Student athletes play it to the bone


Nov. 10, 2003, midnight | By Ellie Blalock | 17 years, 2 months ago

Upper-level sports teams demand dedication and commitment


Almost everyone remembers their very first childhood sports team. Back when the most important game of the year was the one with a pizza party afterwards and phrases like "batting average," "starting lineup" and "try-out" seemed like a foreign language, no one imagined the hard-core, super-competitive teams that many of these same kids find themselves on these days. However, for nearly all serious athletes who hope to excel in high school and eventually college sports, "select" teams have become a reality that can mean the difference between making it in the athletic world and getting left in the dust.

Select teams, also referred to as "tournament" or "travel" teams, come with a price, both literally and figuratively. These teams, which practice and compete nearly year-round, often cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to join. Many players must also drive for hours to simply practice with their team or to attend tournaments and games as far away as Florida, Delaware, and Virginia. However, extreme dedication to one or more sports has become the norm for committed student athletes, and many coaches feel that these high-pressure teams foster confidence and team camaraderie along with athletic experience.

Not for the faint of heart

Junior Emily O'Brien, catcher for the varsity softball team, has played travel softball since eighth grade. She currently plays with the Freedom Firebirds, a tournament team located in Carroll County, Maryland. O'Brien agrees that select teams are a huge commitment. Travel is the biggest obstacle for her. "It's a big problem, I have to travel three hours roundtrip for practice," she says without a hint of exaggeration. "You have to be willing to travel a lot, and on weekends, you have to be willing to get up at five or six in the morning [for games and tournaments]."

Ray Ebert, Softball Commissioner for the Montgomery Village Sports Association (MVSA) and head coach of MVSA's 14 and under Fastpitch Softball team, feels that girls involved in competitive programs do sacrifice a lot of free time to their sport. "Playing select softball is a huge commitment of time for both players and parents for about 10 months out of each year," he says. MVSA's select softball program (also known as MVSA Storm) graduated two former Blair students last year.

Select teams are an option for a multitude of different sports. The Washington Post recently profiled Washington area student athletes involved in tournament basketball in an article entitled "They Got Game." Basketball organizations in this area, such as the Maryland Flames and the Virginia Pride, offer competition nearly year-round for dedicated student athletes. As the Post states, "The teams are not for those with a casual interest in the sport."

Junior Daniel Ottalini, who has played select soccer since sixth grade, feels that competing year-round against talented, upper-level players has been tough, but it has also forced him to improve his skills and level of play. "It's very challenging, especially at the older levels. The competition always gets better, so you have to get better," he explains

Select players often must compete not only with other teams, but with other kids as well in order to score a spot on a good team. Sometimes more than 50 kids may try-out for 12 spaces on a select basketball team, says The Washington Post. In addition, some teams do not give equal playing time to everyone. Some players may sit on the bench for entire games, while "star" players get all the action.

Reaping the Benefits

Although select teams may be a huge commitment, they are certainly worth the effort for many players, and with so many talented young athletes involved in competitive sports, year-round conditioning, competition, and dedication have become necessary. A 1997 study by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that boys and girls spent, on average, five hours and 17 minutes per week playing structured sports in 1997, while in 1981 sports took up only two hours and 20 minutes per week.

O'Brien feels that, as a softball player, involvement in travel ball is essential to her success not only now, but also later on in her athletic career. "You increase your skills, you're playing much better teams. For girls who want to play in college, they definitely have to play travel ball," she says earnestly.

Emma Simson, an MVSA Storm member who graduated from Blair in 2003, was signed by the University of Maryland, a Division One school. She is one of only a handful of Blair students in the past few years to play Division One sports after graduation.

O'Brien hopes to play either Division Two or Three softball in college, and believes that without her involvement in select teams, this would not be possible. Ebert feels that his teams give girls a much greater chance of playing college ball. MVSA's 18 and under teams usually enter "college showcases" in the fall, which are tournaments held by college coaches and scouts for recruiting purposes.

MVSA Storm players have indeed caught the eyes of scouts all over the country. "This past September, five of our 18U players went on to play softball in college. One each at the University of Maryland, Frostburg State, Gettysburg College, York College and Ithaca College," says Ebert.

In a broader sense, Ebert feels that competitive sports often foster character and a good work ethic in young players. "College professors have told me they can usually spot the athletes in their class by their positive attitudes and ability to set goals and work as a team," he explains.

Ottalini adds that his team has traditionally had a strong camaraderie, and everyone usually gets along very well. "Everyone on the team knows each other really well. We're all friends," he says. Ottalini's team, the Calverton Coyotes United, also chips in each year for a team party to celebrate their season.

For players who want to excel in their sport, select teams, national tournaments and cutthroat competition are here to stay. Gone are the days of relaxed recreational teams and lengthy off-seasons. For many coaches and players, however, the chance to compete, achieve, and be a serious athlete is a more than sufficient reward for all the hard work.



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Ellie Blalock. Ellie is a SENIOR in the CAP program at Blair. She enjoys such activities as traveling, being able to say "water" in six languages and having heart-to-heart chats with eccentric politicians. If you're in need of a laugh, please ask Ellie about her driving record...you … More »

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