Be­tween open en­roll­ment and the rise of club sports, high schools in Colorado are strug­gling to field com­pet­i­tive ath­letic pro­grams

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kyle New­man

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.

Break­ing away

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.”

Cour­tesy of Casey Brooke Law­son, IMG Acad­emy

Dante Sparaco cel­e­brates with his team­mates at IMG Acad­emy in Florida. Sparaco trans­ferred to play at the foot­ball pow­er­house this fall.

Cour­tesy of Casey Brooke Law­son, IMG Acad­emy

Dante Sparaco makes a tackle while play­ing for IMG Acad­emy.

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