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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Three-sport athletes thriving on Peninsula

In an era of specialization, the three-sport high school athlete has become an endangered species.

The reasons for this are many. The emergence of travel teams and the lure of a scholarship can be a powerful temptation for a kid to focus on one sport. Today, you’ll find more college recruiters at a so-called showcase event than at your nearest high school.

Then there’s the added outside pressure from coaches and parents for a great all-around athlete not to jeopardize his or her future by playing other sports and thus risking an injury.

In addition, more and more athletes feel if they’re not focusing on one sport year-round, they’ll be at a disadvantage to the ones who are.

While the three-sport star is a dying breed in some parts of the country, here in the Bay Area — especially locally on the Peninsula — the multi-sport athlete is not going extinct. In fact, it’s thriving.

From former Burlingame High standout Drew Shiller — arguably the greatest prep athlete in San Mateo County history — to Ryan Sakowski, last year’s Daily Journal Male Athlete of the Year — the best athletes around these parts play multiple sports. There are plenty of examples of three-sport female athletes as well. Why is this so?

One reason could be that athletes are actually encouraged to play a variety of sports. Aragon High awards a blanket for an athlete who has played three sports a year for all four years. Other schools give out similar honors. Aragon athletic director/football coach Steve Sell said Aragon girls’ basketball and volleyball coach Annette Gennaro-Trimble encourages girls to run cross-country to prepare for basketball season.

“But that’s an exception,” Sell said. “Too many times coaches from different sports have conflicts, especially when it comes to club coaches.”

Every year, the Daily Journal awards an overall athlete of the year to both a boy and girl, but playing three sports isn’t a prerequisite. But as we’ve quickly found out over the years, the best athletes locally tend to play multiple sports.

Athletes just want to have fun

Aragon senior Sam Tuivailala is another local product who has thrived in three sports — baseball, basketball and football — and as such might be the best example of why the county tends to produce athletes who shine on a variety of stages.

“I didn’t feel any pressure growing up to choose one sport,” said Tuivailala, a two-year varsity starter at quarterback. “From a young age, I just wanted to play every sport I could. The more sports I could play, the more fun I had.”

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Tuivailala is headed to Fresno State on a baseball scholarship. Usually an athlete of Tuivailala’s caliber runs the gauntlet of summer passing camps/tournaments and baseball showcases. You know how many of these events Tuivailala took part in last summer? One, a baseball showcase. And it was there he was noticed by Fresno State, which eventually led to a scholarship offer.

Tuivailala felt more comfortable playing with all of his friends for the under-19 San Mateo Palomino baseball team, and thus chose a route that many in his position would not have taken. By basically bypassing the summer circuit, Tuivailala risked not getting noticed. Weeks before the showcase, Tuivailala was agonizing over whether to pursue baseball or football in college.

It’s not easy

Once Tuivailala decided on baseball, he had to weigh his future. He didn’t like telling Sell that he would have to miss some summer practices to rest his arm, which was worn out from all the innings he threw over the high school and summer baseball seasons. That’s another reason why three-sport athletes are a rare breed today — it’s downright exhausting.

Take the typical male three-sport star in football, basketball and baseball. In the summer, there’s AAU basketball and football camps and tournaments. In the fall, it’s the high school football season. In the winter, it’s prep hoops season. In the spring, it’s high school baseball season along with spring football.

The process never ends, making it tougher for three-sport athletes to stay with all three sports for the duration of their high school career.

Tuivailala has played baseball, basketball and football since his sophomore year (he didn’t try out for the football team as a freshman). Less than 24 hours after Aragon’s football team lost in the Central Coast Section playoffs this past season, Tuivailala was on the basketball court playing against the Dons’ alumni team.

“I didn’t think I’d be starting but when coach (Arjuna Manning-Laisne) told us (the players coming off the football team) we’d be starting, I was shocked,” Tuivailala said. “I wasn’t in basketball mode yet.”

Transitioning from one sport to another can be tough on the body and mind. With basketball, it’s conditioning. With football, it’s the physical pounding the body takes. And with baseball pitchers like Tuivailala, it’s the constant rotation of the body and accumulation of innings that take a heavy toll.

“At times your body is so tired that every once in a while you just want to sit down in a chair and relax for five minutes,” said Tuivailala, who also played soccer until his freshman year. “You can tell you just need some rest. Your body can be tired, but you have to convince your mind you’re not tired. I’ve been playing three sports all my life, so I’m used to it by now.”

Specialization doesn’t always lead to scholarships

With more and more coaches at both the high school and club level demanding year-round dedication, it’s no wonder the three-sport athlete is dwindling. Yet the three-sport star continues to shine in an area like San Mateo County, where prep sports have loyal fans but the following isn’t nearly as rabid as in other parts of the country. Is specialization less prevalent here than in other segments of the country?

“A lot of specialization is chasing the unrealistic dream,” Sell said. “Does our area not have as many kids with their heads in the clouds? I’m not sure. We’ve had kids’ parents spend $10,000 on club sports to earn a $5,000 scholarship or nothing. That’s no exaggeration.”

While specialization is prevalent everywhere, it hasn’t managed to take away the three-sport athlete from this area. Specialization tends to be higher at the girls’ level, in sports such as soccer, softball and tennis. That’s why you’ll see more male three-sport athletes than females. And with the boys, football, basketball and baseball in a way complement each other — in other words, these are the most popular sports in America among boys and thus has the highest participation at the prep level.

Sell said San Mateo County is conducive for the three-sport star to shine. Of course, every athlete realizes he or she can’t play three sports forever. Just about all of them pick one once they get to college — Stanford’s Toby Gerhart, who has played both football and baseball for the Cardinal, is the exception rather than the rule — in large part because the stakes are too high for prospective pros to risk unnecessary injury and the competition is that much greater at the college level.

“I guess it’s a part of life,” Tuivailala said. “You have to pursue one dream and in order for me to purse my dream I had to choose one. But I’ll always love playing as many sports as I can. Being a three-sport athlete is what defines me and it’s going to be a part of my identity my whole life. I know when my playing days are done, I’ll still go out and shoot a basketball, throw around the football and play catch with the baseball. It’s who I am.”

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