn’t have a scholarship to offer the talented young Canadian at the time. That’s when McKinnon’s mum put on a full-court press of her own, visiting Utah’s website to see the price of tuition at the school. “Just so we had an idea if she didn’t have a scholarship,” explains Cindy, noting that the cost of tuition, books and rooming at Utah worked out to about $25,000. “It’s a lot of money but if it’s her dream you want to do it.” The McKinnons had already experienced first-hand the high cost of post-secondary education. Sasha’s eldest sister, Nicole, graduated with her B.Sc. from UVic. “We paid for that one,” John McKinnon says. “We know about the paying part of it.” Despite their daughter’s prodigious talent, the McKinnons hadn’t exactly banked on a basketball scholarship. They’d started saving for their three daughters’ post-secondary education from the time they were toddlers, investing in a Canadian scholarship fund. That fund, along with student loans and whatever else they could scrape together, put Nicole through five years at UVic. As it turns out, the McKinnons won’t have to scrimp and save for Sasha’s education. This past March, Elliot had some good news for the McKinnons. She offered Sasha a full-ride basketball scholarship. There was high-fiving — and a financial sigh of relief – inside the family’s Langley home. “We’d been down to the bank already to see about a second mortgage,” recalls Cindy, a special education teacher’s assistant. “Now [with a scholarship] we won’t have to worry so much. The scholarship takes care of everything.” Elliot was impressed by McKinnon’s on-court skills, but equally impressed by the fact that she was so determined to play at Utah, her family was willing to pay for tuition. “When you have a player that has that great an interest, then you know they are going to be extremely committed to your program.” John McKinnon jokes. “The money we had to pay on education, we’ll spend on ourselves now.” The McKinnons had, of course, earned it. On the wall of the entrance to their home hangs a framed reminder: We interrupt this marriage for basketball season. “There was no off-season for us,” Cindy smiles. “It’s 12 months a year. We used to laugh if we had a weekend off.” And it seems likely that some of the money the McKinnons saved on tuition will be spent on a pair of airline tickets and hotel room in Utah so they can watch their daughter, decked out in a Utes uniform, dribble down the court inside the university’s silver-domed, 15,000-seat Huntsman Center.