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Multi-sport athletes: more harm than help?

Josh Ortiz is what many consider a gifted athlete. By the end of the year, he'll have played four sports: football, basketball, baseball and track. Jeff and Jason Haynes play three sports. Hilary Fiocca plays volleyball, basketball and softball.

It's commendable. Somehow, these kids find time to compete in several sports and still find time to keep up their grades, maybe snag a main squeeze and not turn into robots or athletic 'droids.

After Nature Coast's playoff loss to Bishop Moore, though, Sharks coach Jason Montgomery commented on how he would like to see some of his players work on their skills and get stronger. But when will multi-sport athletes Kaitlin Wadsworth or Cayse Houston find time to work on making a backdoor pass or handling the press? They're on to softball. The fall is volleyball time.

But look across the county. The best athletes in each sport are the ones who specialize. Angela Passafaro and Jaleesa Scott are unquestionably the best girls soccer players. Neither plays another sport for their high schools. Rae-Lynn Sheffield swims year round and participated in weightlifting only to build strength for swimming. Nikki Weaver was a weightlifting teammate, training for volleyball. AB Rodriguez plays basketball. Nothing else - he just hoops.

It would seem there is evidence that focusing one's attention on a particular sport bears juicier fruits. It might also seem that an athlete who excels in one sport might save Dad and Mom a couple of thousand bucks in tuition.

So is high school athletics about excellence or participation? Is it an outlet for fun or a means to an end?

Local coaches seem torn. Montgomery, John Sedlack, Jamie Joyner, Vickie Weaver, Tom Brown and others agree that an athlete who specializes usually has a greater chance at a scholarship, but I didn't talk to one coach or administrator who promoted single-sport athletes. They said the decision rests with the student, and some, such as Joyner, encourage multi-sport athletes.

"Josh (Ortiz) is my quarterback. If I see him on the free-throw line down one point with no time left on the clock or up to bat, down three with bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning, that's going to help him in pressure situations leading the football team," said Joyner, Nature Coast's football and track coach.

"For 90 percent or more of the students that participate, high school athletics is just fun," Central volleyball coach Vickie Weaver said. "It is something to do that keeps them active, it's where their friends are.

"For that other 10 percent they find a high level of success in one or more of the competitive sports and work a little harder hoping to play beyond high school."

Sedlack said he encourages multi-sport athletes, but only up to a certain point. "If they want to experiment, then they should," he said. "But once they get older, they might want to think about narrowing it down."

He went on:

"Alex Ruoff wasn't going to go anywhere in football, but now he's getting minutes for one of the Top 20 college basketball teams in the nation," said Sedlack of the Central graduate who is now a member of the West Virginia basketball team. "That didn't happen by accident. He used to spend 8-10 hours a day during the summer, working on his game."

Vickie coached her daughter, Nikki, for three volleyball seasons. Nikki began high school playing soccer too, but soon kicked that to the curb. She played volleyball for the Bears during the fall, with a club team in winter and attended camps during the summer. This fall, Nikki will play at Berry College.

Joyner noted that most top-level college football players also played basketball or baseball or ran track. However, we're not dealing with those caliber athletes. Yes, LeBron James played wide receiver and John Elway was a major-league pitching prospect, but All-World athletes are ridiculously gifted and would be professional mountain-climbers if that were a sport. We mortals can't spread ourselves that thin and expect to excel.

Sedlack played basketball and baseball at Queens College. He said he probably "threw away" a baseball career because he couldn't stop playing basketball.

So you have a kid like Jason Haynes, last season's backup quarterback at Springstead. On the basketball team he often spent time coming off the bench. What's in his best interest going into his senior year? Should he quit football to work on his ball-handling and jump shot and vertical leap?

It is, indeed, a tough decision. For most kids it's fun, not a project. Good for them. Fun will rarely be as unbridled and carefree as it is during those four years in high school. College athletes will tell you that sports become much more of a job at the next level.

On the other hand, those select few should inventory their ability and obligations. If there's a chance that focusing on one sport might lead to increased options for college, it might be time to make a young-adult decision. It could be the difference between playing intramural Frisbee at College Town University or suiting up for varsity on a full-ride scholarship.

Vincent Thomas can be reached at vthomas@sptimes.com or 352-848-1430.

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