The Road to Playing in College

By: Natalie Eaton

High school athletes always say they are “committing to a college,” but what does that exactly mean?

Committing to a college sport means so much more than playing for a team that is giving you a scholarship. You are joining a team, a family, and a group of people who aspire to win and work hard together every day. Most importantly, you are agreeing to continue the sport you love. 

As the school year is quickly approaching the end, many student-athletes are starting to make the final decisions in committing to colleges that fit them academically and athletically. After years of hard work, practices, and competitions, continuing their sport in college is the icing on the cake. But the process of committing requires many decisions leading up to signing the deal. 

The primary focus for all colleges is, hopefully, committing somewhere they truly love, regardless of what division it is. 

Speaking of “divisions,” what are they? NJCAA (Junior college) or associate degree, NAIA (similar to D2 and mostly private), and Division 3 are all similar since they are smaller schools with a very strong emphasis on academics. Division 2 is also fairly small, more competitive, and less expensive. Division 1 consists of bigger schools, and more competitive and selective teams. 

Ever since the pandemic began, the recruitment process has been changed. Many athletes have resorted to virtual tours, and sending in videos for coaches to analyze. For different divisions, the processes are different. For smaller schools in the D3 and below group, phone calls and in-person tours are more available. For Division 1 hopefuls, a process called NCAA “dead week” started, keeping athletes restricted from talking to coaches in person and getting official tours. Similarly, division two athletes went through a “quiet period,” but it ended back in September. Overall, athletes have had their fair share of challenges. 

Jimena Martinez, 12, a soccer player, and student-athlete went through challenges due to the pandemic before realizing she even wanted to play in college. She could not play soccer at her club, and her high school season was abruptly canceled. During her time in quarantine, her love for her sport grew. 

“During that time, I realized how much I missed soccer,” says Martinez. “I started thinking about it, and when I started playing again, an opportunity came out of nowhere from a school I had never even heard of or even considered. But I looked into it more and researched, and I fell in love with it.”

The University of Oklahoma City reached out to Martinez and expressed interest. Luckily, Martinez had the opportunity to visit the campus and was given an informal tour with the coaches. Even better, she got to learn more about the feel of the team by practicing with the UCO girls.  

Originally, Martinez was going to pick a university that was well known and competitive to get into, but UCO had the right balance of athletics and academics that she was looking for. Since UCO is NAIA-D1, the primary focus is on academics, but there is still a strong level of competitiveness like D3 schools. 

“From what I have researched and heard, it is the same level as D3 and maybe D2,” says Martinez. “The only difference between D3 and NAIA D1 is that NAIA D1 can give out scholarships, but for D3 they are not allowed to give out scholarships for athletics. But I do not think NAIA D1 is any less competitive!”

Similarly, swimmer Payton Pangburn, 12, realized D3 Hendrix College was the perfect fit for her academic and athletic plans. Around her junior year, Pangburn realized her love for a team environment needed to go on into college, and that college swimming could really take her places. 

“It’s actually a funny story, because I didn’t know I wanted to commit until I actually went to the athletic visit,” says Pangburn. “Originally I was going to go to OSU, and I had that mindset, and I went into the athletic visit thinking I was just going to see how it is. When I went there, after the formal tour,  I knew Hendrix was where I wanted to be.”

One of the biggest factors in the recruitment process is liking the coach. Pangburn notes that the Hendrix coach made her feel at home, and did not see her as someone just for points, but was invested in her life. 

Both Pangburn and Martinez also took into account how far away their college would be from home. For Martinez, the 2-hour drive to Oklahoma City would be perfect for her family to travel to games, and for Pangburn, Arkansas was not far off from home.

Volleyball athlete, Cienna Oniwa, 12, committed to Palm Beach Atlantic University, all the way in Florida. The long upcoming move did not seem to overwhelm her. 

“This coach emailed me back and he’s from Florida, I love Florida!” exclaims Oniwa.  “I thought that if they offered me the spot, I would absolutely say yes!”

By contacting Palm Beach through highlight videos and zoom meetings, Oniwa successfully committed without any help from recruiting websites. 

“I did a lot of research on my own, and once I realized I had the confidence to do it, I put all my effort into emailing my coaches and getting my name out there and making my own videos to send out,” says Oniwa. “I was also open to lower divisions based on scholarships and all of that.”

Oniwa knew that D1 was going to be a lot harder to get into, but still wanted to compete at a high level. D2 seemed to be the perfect fit for her, along with the location and academics. 

Committing to Palm Beach to Oniwa means changing her mindset to work towards bettering her new team. She comments that even though she has not met any of her teammates yet, she is ready to win and help her teammates all four years. 

Baseball player, Preston Pattinson, 12, wanted to maintain a high level of baseball but did not care as much about divisions. 

“I am only going to be able to play baseball at this time in my life, so I might as well!” jokes Pattison. “I wanted to play at a school where I knew I was going to get playing time.”

Realizing he would not get a lot of playing time at a big school, Pattison committed to Seminole State College, which is a junior college that has been considering him for a while and had reached out to him first. He met the coach and finally decided that Seminole State was where he wanted to be. 

Similar to Pattison, tennis player Patrick Bernius, 12,  did not let divisions get to him in the recruiting process. Committing to NAIA William Woods University was perfect for him location-wise, (roughly four hours away,) has great academics and a high level of playing for a small school. After visiting the campus, Bernius was not totally set on it and wanted to keep his options open. 

“I was still looking at D2 schools, but there was not a lot that I liked,” says Bernius. “The cool thing about William Woods is that they are NAIA, and they are better than most D2 teams and they play D2 teams, they are basically a D2 team!”

Now committed, Bernius is looking forward to meeting his new teammates and playing with higher-level players. 

After a wild year of sports cancellations, virtual recruiting, and so much more, athletes pulled through this year and overcame many obstacles. The road to playing college is not an easy one, but it is rewarding in the end. Congratulations to all committed student-athletes!

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