The Journal News published a special report today in the news section on a trend that has affected the landscape of high school sports: The age of specialization.
Coaches and administrators see a vast decline in the number of multisport athletes. The three-sport athlete is all but dead as student-athletes chase scholarships and success because of personal and parental pressure and the demands of high school and club coaches. Sports like football, basketball, soccer and baseball have become year-round pursuits.
In one of the money quotes from my report, North Rockland AD Joe Casarella said specialization has been “the ruination of high school sports.” Casarella is not alone. I interviewed a couple dozen people and had casual conversations with dozens more. Everyone agreed with the shift, why it occurred and drew a similar conclusion.
There are several athletes and a handful of topics highlighted. Here are a few:
• Former Pelham star Matt Landis (pictured above) was the rare three-sport standout in football, hockey and lacrosse. But in the middle of an award-winning junior season as Pelham’s middle linebacker, Landis committed to play lacrosse at Notre Dame. Against his heart, Landis did not play football as a senior despite his success as a junior. It was a crushing loss for Pelham, which lost a Super 11 caliber player.
• Iona Prep’s Jordon Bronner (pictured right) faced a similar decision, but he came to it with fewer reservations. Despite playing a major role in Iona Prep’s 2008 CHSFL championship, Bronner quit football to focus on basketball. His focus was rewarded; Bronner earned a scholarship to New Hampshire, where he is now the starting point guard.
• At some schools, athletes are encouraged to participate in multiple sports because of the culture inside the school. Unlike many of the section’s other top programs, North Rockland football coaches have allowed athletes to miss spring and summer workouts for baseball and lacrosse tournaments without penalty. Lakeland is another strong example. The girls sports program in particular have been successful thanks to talented two and three-sport athletes like Melissa Gonzalez, who was an all-American field hockey and lacrosse player and who just participated on the U.S. field hockey team at the London Olympics.
• Irvington football coach Mike Oliva was a three-sport athlete at Iona Prep who went on to play football and baseball at Albany. He had one of the strongest quotes of the piece, summing up the thoughts of coaches in participation sports like football, where numbers continue to decline around the section:
“I think it’s a lot of parental pressure for their kids to get scholarships in college,” Oliva said. “They have coaches at the youth level who tell them their kid has potential. The parents then say, ‘OK, let’s just focus on baseball,’ or, ‘Let’s just focus on soccer.’ ”
• For athletes who want to continue playing multiple sports in college, Division III sports provide them a chance. The piece includes a section on two of the many multisport athletes at the College of New Rochelle, where 21 students played two sports or more in 2011-12. That included Yonkers High School grad Kristina Nilaj, who said she was the only person in her graduating class who played 12 sports in her 12 high school seasons. She now plays softball, volleyball and basketball in college while juggling multiple jobs and a heavy workload.
• As you read here a couple weeks ago, Rye Country Day’s Tyler Fernandez nearly gave up football. But the junior from Mount Vernon returned for practice and is a rare three-sport athlete. He also plays basketball and baseball and, despite his desire for balance, Fernandez recently decided his future sport — at just 16.
“It’s almost not fair when you think about it to make him have to focus in on a specific sport,” said his dad, also Tyler Fernandez, who is a former Hamilton assistant basketball coach. “But that’s the way it is nowadays.”