For top prep football players, a canceled season costs more than just memories

But then he read through the email himself and discovered a crushing sentence his dad had missed: “This decision includes the cancellation of all fall and winter sports.”

Sabri cried. His loss was twofold. For a player who grew up in Damascus and wore his youth jersey to high school games, high-fiving the Swarmin’ Hornets as they ran into the locker room, the loss of a senior season was emotionally deflating. But for someone who plans to be playing collegiately a year from now, the impact had more tangible effects.

High school players across the country are confronting similar uncertainty. Most haven’t had their seasons outright canceled as in Montgomery County, but multiple state associations — in Washington, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Illinois, Virginia and the District — will not play football this fall. Even the possibility of seasons delayed to the spring sparks concern.

Top college prospects rely heavily on their film from their junior season. For some seniors, the games that might have attracted more scholarship offers, or that all-important first offer, could be too late.

When Montgomery County canceled the season, Josh Klotz, Sabri’s coach at Damascus, was camping with his family in the Adirondack Mountains, where he didn’t have phone service. When he turned on his phone during a run to a convenience store, he had 24 text messages. Klotz scrambled to contact his assistants, email the players’ families and send a message in the group chat with seniors.

Now back in Maryland, Klotz has spent recent days talking on the phone with his players and college coaches about how to find the proper matches in a fall without football.

“I want to be able to give players answers, and I want to be able to give parents answers,” Klotz said. “We just don’t really have any now. I’m doing what I can to reassure parents and players’ families that there will be routes to help them with recruiting and to make those decisions.”

For his part, Sabri, a linebacker, has offers from five colleges: Robert Morris, Furman, Long Island, Saint Francis (Pa.) and Merrimack. Coaches from other schools mentioned they wanted to see video from his senior season, which now will never exist. Sabri might have reeled in more offers with a few strong games, but instead he plans to choose among the schools that have made him offers, though he hasn’t been able to visit any of them, following his grandfather’s advice to take advantage of what’s guaranteed.

“These kids didn’t do anything wrong,” said John Kelley, the coach at Quince Orchard in Montgomery County. “This isn’t their fault. That’s the worst part about it.”

Smaller samples

The coronavirus began upending recruiting routines months ago. When campuses shut down in the spring, travel halted across the country and in-person visits to college campuses were canceled, forcing sports programs to get creative. Video conferences replaced face-to-face meetings. Virtual tours showed off facilities and classrooms.

But those are pale substitutes for the many schools that make their most significant recruiting strides when players visit campus. Utah may not have the same brand recognition as Pac-12 rivals Southern California and UCLA, but it has grown into a top-25 program.

Utah recruiting coordinator Freddie Whittingham said, “We always feel like if we can get a prospect here to Salt Lake City and on campus and around our team and feel the type of culture and the environment that we have on our team — that family feel that everybody talks about — we feel like our chances with a recruit go way, way up when they get to experience that in person.”

The pandemic killed most of those interactions. With high school seasons either canceled or pushed back, universities are forced to rely on past evaluations. Coaches often make in-person assessments at summer camps, but most of those were not held this year.

Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports, said many coaches have done their evaluations during players’ junior years and their boards may be basically set for the majority of the senior class. He said the juniors will be hurt more by a football season that happens after signing day in February.

“They didn’t get evaluated as much, so schools are just throwing out offers,” Wiltfong said. “And maybe some kids didn’t get a chance to blossom.”

Postponed or canceled high school seasons strain the entire system. Players don’t get the chance to show off their skills, and coaches lose an entire season of appraisal. Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo noted that teenagers can have drastic growth and strength spurts in a year. A player’s body type and game tape can change immensely in the 12 months after his sophomore or junior year.

“You’re just going to have to go off the things that you have,” Niumatalolo said, “which is tough because you may not have a lot. Anything you have access to. Maybe you don’t have a football season that you can evaluate, but maybe basketball or just anything.

“It’s going to make things a little bit more difficult, but you just try to use all the evaluation tools that you have or whatever you have been able to evaluate to that point and just go from there.”

Tough calls

For top-ranked prospects, the consequences aren’t as significant but still can include challenging decisions. Like many top high school players, Jaylin Davies, a four-star cornerback who committed to Oregon last month, felt that going through spring practice and adjusting to college life months before his first game would create a path toward early playing time.

Davies plays for Mater Dei, a powerhouse program in Southern California. After battling a hamstring issue in 2019, Davies knew he didn’t want to risk injury by playing a season that doesn’t begin until the winter. So he will stick to his plan and head to Oregon’s campus, which he has yet to visit, without a senior season. A few of his high school teammates will do the same at other colleges.

“I’m not going to be the one to try to guilt them into extending their high school curriculum and graduate in June,” said Bruce Rollinson, the longtime coach at Mater Dei. “I’m not going to be the one to say, ‘Well, you’re kind of hurting us here.’ ”

Victory Vaka, a three-star defensive tackle who plays for Westlake in Los Angeles County, had planned to enroll early at Texas A&M. Just after California’s announcement, he tweeted that he would forgo his senior season. Two days later, he reversed course. Vaka has six cousins and a younger brother on the Westlake team. He wanted to play with them again.

While top seniors mull these decisions, high schoolers still searching for scholarship offers will spend the fall hoping to garner the attention of programs without their most valuable asset: recent game film.

Every season, Kelley said, a few Quince Orchard seniors emerge as starters and prove their ability to play at the college level. A handful do not have offers yet, he said, but “I know they’re good enough to be scholarship kids, no question about it.”

Coaches will keep sending their players’ 2019 tape. They’ve thought about filming combine-like events at the school. But with Montgomery County coaches still unsure when organized team activities will resume, those videos could become parent-driven, at-home productions.

“I optimistically feel like between high school coaches and college coaches that we do have the kids’ best interests at heart,” Klotz said. “We know that everything will be different, but I think everybody’s going to be willing to adapt.”

For football players, there’s no club season like in basketball and baseball. Their college hopes rest upon high school performances. They can’t control who’s ahead of them on the depth chart, so sometimes senior year is a much-needed opportunity.

“The ones that scare me the most, there are kids who have a little bit of video of their junior year but this was their year,” said Rollinson, who’s beginning his 32nd year as Mater Dei’s coach. “I just feel horrible for them. Horrible. Because now they’ve waited their three years of high school, and then all of a sudden the fall season’s been taken away.”

State associations have made return-to-play decisions independently, so players competing for the same spots will chase them with uneven circumstances — a fall season, a spring season or no season at all.

College coaches will make some recruiting decisions with limited information. It’s not simple for anyone involved — the college programs, high school coaches, players and parents. But they’ll do their best to make it work. They have to. Because these players’ futures depend on it.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Rollinson said. “By the end of the day, you’re exhausted because you’re trying to answer questions like, ‘Well, what’s going to happen with recruiting?’ I don’t know. It’s not a good situation, let’s put it that way.”

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