Oct. 20, 2004 - Seeing the number of high school athletes on the decline in some sports and out-of-school club sport enrollment steadily rising, the Arizona Interscholastic Association is considering an amendment to its eligibility rules.
According to AIA rules, no player can compete for a non-sanctioned high school club while playing for a high school team of the same sport. All that could change at the AIA's legislative council meeting in March, when the committee will rule on the possibility of allowing students to compete for both high school and club teams during the same season.
"Clubs have become more prevalent," said Glen Treadaway, AIA associate executive eirector. "We'll be looking into the possibility in eliminating the rule or revising the rule."
Treadaway said the issue currently is being examined by the individual conferences that will return to the legislative council with their investigations and recommendations when the council meets again to discuss rule changes for the 2005-06 high school season.
The debate whether student athletes should be allowed to compete for a high school and club team during the same season has been argued for years by coaches, parents and the athletes themselves.
On any given night in the Northwest, a club sport team can be found practicing at one of the region's numerous athletic facilities. Kids playing soccer, baseball, basketball, softball, volleyball and swimming dot the Pima County landscape. Organizations, starting with kids as young as six-years-old through 18, can be found in such leagues as Canyon del Oro, Sombrero Peak and Tortolita.
Although the only sport that would be directly influenced by a change in AIA policy would be soccer, other sports, such as volleyball and swimming, also would feel its effect. Soccer has been driving the same debate in numerous states including Arkansas and New Jersey as of late.
"In most cases, the club season is outside of the high school season," said Treadaway, "Soccer is probably the primary sport where there is a conflict of seasons."
Currently boys and girls 4A and 5A soccer seasons are played in the winter months. Traditionally throughout the United States soccer is a fall sport but because of the mild winter weather in Arizona, it is able to be played somewhat out of season. One of the options the AIA has toyed with is returning soccer to autumn, said Erik Wolf, Ironwood Ridge head soccer coach.
"They're going to lose a lot of kids if they move soccer to the fall," said Wolf, who also trains and coaches with the Canyon del Oro Soccer Club. The coach believes that many kids would choose to play football over soccer if they had to choose.
Several problems arise by allowing a high school athlete to compete in two sports at the same time, the biggest being health related.
"I don't think it would be fair to the kids," said Jonathan North director of Club Cactus, a volleyball club organization in Tucson of the strains playing both leagues at the same time would put on a teen-age athlete.
For club athletes, getting a leg up on students that compete only on the high school level could come at a costly price should the eligibility rule be altered.
Allowing players to compete on both high school and club levels at the same time could put an incredible strain on a teenager's health and well-being, several coaches said.
"Athlete's bodies can't handle that much," said former Canyon del Oro High School Volleyball standout and current University of Arizona Wildcat, Bre Ladd. "Maybe if they alternated (practice and game days), but then, what would be the point of having high school sports?"
By playing for two teams, high school and club, at the same time, kids could conceivably fall under the influences of two coaches with two different styles and theories toward coaching.
"It would be putting a lot of burden on kids," said Mountain View Athletic Director Susan Sloan of the possibility of kids playing for two coaches during the same season, "because now they would be serving two masters."
The ban on allowing kids to play simultaneously on multiple teams was originally created to protect kids from overwork and over-coaching, said Treadaway.
Should the AIA overturn the rule, athletes would be free to choose between playing for their high school team or for a club team.
"It's absolutely a concern," said Sloan when faced with the possibility of losing athletes to club sports. "Especially in soccer and volleyball where the perception is that there are more scholarships there."
Treadaway believes that losing students isn't a major concern.
"It will provide a new level where someone else will take their place (on the high school team)," said Treadaway of a kid opting to play club over high school.
One of the biggest influences to amend the eligibility rules change comes from the Sereno Soccer Club in Phoenix, said Wolf. The organization with more than 700 kids is an Arizona and a national powerhouse in soccer, consistently turning out champion after champion. Sereno's success gives the club a lot of "pull" to get kids into college, said Wolf. An earlier soccer season would allow athletes to get a jump on the recruiting process.
According to Wolf, playing club soccer gives young athletes a developmental edge.
"You can pick out the club kid and the club philosophy on the high school field," said Wolf.
That "edge" may be the deciding factor in how a college scout rates a player. Although high school sports go a long way toward influencing potential collegiate suitors, often the decision to offer a scholarship to an athlete depends on his or her performance at the club level.
Club players compete throughout Arizona and other states in national tournaments that allow recruiters more opportunities to view their talent. Because they are playing against teams made up of high school stars, the competition is much tougher than playing against most high school teams.
"I would say 99.9 percent of our recruiting comes from club," said University of Arizona women's head volleyball coach, David Rubio, who claims his program's recruiting efforts mirror those of UA's football and basketball teams.
Rubio said the majority of his recruits come from club teams and that if he and his assistants come across a high school player who doesn't play club, they encourage them to do so.
NCAA rules sometimes prevent universities from being able to recruit from club sports. In basketball, NCAA recruiters are allowed specific dates in the months of April and July where they can watch "non-high school sanctioned events." That doesn't stop suitors from tapping the large basketball club team circuit, said Josh Pastner, assistant coach for the UA basketball squad.
"We look at both (club and high school)," said Pastner, "We recruit talent in every area, year round."
Sloan insists that no matter how much recruiting is done on the club level, scouts always return to the high schools to get the vital information on an athlete's character and abilities off the field.
The question then arises, if an athlete could play both, would he or she want to?
Players for Club Cactus average eight hours of practice a week in their club season. Those hours do not including weekend tournaments which can consume the majority of both Saturday and Sunday. Add in another 10 hours of practice for a high school program and competing for both becomes nearly impossible.
But that wouldn't stop some high school athletes from attempting to play both.
"It would be hard but I would want to do it," said Thomas Whitacre, a sophomore on Ironwood Ridge's soccer squad who believes the competition is tougher on the high school level. "Club is nothing compared to high school."
For many students, club sports is a way to fine tune for the high school season; while for others, the competition found on the club scene can't be found at the high school level.
"Club is what I play to get ready for high school," said Braden Neff, a sophomore volleyball player for Ironwood Ridge and the 16-and-under Club Cactus team.
Steve Hughes, a senior volleyball player at Cienega and member of the Club Cactus 18-and-under squad, disagrees with Neff.
"Club is more competitive," said Hughes. "In high school only certain schools are good, in club, everyone is good."
When it comes to an uneven playing field, high school sports often fall behind in the coaching department. For sports such as soccer, volleyball and swimming it is often the case where a school is short-staffed and must fill the coaching position with a teacher from the school.
Although the teacher is willing to take on the task of coaching a high school team, they sometimes lack the necessary know-how usually found with a club coach.
"I see a lot of high school coaches who have limited expertise that start wanting to make their mark and get credit with an elite swimmer," said Chad Riester, head coach of CDO's swim team and the executive director of Swim Tucson, a Pima County-based swim club.
In swimming, club teams swim year round and the eligibility rules differ slightly. A high school swimmer is allowed to practice with his or her club team, but not allowed to compete in any events for that club.
Riester said it is common to have a high school athlete attend only one or two practices a week for the school, spending the rest of the time with their club team, a problem that detracts from the high school team's unity and leadership, something which should be coming from the club swimmers, Riester said.
Other high school swim programs, such as Mark Chatigny's at Ironwood Ridge mandate that swimmers practice with the high school team.
With the prominence of club sports, high school athletes are becoming specialized in one sport, rather than playing for multiple sports programs in high school.
"From a high school standpoint you don't get athletes playing multi-sports," said Riester, "which means less scholarships. High school provides team unity, where club is more about individual times."
Still, if given the choice, Riester said he would recruit from the club level.
Another deciding factor in playing a club sport is price. According to the Club Cactus Website, cost for a season of play can range from $250 to
upwards of $3,400 when all travel arrangements are factored in. For many high school athletes this price may be too steep to afford.
For those that can play, finding the right balance between high school and club athletics may be a sport in itself. The decision to choose one over the other would be a difficult one for most athletes.
Most players, coaches and parents find the equilibrium between high school and club sports just fine the way it is.