WHY COLORADO STRUGGLES TO HAVE COMPETITIVE BALANCE IN PREP SPORTS
Between open enrollment and the rise of club sports, high schools in Colorado are struggling to field competitive athletic programs
Dante Sparaco dreamed of playing big-time college football, and his parents were willing to do just about anything to help him achieve his goal. Sparaco started his career as a quarterback at Glenwood Springs High, where he helped lead the Class 3A Demons to the playoffs as a sophomore. Then he transferred across state to perennial Class 5A heavyweight Cherry Creek for his junior year, where he played tight end and offensive tackle. Then he transferred again this year to play his senior season at national powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
“IMG is a powerhouse for athletics, and the main purpose of IMG is to get kids college ready,” said Sparaco, who has committed to play at the University of Colorado.
Sparaco’s journey may be unique, but it’s emblematic of what is happening in the world of high school sports in Colorado.
Long gone are the days when top athletes were limited to playing within the walls of their own high school.
Now? It’s a transfer’s paradise, a cutthroat race for the recruitment of stars and doing everything possible to gain that coveted college scholarship. And top athletes in many sports, most notably soccer, compete on a club basis instead of playing for their high school. All the movement creates a loss of competitive balance as powerhouse programs attract the best talent. Witness Valor Christian, a private school that routed Pomona, 30-14, Saturday for the Class 5A championship, Valor’s seventh championship in eight years.
“With open enrollment in the state of Colorado and kids’ ability to go wherever they want, kids that play basketball go to
“We can’t continue to have such imbalance in our haves and have nots in our high school programs and expect our high school programs to survive.” Paul Angelico, commissioner of Colorado High School Activities Association “It seems like every year, there are certain programs that get kids who happen to move in. I’m almost at the point where we should pretty much open it up, and let kids go where they want because that’s what’s happening anyway.” Ron Woitalewicz, Dakota Ridge football coach “We were very upfront with our kids, and we told them, ‘You’re going to be called traitors, and people who you thought were your friends will reveal themselves not to be.’ ” Michelle Blubaugh, mother of Grandview star running back Hayden Blubaugh CU recruit Dante Sparaco, on the decision to transfer from Cherry Creek to IMG Academy in Florida for his senior year “I got a lot of flak for leaving, and there was a bunch of doubt from the CU fan base because of the thinking that I made this decision to try to get bigger offers and flip.”
basketball schools; kids that play baseball go to baseball schools,” said Colorado High School Activities Association Commissoner Paul Angelico. “So our job is going to be to figure out how to keep like schools together in terms of competitive balance.
“We can’t continue to have such imbalance in our haves and have nots in our high school programs, and expect our high school programs to survive.”
High school sports are changing, rapidly, and players such as Sparaco, who took his game out of state, are smack dab in the middle of the revolution.
Playing with the best
When Sparaco was in eighth grade, he played for an all-star youth football team, Creek Red Nation, alongside many of the stars of the 2016 CHSAA football season such as Pomona’s Cam Gonzales, Pine Creek’s Brock Dormann and Cherry Creek’s Jonathan Van Diest.
He played well enough that his parents, Dino and Jennifer Sparaco, began to ponder how far their son could go in football.
At the time, father and son were making a six-hour round trip from Glenwood Springs to the Denver metro area three times a week so Dante could practice with Red Nation. In addition, there was all the driving time the family did to get their two daughters (Bella, now a standout sophomore basketball player for Cherry Creek, and Gabby, a promising track athlete as a freshman for the Bruins) to their respective club sports.
“It got to the point where it wasn’t just about Dante—it was about my girls, too,” Dino Sparaco said. “Just to have the opportunity to compete at the highest level of high schools in Colorado was huge. It’s been a struggle financially, because to be able to compete and get involved with all these club programs and camps costs a lot of money. We’ve really had to buckle down and take extra jobs, work extra shifts, really whatever we had to do to make it happen for the kids.”
Parents throughout Colorado are making similar decisions, working to position their kids for maximum exposure with high-profile programs, having them work with private trainers and getting them to select all-star camps and onto club teams.
CHSAA received 486 transfer waivers this fall, a few of which are still being evaluated. Angelico believes many parents are making uneducated decisions.
“The numbers simply don’t bear out that there are over 400 kids that are that kind of elite athlete that needs to worry about transferring,” he said. “The average parent will feel the need to get their kid into the best sports program they can get him into, and to heck with community, to heck with friendships and all that. We haven’t figured out a way to communicate this message to parents effectively.”
But for parents such as Michelle Blubaugh, mother of Grandview star running back Hayden Blubaugh, having her son transfer from Smoky Hill has proven to be a wise move.
“We were very upfront with our kids, and we told them, ‘You’re going to be called traitors,’” said Blubaugh, whose daughter, Maya, also transferred and plays volleyball. “And, if you’re not the elite athlete that Hayden is, who immediately stepped in and became the varsity star, that makes things tougher too . ... He wanted to play with the best and against the best.”
And while football is well-insulated from the pull of club sports, other high school sports are slowly being drained of top-tier talent, most notably soccer.
Take, for instance, the case of Jaelin Howell. The Fossil Ridge junior is one of the top soccer players in the state and has orally committed to play at Florida State, but has not suited up for her high school team since her freshman year. She is part of a growing trend of talented soccer players who are choosing the club circuit over high school competition.
Howell plays for the Real Colorado U18 team in the Elite Clubs National League, and also started for the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team at the U17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan in October. She was one of three Colorado players on the U.S. U17 Women’s National Team, none of whom play for their respective high school.
“I had to miss a lot of games and practices my freshman year at Fossil Ridge because I’d be gone for a week at national team camp or I’d be at club practice,” Howell said. “I just thought it wasn’t fair for my team or my coach for me to be gone that much.”
While the Elite Clubs National League does not require its players to forgo their high school experience — as the top boys’ club league, the U.S. Development Academy, does — Howell felt her decision to play club full time, along with private training sessions with Real coaches and participation in various national showcases, helped her achieve her athletic goals.
“The ECNL is a little more expensive because of the traveling, but my mom, my dad and I all agreed that it would pay off if I found the right college and found a good scholarship,” she said. “And it did pay off.”
Nick Vinson, who trains high school athletes at Elite Speed Sports Performance in Centennial, sees first-hand the effect of the club sports boom.
“I do see high school sports starting to dwindle, while club sports continue to rise, continue to gain more popularity and thus continue to gain more revenue to keep ascending,” he said.
Undoubtedly, the current high school sports revolution has created more opportunities for both the elite and the average prep athlete to better themselves.
But if elite athletes such as Sparaco and Howell are more confident staking their futures outside the traditional high school setting, what does that mean for the longterm relevancy of CHSAA? And how will the transient nature of such a landscape affect parity?
Angelico believes in time that more athletes and their parents will realize all the movement isn’t in their best interest.
“Ninety-seven percent of the kids playing high school sports in Colorado will never play organized sport again when they graduate,” he said.
The bottom line, though, is it’s the athlete’s right to choose what they believe is in their best interest.
Transferring to Cherry Creek, Sparaco said, gave him much more exposure as a recruit. “(It) came down to the argument that a lot of coaches were unaware of who I was and if I was able to perform as well on a bigger stage against Division I talent,” he said.
Transferring to IMG was an effort to maximize his talent, as well as prepare for college. Sparaco started at defensive end for IMG, which went undefeated.
“You can’t verbalize how good IMG is — it’s just stupid how good they are,” Dino Sparaco said. “Dante is a three-star recruit, and he had the opportunity to play on the best high school football team in the history of high school football. And I don’t want that to sound flippant — it’s the absolute truth. They’ve got thirdstring guys on the team that are D1 commits.”
Not every high school athlete has the ability or the means to transfer three times and play their senior year at a college incubator, but more and more are choosing to aggressively pursue other options.
And that means high school sports in Colorado will never be the same.
Dante Sparaco, a CU recruit, left the state to play his senior season at IMG Academy “to get college ready.”
Dante Sparaco celebrates with his teammates at IMG Academy in Florida. Sparaco transferred to play at the football powerhouse this fall.
Dante Sparaco makes a tackle while playing for IMG Academy.