Area standouts weather perfect storm of stress, disappointment during COVID-era recruiting
- Many area prep stars have endured stress and disappointment during recruiting in the COVID era.
- The challenges presented by the pandemic have limited the availability of college scholarships.
- The inability of athletes and college coaches to meet face to face is one of the main difficulties.
When the messages appeared in his inbox, De’kzeon Wyche couldn’t contain the feeling of joy that rushed through his body.
After a pair of York-Adams League all-star seasons, the York Catholic High School running back had invitations to junior-day events at NCAA Division I programs in April of 2020. The goal of playing college football, which he set for himself in fifth grade, was in sight. His football future appeared bright.
“I was so excited. I almost hit my head on the ceiling I was so excited,” Wyche said. “Division I schools want me to go watch their spring games. My dream is about to come true.”
Then the world changed.
The COVID-19 pandemic ended recruiting visits for college prospects and canceled Wyche’s visits, as well as a showcase event he was invited to in Florida. He had no scholarship offers, his senior season was in doubt and the coaches who had showed interest in him stopped responding.
His dream of playing college football, and eventually in the NFL, was in doubt. The normal stress and strain of the recruiting process was amplified by COVID-19. Wyche, like so many other athletes, was being forced to spend his time in his house with no sports to play. One of his primary outlets had been taken away from him.
“I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Wyche said. “I would be home just laying on the couch and cried a couple times. I didn’t know what to do. It was just a bad year.”
A common experience: Wyche’s experience is a common one for high school athletes in the 2021 class. A series of issues related to the pandemic has left talented players, such as 6-foot, 200-pound Wyche, without the previous interest they had from college coaches. Suddenly, they are finding themselves with an uncertain future just a few months from graduation.
NCAA D-I coaches aren’t allowed to travel to see recruits or hold official visits until April, if the pandemic allows. Watching highlights online is valuable, but before coaches offer players a scholarship, they usually feel it’s necessary to see the player in person. They want to judge for themselves their height, weight and speed, as well as get a handle on the player's character.
Red Lion head football coach Jesse Shay said the NCAA D-I teams interested in Lions senior Davante Dennis needed to see him on Zoom before they finally offered him a scholarship, despite his 6-foot, 6-inch height and athleticism that made him an all-star in football and basketball.
Just like Wyche, despite his athletic success on the field and dedication to his sport, Dennis started to doubt his abilities while waiting for his first offer. The lack of recruiting attention was stressful.
“It was kind of eye opening,” Dennis said in October. “Most of the guys on the team and coaches the past couple years always told me I could be really good in college, but internally I didn’t feel that anymore.”
The golf example: Sports such as football or basketball offer college coaches tons of online highlights and stats, not to mention heights, weights and speeds. That's not the case in golf. NCAA college golf coaches nearly always require an in-person evaluation of recruits before making an offer.
That’s how Spring Grove senior Karl Frisk found himself without a place to play in college despite finishing second at the District 3 Class 3-A championship and a fourth-place finish at the PIAA 3-A state championship.
It didn't help that Frisk’s skills emerged later in his high school career. By the time he started garnering attention, many NCAA D-I coaches had already decided on the players who would get scholarship offers. With most 2021 recruiting classes filled and no ability for coaches to see Frisk play, the Rockets senior struggled with the lack of interest while he consistently outplayed NCAA D-I recruits.
College coaches want to see how a player handles adversity during a round and see how he carries himself on the course to make their evaluation. Without a chance for coaches to see him, Frisk assumed he would have to take a postgraduate year or reclassify to the 2022 class.
Instead, University of South Carolina Aiken coach Michael Carlisle took the opportunity to see Frisk play a tournament in his state and liked what he saw, even though it was Frisk’s worst performance in months.
Carlisle offered Frisk a spot on the No. 1 NCAA D-II team that day, and after months of waiting for coaches to commit to him, he signed with Carlisle in part because he could tell the coach cared about him.
“It was just really good to have somebody really want you and tell you that they want you,” Frisk said in November. “It was good to feel like you belong there.”
Showcases can be valuable: Wyche planned to participate in a showcase in Florida and show college coaches across the country what he could do. One local baseball player displayed just how influential those events can be for an athlete’s recruiting.
Central York senior Grant Smeltzer found some showcase events in June that allowed him to show NCAA programs his improved speed. During the shutdown in spring 2020, Smeltzer increased his weight training and added 6 mph to his fastball, up to 87 mph. Smeltzer committed to NCAA D-I Fairfield University after the school showed interest in him following the showcase events, which required an investment by his family and added more stress to Smeltzer’s recruiting process.
“It was crazy,” Smeltzer said in July. “I definitely felt like I achieved something. It was great to make my parents proud of me after they spent so much money to get me seen (by college coaches).”
Free-agent attitude: Like Smeltzer, Wyche spent the spring and summer training.
He and a friend, Central York senior football player Victor Pena, bought weights and did almost daily basement workouts. Wyche also signed up for sessions at S3 Performance Training and did football workouts with York Catholic and Saint Francis University graduate Hakeem Kinard. Wyche developed the mindset of a free agent professional athlete, requiring him to be ready for an opportunity at any time.
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“You just gotta keep working. Keep exercising and stay in shape,” Wyche said. “Keep doing the right things, because if you fall off track and something does happen, you’re gonna be mad and think, ‘Dang I should have done this or I should have done that.’ You don’t want to think that, so just keep working because you never know what’s going to happen.”
NCAA throws in another hurdle: Another issue that's throwing a hurdle into the scholarship hunt for high school athletes is the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA extended to its current athletes.
With college seasons lost or shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes can remain at their programs for an extra year. That's good for the college athletes, but it also limits the number of roster spots left for high school recruits.
In addition to the extra year of eligibility, transfers have created issues for high school recruits. Take York High graduate Khalid Dorsey as an example. Dorsey recently decided to transfer from NCAA D-I Football Championship Subdivision Howard University, ultimately choosing NCAA D-II Shippensburg. For college coaches, it can be more appealing to sign a player such as Dorsey, with two years in NCAA weight training and practices, over a high school kid, especially in a year when scholarship money and roster spots are limited.
After a senior season when he rushed for 953 yards, scored 11 touchdowns, was a Y-A Division III all-star at running back and safety and led his team to the District 3 2-A title game, Wyche still had no college interest.
Questions with no answers: Finally, with help from former teammates and current coaches, Wyche received interest from several NCAA D-III schools and eventually earned a roster offer from Westminster College, although he still hasn't made a commitment.
Twelve months ago, Wyche celebrated an opportunity to tour NCAA D-I campuses and envisioned a future playing football at the highest level. After a year that has challenged people for so many different reasons, he faces a third D-I signing day where he will watch players that he believes he compares favorably to and wonder what he needs to do to achieve the dream that seemed so close last spring.
“How come I’m not where they’re at?” Wyche said. “I look at that all the time. I’m doing all the right things and nothing good is happening. It’s been rough. Everybody else is getting that attention and I’m not. I think all the time, ‘What are they doing that I’m not?’”
— Reach Rob Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.