Study your junior college options

Few, if any, athletes go through their high school careers dreaming of playing junior college basketball. It's a safe bet as well that players will be more inspired this March by the Road to San Antonio and the Final Four than the Road to Salina and the NJCAA national tournament.

The intent here isn't to downplay basketball at two-year institutions. Actually, it's quite the opposite. A lot of talented players have taken the junior college path and found success that led them to opportunities at four year schools and beyond. Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith, Betty Lennox and Shannon Bobbitt are just a few of the names that come to mind.

Sometimes college coaches perceive junior college players as academic casualties who did not meet NCAA initial eligibility requirements. (NCAA By-Laws and Personal reasons and the jockeying for an improved recruiting position are other reasons why a two-year program might be a better fit right out of high school.

Unfortunately, more often than not, NCAA guidelines are the reason a lot of recruits end up starting their career at a junior college. They're not alone and a lot of athletes in all sports have to face that reality at some point.

The toughest part of the recruiting process for an athlete who might be looking at that scenario is admitting to herself that she needs to start considering options other than four-year institutions. It doesn't mean throwing in the towel, it just means looking at the bigger picture.

With most schools starting new academic terms after the recent holidays, borderline student athletes already know exactly what grades they'll have to earn this current term to meet NCAA eligibility requirements. While you always want to stay positive, it's important that you remain realistic. Some students, as a result of their fall grades, already know things aren't going to work out because they won't be able to complete all of the required core courses regardless of their grades.

Reality may also come from another direction outside the classroom. ACT and SAT scores from December testing dates are coming in and despite seven more combined opportunities between now and June; it may be time to start reading the writing on the wall. Large jumps in standardized test scores are very rare and often viewed with suspicion by the NCAA.

Whether you signed a national letter of intent in November or were hoping to put your name on one this spring, if the bookwork isn't going as well as the basketball, it may be time to start doing some recruiting homework on other possibilities.

Junior college recruiting doesn't operate on the same time schedule as four-year schools. They're not going to evaluate and pursue athletes throughout their entire high school career knowing in the end, if they have the grades, they'll ultimately lose them.

Good junior college coaches do a considerable amount of research and touch base with high school and Division I coaches looking to identify talented players who might be at risk academically. Once they hit their senior year they watch them closely and usually in the spring, when reality has set in, begin their own recruiting process.

As a Division I recruiting coordinator some of the most persistent callers I had were those junior college coaches. The question was always the same: "Do you know anybody who's not going to have grades?" The offer was always there that if we helped them find kids now, they would be helping us later if we were interested.

A lot of junior college recruiting is an athletic version of "Deal or No Deal." Most of the high profile talent at the junior college level is "placed" there by D-I schools that they may have signed a letter of intent with. The junior colleges, in return for the placement of a top recruit, restrict the recruiting efforts of other four-year coaches. Though it's unwritten and certainly not binding, the understanding is that the athlete will again sign with the same school following her time at the junior college.

In reality, an academic nonqualifier can attend any junior college she wants because at that point she no longer has any formal affiliation with a school she may have signed the NLI. Any agreement between coaches is unofficial and should never inhibit an athlete from looking at other programs if she's so inclined.

If you didn't sign a NLI during the fall signing period and junior college is looking like it may be the direction you'll have to go, enlist the help of coaches who are currently recruiting or have recruited you in the past. They can introduce you to two-year programs that might be a good fit and they can share your name.

Be open and up front about your grades from the start. You don't need to broadcast your grades to every coach that writes but the ones you're truly considering should be made aware from the start.

They can offer advice on your schedule and NCAA required core courses. They can help with defining exactly where you stand and what test score you might need to go with your current grade point average. And they can assist with opening some doors to some junior college coaches.

The biggest challenge in junior college recruiting is its last-second nature. It's only natural that an athlete will want to wait until the last high school grades are in and those last test scores have come back. Often athletes haven't given any thought to what they'll do if things don't work out and are left scrambling to sort out their next move in just a few short weeks. Your future is too important to be left simply to whatever options are available at the last moment.

Opening those doors a little earlier doesn't mean you're giving up. It's important to take every shot. At the same time, looking at some two-year options and having some conversations with coaches puts you in a more knowledgeable position if your academic situation doesn't measure up. If you end up having to go the direction of a two-year program because of grades, you want to be in the best position to find the appropriate setting both athletically and academically.

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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at mark@hoopgurlz.com.