Joining The Club

WHEN THE 6TH-grade boys soccer teams from La Cima and Cross Middle Schools met over at the far northwest-side Cross campus a few weeks back, many of the Cross parents were in a hurry for the game to get over. And it wasn't because of the biting-cold wind sweeping across the field right into their faces; it was the fact that all of their kids had club soccer practice to get to after the school soccer game.

When the Amphi High girls basketball team was preparing for the divisional tournament this past February, needing only to win one game to advance to the state playoffs, a key player broke team rules by missing practice to participate in a club volleyball tournament in Scottsdale. Playing short-handed (four other players had missed practice, as well, with excuses ranging from illness to work to school-play rehearsal), the Panthers lost the playoff game to Tucson High, a team Amphi had beaten by 25 points just two weeks earlier.

And when first-year Salpointe Catholic girls basketball coach Kim Conway went into the second round of a tough early-season tournament in Phoenix, she did so without two of her top players. The girls had been picked up by their parents and driven to Los Angeles to participate in a club softball tournament on Thanksgiving.

Feature Welcome to the brave new world of club sports, a world which, depending on whom you ask, is either a natural outgrowth of the competitive nature of sports today, or selfish Yuppie vicariousness taken to a stomach-turning extreme. People will tell you it's one or the other, but no one will claim it's something in between.

Club sports are, by best definition, highly organized teams (and leagues) which operate during a sport's natural off-season. In most cases, they were formed to allow enthusiasts of one sport to participate beyond the relatively short high-school season. Others were outgrowths of long-standing kids' programs, including Bobby Sox softball and AYSO soccer.

What they have become, however, is something quite different. Club sports, in some areas, are poised to supplant school sports as the paramount venue of participation for many young athletes. They have grown so powerful so quickly that many critics see them as being out-of-control monsters feeding on the dreams of kids and the egos (and wallets) of their parents.

One thing is certain: Club sports are, with rare exception, the domain of narrowly defined one-sport athletes, kids to whom the notion of well-roundedness means only that they find time in their club schedule to squeeze in their high-school season.

JORGE GUTIERREZ HAS no idea how many softball games he's watched his daughter, Andrea, play. "It's certainly hundreds, if not thousands," he says, with neither pride nor lamentation in his voice.

"She started out young and before long we knew she was something special. She even played boys baseball for a while."

Andrea played the normal Bobby Sox, which was, until the start of this decade, the program of choice for softball enthusiasts. Bobby Sox Softball has been played by hundreds of thousands of girls all over the country for decades.

But then along came ASA (American Softball Association) Softball, which presented itself as the elite form of girls softball. Longer seasons, more travel, more tournaments, tougher competition. Pretty soon, Bobby Sox teams (which generally compete in leagues formed at neighborhood parks and never venture off home turf until post-season playoffs) were being raided for their "best" kids, sometimes gutting the Bobby Sox rosters in mid-season and quickly leading to a caste system in which "Bobby Sox" became a pejorative.

"I would have liked for Andrea to have played Bobby Sox, but in order for her to have gotten the most out of it, all the other kids would have had to stay in Bobby Sox, too," says Gutierrez. "I've heard all the arguments about elitism, and I suppose they're true to a certain extent. But if you want your kid to be the best she can be, she has to play against the best, and that's what ASA does for her."

Andrea Gutierrez played last season for the 14-and-under age class Tucson Alley Cats. Coached by former UA All-American Laura Espinosa-Watson, the team played well over 100 games in a season stretching from February to September, and that doesn't include "winter ball." The Alley Cats reached the nationals as the top seed, but lost two one-run games and failed to win the national title.

Weekend travel is a given. "You pretty much plan your life around your job and your kid's softball schedule," says Gutierrez.

The Alley Cats, like most top-level teams, travel all over the Southwest (and some, even the country) on a maddeningly regular basis. Sometimes they'll travel Friday afternoons and evenings to get someplace, have their kids play quadruple-headers on Saturdays and Sundays, then get home late Sunday night exhausted, with work and school waiting for kids and parents the next morning.

"It's a drag sometimes," admits Espinosa-Watson, "but you have to do it. You get tired of playing Tucson teams all the time. But if you need to know which fast-food place stays open late in St. John's, Arizona, I can tell you. 'Course, it's not always easy to find a Catholic Church with a Mass schedule that fits around the games."

One parent, who asked not to be identified, said he and his wife set aside $5,000 each year from the family budget to cover travel costs. He adds that it almost makes one wish that the team doesn't do too well, noting that success in one tournament often leads to another tournament in some other part of the country.

"You find out that by winning the tournament in South Dakota, your kid's team has now qualified for the sub-nationals in Wisconsin, and if they win there, they'll go to the nationals in Alabama," he laughs. "Do you know how much it costs to buy a ticket to South Dakota on only a few days' notice?"

Add to that the cost of even being on the team (sometimes $250 or more a month, depending on the team) and we're talking real money. That money goes to pay the coach's salary (oh no, we're not in Bobby Sox Kansas anymore, where parents volunteer to do this stuff), travel expenses for the coaches and team chaperon, equipment, field rental, and so on.

"I suppose you could easily spend several thousand dollars in a season," Gutierrez shrugs. "It's like constant fund-raising. And even then there are times when you just can't or don't want to spend that kind of money or your work schedule won't let you travel, so you end up sending your kid off on some airplane. It kinda defeats the purpose. What good is it to have your kid play ball if you can't watch them play?

"Still, I'm glad we did this. It's been a mostly positive experience."

Andrea made the junior-varsity team at Salpointe as a freshman. But she was cut during volleyball tryouts, despite having been named top middle-school volleyball player in the Tucson Unified School District last year. She thinks it was because she didn't play club volleyball like all the other kids.

Chris Lugo-Swensen looked into ASA for her two daughters, but ultimately rejected it. "I believe in Bobby Sox; maybe that's archaic. I just like the idea of girls from the same neighborhood and the same schools getting together a couple nights a week to play softball.

"Hey, Bobby Sox girls want to win just as badly as ASA girls. They just get to play a few minutes away from home, in front of their parents, and against their friends. They might not be quite as good as (their ASA counterparts), but don't let people fool you. The differences aren't that striking. They're not permanent. And they're not that important.

"My eldest daughter made the varsity at her high school as a sophomore. Maybe if she had played 100 ASA games a year for the past four years, at the exclusion of all else, she might have made the varsity as a freshman. Would it have been worth all that for her to have had one more year of varsity experience? Not for me."

Lugo-Swensen also rejects the notion that Bobby Sox is on the way out. "There will always be a need for neighborhood-based athletic activities for young people. That's part of the fabric of America. If the ASA parents want to set themselves apart as a way of saying 'Look how good my child is,' that's fine. I've got better ways to spend my time. And my children's time."

She is most bothered by the widely held belief that club sports offer the only way to get a college scholarship in a sport. "I've had parents blatantly tell me that my kids have no chance of getting a scholarship without playing ASA. First of all, I'm a normal parent. I think it would be great to have (UA softball coach) Mike Candrea knock on my door and tell me that he needs my daughter to play for him as part of his 10th NCAA championship team.

"But you know what? That's probably not going to happen, not for me and probably not for any other parent in Tucson." (This year's UA team has one local player, Desert View's Lety Pineda.) "Sure, it would be nice for her to get a scholarship to someplace, but that's not why she's playing ball.

"It would be nice for her to get a scholarship, either for her classroom achievements or her sports, but if she doesn't she's still going to go to college. And she'll take with her a lot of high-school memories, not all of which concern softball."

WHATEVER YOU DO, don't get Sahuaro High School JV boys basketball and freshman football coach Bob Vielledent started talking on this subject. You remember how Woody Allen tried to coin an extreme form of the word "love" in Play It Again, Sam, eventually coming up with "lerve?" Bob Vielledent has been trying to do the same with "hate" when it comes to club sports.

"Don't get me started," he says. Too late.

"Club sports are one of the worst things to happen to sports in my lifetime, and that includes drugs, professional wrestling and Don King. The whole concept is nothing more than candy being spoon-fed to egomaniacal parents. 'Ooh, give us money, have your kid practice and play this sport year-round and you can tell yourself that your kid is better than the kid next door.' Yeah, and?

"Any kid who plays something 365 days a year is going to get better at it. He might even get really good. But what you're losing for the kid and as a family far outweighs the benefits. I'd rather have my kids play a couple hours of a sport in the summer and then go to the movies with their friends than have them play eight hours of something seven days a week.

"I think the word 'burnout' came into being about one year after the start of club sports."

Well gee, Coach, what do you really think? Vielledent has been JV coach and varsity assistant for coaching legend Dick McConnell for two decades. He's extremely active in high-school sports and sees what club sports are doing to the traditional activities.

"You've got kids nowadays who play the same sport every day of the year for years before they even get to high school. Can you imagine what that does to them? You've got a bunch of Oksana Baiuls running around." (She was the 1994 Gold Medalist in figure skating who, at the tender age of 16, soon went on to a new career involving drug and alcohol abuse, with a sideline specialty in wrapping cars around trees. She later said she just cracked under the strain of having to skate perfectly every day.)

"What's wrong with a kid going to high school, playing some football and some basketball and maybe playing baseball or running track in the spring? When did we get away from that? I know kids whose parents have their lives plotted out for them by the time the kids are in the fourth grade. That's disgusting.

"Some unscrupulous amateur coaches are pushing the notion that if a kid doesn't specialize--and the sooner, the better--they're never going to make the high-school team and they'll never have a shot at playing in college. And unfortunately, a lot of parents go along with it. Kids are being made to choose one sport at an earlier and earlier age."

Brian Peabody, the highly successful boys basketball coach at Salpointe Catholic, agrees with Vielledent. "I don't like that 'All-Star' mentality, that kids have to be continually collated according to ability level at any given moment until you have an absolute elite and then everybody else who wasn't good enough to reach the top.

"I know it's outdated thinking, but it still applies: Outstanding players don't win championships; teams do. I don't have to go over a list of how many times schools with superior talent have lost to good teams."

Peabody's teams have won three consecutive 5A-South championships and shared another with Amphi. Several of his players are constantly being bombarded with requests to play on club and all-star teams.

"The players in my (Salpointe) program know how I feel about that. I can't forbid them to play with a club and I won't punish them if they do, but I see any benefit they might get as being negligible. I see it as a waste of my time. When I get them back, I have to scrub off all the nonsense they learned on the club team.

"Put it this way. Say you've got a kid coming downcourt with the ball in the middle of a 3-on-2 fast break. His high-school coach wants him to take the ball to the free-throw line, come to a jump stop and either pass off or shoot the 15-footer. His club coach wants him to shoot the three and crash the boards. This kid has to stop and think, 'Which team am I playing on today?' A kid can't serve two masters."

There are dozens of high-profile tournaments during the summer at which kids can be seen by college scouts, and all-star teams make the rounds of such tournaments. Peabody prefers to take his Salpointe team as a group to such events, even if it puts them at a competitive disadvantage. "Hey, if we get beaten by some all-star team from New York City, that'll make us better as a team, and despite what anybody says, that's what's important."

COREY MORISHITA STANDS against the wall in East Valley Junior Olympics Volleyball Club in Chandler, Arizona. Oblivious to the noise caused by three games going on simultaneously, his gaze switches back and forth from Court One to Court Three, where two of his Club Cactus volleyball teams are playing. The 16-3 team is cruising against a team from Payson, but the 16-2 squad is in a nail-biter with a North Valley team from Phoenix.

Morishita is the head of Club Cactus Juniors (CCJ), an organization which has enjoyed explosive growth over the past decade, and one of few club sports organizations with a generally positive rating, even among outsiders. The thirtysomething former UA coach smiles at that thought, then says, "We've worked very hard to maintain a balanced approach to the sport. My life is volleyball, but I'm a grown man. I'm old enough to choose to do one thing in my life. We don't want to shove this sport down kids' throats. We don't want to go overboard."

Those words are mildly ironic, considering his location when he speaks them. The E.V.J.O. is a converted roller rink. As the story goes, an heir to the Borden Dairy fortune had retired to Phoenix. Her granddaughter was trying to make the local high-school volleyball team, so Gramma Moneybags bought the building, put in three sweet volleyball courts and donated it to the club so they'd have a place to practice. Not a bad deal.

East Valley is one of nearly 200 club volleyball teams in Arizona, and the number is growing by double-digit percentages every year.

Morishita has heard all the criticism and is careful in his approach. "We don't start with CCJ until January, a full two months after the end of the high-school season. And then we finish up in early June, so the kids can have almost all the summer off before the start of school season."

He says that CCJ has several rules aimed at benefitting the young people. These rules are set by the board and followed by the coaches. "Most importantly," says Morishita, "school work comes before any CCJ activity. Some of the teams practice three times a week. That's a lot of hours. If a kid's school work starts to suffer, we insist they cut back on the volleyball.

"Secondly, school sports come before CCJ things. We encourage kids to play other sports. We want them to be well-rounded people. Besides, being a good basketball player can help make you a better volleyball player. It all works together. But if there's a conflict, high-school sports come first."

How then does he explain the Amphi kid skipping basketball practice for a volleyball tournament? "I can't. She should have gone to basketball practice. If I had known about it, I would have encouraged her to go to basketball. Maybe she thought the volleyball game was more important than the basketball practice. I don't know. Then there's also the matter of parents paying money for their kids to be in CCJ and wanting to get their money's worth. Maybe it was a financial decision. I hope not."

A couple years back, Club Cactus Juniors had to weather the storm of a dissident faction splitting off and forming Zona Volleyball Club. Virtually all of the kids at Salpointe and many other eastside girls play for Zona. Morishita brushes aside questions about Zona, but several insiders say that the split was caused by parents and coaches who wanted to form an elite group within CCJ and then decided to split off altogether.

"I wish them well," is all that Morishita will say.

Morishita sidesteps most controversy, but meets one head-on. When asked about allegations that club-sport participation and college scholarships are linked, he says that's absolutely true.

"I can't speak for other sports, but I can say that in volleyball, in this day and age, it's almost impossible to get a college scholarship unless you play club volleyball. The day of the college coach sitting at the top row of the bleachers in some high-school gym scouting the local prospect are long gone. Nobody has the time or resources to do that any more.

"Nowadays, college coaches go to club tournaments. They can see hundreds or thousands of players in one place in just a couple days. The tournament we end our season with, the national championships in Davis, California, is the second-largest gathering of female athletes in the world. This year there should be 1,000 teams there, with over 10,000 athletes participating. Only the Olympics are bigger, and they only happen once every four years.

"Why would a college coach try to go from one high-school to another when he can see all the top players in one place at one time? I don't know which came first, the growth of the tournaments or the change in scouting philosophy, but the fact of the matter is that's how scholarships are awarded these days. We're not saying that if you play club, you'll get a scholarship. But I will say that if you don't play club, you have almost no chance of getting a scholarship."

He smiles, then adds, "But a vast majority of the kids who play club do it just for fun or to get better for their high-school seasons. They're not in it for a scholarship."

One player who was and thinks the system worked just fine is Jessica Treazise. She played for Morishita at Amphi High and in CCJ. Barely able to make the freshman team her first year there, she ended up being All-City as a junior and again as a senior. But she agrees it was her play on the CCJ club team which got her the full scholarship to the University of Memphis.

"When I sat down with my parents to talk about playing CCJ at the beginning, we all realized it was a lot of money (around $1,500 a season), but at first I just wanted to get better as a volleyball player. By the time I was a junior, we looked at it as an investment. They thought that if they paid this money now and I got a scholarship out of it, it would turn out to be a great investment.

"But then," she adds, "even if I didn't get a scholarship out of it, it would make me a better player, and I would get other things from the experience."

Treazise's high-school teammate, Deja Deal, also played CCJ, but never thought about a scholarship. "I just really liked volleyball and I wanted to play it all the time. The high-school season only goes from Labor Day to Halloween. That's not enough time. CCJ let me play a lot."

Now attending Northern Arizona University, Deal coaches a boys club team in Flagstaff in her spare time.

IF CLUB VOLLEYBALL is at least trying to honor the traditions and boundaries of high-school sports, club soccer has kicked those ideas right in the groin. In soccer, the club season has been encroaching on the school season for years, and this past winter it came to a head.

Several club teams decided to hold a big Thanksgiving weekend tournament. The only problem is that Thanksgiving weekend is the traditional kickoff time for high-school soccer and basketball seasons. Several local high-school soccer teams had to cancel out of completely or play undermanned in traditional kickoff tournaments because their players were committed to club activities. (Furthermore, Arizona Interscholastic Association rules prohibit prep athletes from playing on a club team and a high-school team in the same sport at the same time.)

This caused many prep athletes to hold off on signing up for their high-school team until their club season took a break. Unlike other sports, club soccer tends to run year-round.

"It was a disaster," said one prep coach who asked to remain anonymous. "Those club guys are getting so arrogant. They know we start on Thanksgiving. It makes me sick. So now you had kids who either didn't sign up to play for their school or had to lie to me and tell me they weren't playing club. They're making liars out of kids. Real nice lesson."

One club coach is equally outspoken. Luis Dabo, who heads Phoenix-based Santos, says many high-school coaches "mess up" club players during the prep season. Dabo has been quoted as saying, "When the kids come back to the club team, they have a hard time distinguishing a soccer ball from a pingpong ball."

This kind of thinking touched off a storm of controversy in the Phoenix area recently. Glendale Cactus Coach Jack Altersitz fired back, "This is their bread and butter. They get paid directly from these kids. If kids think they're getting quality coaching for free (at school), it doesn't make those club coaches look too good."

Altersitz and other prep coaches must also deal with the problem of cliques forming in prep teams along the lines of rival club teams.

Meanwhile, Dabo and other club coaches refer to the high-school season as "the dead time" and moan over the fact that it was the clubs who first pushed for schools to start soccer teams in the first place, back in the 1980s.

Altersitz acknowledges that clubs can help refine a player's skills, but counters: "We're developing them as people. That's our job. Soccer is just one of the means."

THIS TUG-OF-war is intensifying as the stakes get higher and the language gets nastier. Some club backers openly predict the demise of high-school sports as we know it within the next 20 years due to spiralling costs and the ever-growing influence of club sports.

Others, like Vielledent, scoff at the notion, but worry about the effect the situation is having on young people. "Youth sports are supposed to be for the youths, but that's clearly not the case here. Some parents are trying to buy success for their kids, others are trying to live vicariously through a highly successful son or daughter. It's ridiculous."

Vielledent has two grown daughters who both attended college on basketball scholarships. "Yeah," he laughs, "but they both also played volleyball all the way through high school. And they went to the movies a lot."

The situation is causing some coaches to adapt in ways they never would have dreamed necessary. Kim Conway didn't even punish the softball players for skipping the basketball tournament over Thanksgiving. "I'm sure it was their parents' idea. I can't blame the kids. I do know that next year I'll have rules in place to deal with the situation. If somebody tries to pull that next year, they're gone.

"If a kid wants to play softball nine months out of the year and only touches a basketball during my season, that's fine. But from now on, when you're with me, you're with me."

AS FOR THE La Cima-Cross game, La Cima pulled off the upset by gaining a tie with Cross. It was an upset because, unlike the Cross team, whose players all ran off the field to hop in the sport-utility vehicles which would whisk them to club practice, La Cima didn't have any club players on their roster.

The club players at La Cima had all decided to skip the middle-school season, figuring they were too good for such things and wanting to concentrate on club play.

La Cima had to go through the season with average kids, kids who had played basketball in the fall and would go on to run track in the spring. What a concept.

She is most bothered by the widely held belief that club sports offer the only way to get a college scholarship in a sport.

East Valley is one of nearly 200 club volleyball teams in Arizona, and the number is growing by double-digit percentages every year.

Dabo has been quoted as saying, "When the kids come back to the club team, they have a hard time distinguishing a soccer ball from a pingpong ball." TW

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