November 30, 2011 - By Joe St. Henry
Former Dragon Bethany Watterworth leads Oakland University. Photo submitted (click for larger version)
Given the size of Lake Orion High School, nobody should be surprised quality student-athletes fill the rosters of its sports teams each year.
What goes unnoticed, however, is how many of these young persons in our community receive college scholarships to play at the next level.
Lake Orion has supplied a number of athletes to college teams around the state and country over the past several years. Earlier this month, for example, three seniors signed letters of intent to play college sports: Annelise Jongekrijg, swimming at Ohio State; Maddie Hutchison, volleyball at East Stroudsburg University in Pa; and Jacob Gardner, baseball at Hillsdale College.
Later in the winter, Athletic Director Bill Reiss expects other senior athletes, including four-year starting quarterback Sean Charette, to make decisions on where they will play next year.
"Given the competition for playing time and who we play, if you start at Lake Orion and are a good student, then you may have opportunities to play in college at some level," said Reiss, who noted only about one percent of all high school athletes across the country have a chance to play after high school.
The athletic director added Lake Orion has been "pretty consistent" during his tenure in sending about 15 student-athletes each year to college to receive an education and play a sport. More than 60 Dragon football players alone have joined college programs since 1999.
Even more impressive is how many of these Lake Orion scholarship athletes have excelled at the next level.
These include Ethan Ruhland, who graduated from Lake Orion in 2008 and is now a starting offensive lineman at Michigan State University. His high school quarterback Chris Lum ('08) now plays quarterback at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. This fall, he broke the school's single-season record for passing yards and tied the record for touchdown passes.
Lake Orion grad Jeff Heath ('09) plays for Saginaw Valley State University and was recently name to the All-GLIAC second team. Basketball player Bethany Watterworth ('09) recently scored her 1,000th point for Oakland University's women's team.
Not surprisingly, last year's championship football team sent several players to college programs. These include Marques Stevenson (Air Force), Danny Ney (Dayton), Blake McGhee (Saginaw Valley), Alex Fine (Robert Morris), Nick Frye (Northwood), Blair Williams (Albion) and Kyle Searle (Western Michigan).
Other notable Lake Orion football players at the next level include Darren Tooley ('99 – Central Michigan), Matt Wohlgemuth ('00 – Central Michigan), Zac Keasey ('00 – Princeton), Roger Allison and Will Johnson ('04 – University of Michigan), Trent Varva ('04 – Penn State), Ryan Allison ( '05 – MSU) and Josh Allison ('07 – Central Michigan), among others.
Lake Orion has sent many athletes in other sports on to college teams, as well, in years past. These include, among others, soccer players Billy Weaver ('03 – Indiana), Reed Losee ('09 – Northwestern), Niki Read ('09 Illinois), Julianne Boyle ('10 – Oakland) and Shannon Doyle ('11 – Oakland), basketball player Drew Maynard ('08 – Oakland/Valdosta State), swimmer Ricky Forrest ('07 – MSU), baseball players Vinnie Booker ('10 – Western Michigan), Connor Mielock ('08 – Oakland), Josh Deeg ('08– Xavier), Zack Zott ('11 – Michigan) and Cole Schaenzer ('11 – Valparaiso).
Lake Orion's varsity coaches work with their top athletes and families to help them navigate the recruiting process. This includes assistance in identifying potential schools, contacting coaches through written correspondence, providing advice on summer camps to attend, helping with game tapes and hosting college coaches who visit the high school.
Beyond that, however, football coach Chris Bell thinks he and his coaching colleagues in all sports actually have little influence on scholarship offers.
"High school coaches don't get kids college scholarships. If one of our athletes is good enough to play at the next level, the schools find him or her," he said, noting that coaches from Big Ten, MAC, Ivy League and D II and III schools regularly look at Dragon student-athletes.
In addition to an athlete's size, speed and talent, another major factor in obtaining a scholarship is character. This is one area where a college coach will rely heavily on the school's staff for input. A few years ago, Reiss said, then University of Michigan coach Lloyd Carr visited Lake Orion. He knew a prospect was a strong athlete, but wanted to talk to Reiss and others to find out more about the kid's grades and behavior off the field.
"Grades are so important – they draw a coach's attention," Reiss reiterated. "Given equal athletic talent between athletes, colleges will use a player's character and grades to separate them and make their decisions."
Bell concurred, adding that character also plays a role in succeeding in a college sports program.
"A kid's character is key to success at the next level," Bell added. "Character breeds the confidence to compete and handle adversity. You need to be persistent and stick with it through the good times and bad when playing a college sport."
Reiss said Lake Orion athletes overall have a .2 percent higher grade point average, higher ACT scores, take more honors classes and have better attendance than the typical student.
Finding the right fit for an exceptional athlete is the first step in a successful college career – both from an academic and athletic perspective. What does the student-athlete want to study? How big of a school does he or she want to attend? In-state or out? How far away do they want to be from family?
"Watterworth could've gone elsewhere," Lake Orion basketball coach Steve Roberts said. "But, she chose to stay close to home and her family. Oakland recruited here for years and it was a good fit for her - she's done great."
Bell said there are great opportunities for student-athletes at Division II and III schools throughout the state and country, where they will not only receive a strong education, but also possibly more playing time in a smaller program. He should know, having played quarterback at Albion College.
Roberts reiterated that the smaller schools often attract athletes by offering combined academic/athletic scholarships, with D III programs solely offering those based on a student's academic success.
Another key issue when looking at opportunities to play beyond high school is to keep one's expectations realistic. Varsity baseball coach Andy Schramek said he tells his players and families each year that just because a player excels at Lake Orion does not mean they will be an automatic Division I prospect.
"Colleges, especially in baseball, are very picky," he said. "They like a certain type of player with certain level of skills. It can be tough as a coach when you have a very good player, but many schools will not go after them due to 3-4 mph on a radar gun or tenths of a second on a stop watch."
Roberts concurred, adding that an athlete needs to look at a school's specific needs. "The key is to find a school that has a need for an athlete," he explained. "We may have a great guard, for example, but the school needs forwards."
Reiss said that many Lake Orion athletes also have also been invited to college camps as walk-on athletes and "played their way" onto teams and eventual scholarships.
No matter what the sport, the internet has dramatically changed the recruiting process and ability of athletes to research and communicate with coaches, the athletic director said.
"You need to be proactive in reaching out to schools," he said. "In addition to learning about a school and its sports programs, most schools' websites have athletic profile forms that a student can complete and send directly to a coaching staff to initiate communication."
Reiss said a number of Lake Orion athletes still have decisions to make this year about their futures and he looks forward to additional signing ceremonies in 2012 and beyond.
"I'm so proud of these students," he said. "It's not easy being a strong academically and athletically – it takes a lot of hard work and dedication in the classroom and on the field. I know their coaches, families and friends are thrilled for them.
"We wish them the best at the next level."