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Exploring the Junior College Option: It Worked for Nolan Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Ashlin Sanders – How About You?

From average grades to being inducted into Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society for academic success. That is what can happen when an athlete finds the right fit to grow as a student-athlete in College!

One of the great rewards with helping families with recruiting education and exposure is when it changes lives. In December of 2008 the South Bend Schools hosted College Recruiting Simplified. Among those attending was the Sanders family, whose daughter Ashlin was a senior at Riley High School. Despite being a four year letter winner in basketball, and on her way to being a 2-time All Conference player, she was not being recruited. She ended up fifth on the school’s all time scoring list with 1091 points and averaged 18 points a game as a senior. She did AAU Ball and everything but the family was frustrated about the whole recruiting thing.

“No one was recruiting her,” said her mother, Cherrie. “I wish we had become educated on the recruiting process early because the whole thing confused us.”

Frustrated, they came to the recruiting education event during the winter of Ashlin’s senior year and got into the NCSA Athletic Recruiting Network. They really worked it hard, and got results.

“In two weeks time we heard from over 100 colleges,” said Cherrie. “Amanda Rawson (Senior Recruiting Coach and former St. John’s University basketball player) and the people at NCSA were wonderful to work with.”

Ashlin’s hilite video was a hit with college coaches. Many of them had no idea she had such skills on offense. However, she would be the first to tell you that her Test scores were not top notch. An admitted shaky Test taker, her SAT scores limited her options. Her GPA at 2.7 did as well with some schools.

As NCSA always says, the better your grades, the more options you will have for scholarships to be a College athlete.

Ashlin decided the best route to go would be the Junior College route to shore up her academics. NCSA connected her with Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois, the only 2 year private residential College in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln christened the new town, named in his honor, with juice from a watermelon! Lincoln is about a 3 1/2 hour trip from her home. Ashlin wanted to be close enough to where family could see her play.

There, the structure of being a college athlete really helped her. She became very focused and constantly had help and encouragement. “There was a lot of academic support available,” said Ashlin. “The Professors really worked with you. I took my homework on road game trips and got it done. If they felt you were slipping, they would work with you. If you had a question, they were always there.”

Ashlin made the Presidential List her freshman year, with a 3.6 GPA!

“It took a lot of hard work and dedication,” said Ashlin.

She carried a 3.4 GPA her sophomore year and made the Dean’s List. Then came one of the most special moments of her young life. Ashlin was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa, a junior college academic honor society. To be eligible for membership, students must have a cumulative G.P.A. of 3.5 or higher and have earned a minimum of 15 credits at Lincoln College. The photo below shows her proudly smiling on the front row, the third person from the right.

Ashlin Sanders honored for her academic success

“It’s all about balance,” said Ashlin. “School work, time with friends, basketball. You have to have balance. What I also liked about going off to College was that it got me used to being on my own and seeing different views on things. With the basketball I found that all of the girls could play. It was so much more physical.”

Ashlin made third team Midwest All Conference as a sophomore at Lincoln. At that point, it was time to move on from Junior College. Many schools at various levels continued to keep an eye on her including Eastern Michigan (D1), Lewis University (D2), Southern Indiana (D2), and many NAIA and D3 schools such as Franklin College. Having been almost four hours away from home, Ashlin decided she wanted to finish her College career very close to home.

“She’s a homebody,” said her mother, Cherrie.

Ashlin signed with NAIA national powerhouse Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN (photo below), which is very close to her home. Their coaching staff learned about her progress through NCSA. “I chose Bethel because of their strong academic support and the basketball program has a tradition of winning,” said Ashlin, who wants to be a Coach someday.

Ashlin Sanders signs with NAIA Powerhouse Bethel College

For Ashlin, the best fit for her out of High School was a strong Junior College where she learned what could be accomplished through focus, time management, and strong academic support. She had it in her to be a strong student. Lincoln was the right fit for her to bring it out.

“For Ashlin it was good to be in smaller class sizes,” said her mother, Cherrie. “She wasn’t just a number. A big College would have overwhelmed her. I thought she would struggle but with all the help she did it!”

At Lincoln, the average class size is 15 with many classes closed at 20 students. She also picked a school with a strong track record of academic success:

  • 75% of students accepted at Lincoln College will graduate in two years.
  • 90% of graduates transfer immediately to a four-year institution, where they succeed as well as or better than the native students at that institution.

Be sure to ask hard hitting questions about the academic success rate of athletes at the particular schools that you are looking at in the recruiting process. Just like 4 year Colleges, not every 2 year school is as strong as others. Ashlin connected with a strong one in Lincoln.

While many athletes go D1 from Junior College, Ashlin really wanted to finish her College career very close to home and at a level where she had a chance to be on court a lot. I say “chance” because she will have to step it up on defense to get on the court at Bethel. “A lot of kids want to chase the dream and play D1,” said Ashlin. “That’s not for everyone. I had that dream, but you have to be realistic. Parents have to be realistic. I watch a lot of basketball games on TV and I see a lot of those D1 players riding the bench the whole game.”

“There are a lot of girls like me,” continued Ashlin, “that could be playing College on scholarship but they just don’t understand recruiting and they fall through the cracks.”

A.J. Fraser was a successful distance runner at 5-A Indiana power Penn High School. He connected with Jackson Community College in Michigan and wrote me these insights after finishing his freshman year:

“The places that we went as a team this pass season were awesome. My favorite meet was the Memphis Twilight Classic in Tennessee. That is probably the farthest that I ever traveled before in my life. I made some new friends and kept my focus through school. My academic interest there is their culinary program. When I was looking for colleges I was wanting to start out smart and less expensive. I looked for the academic program of my interest and then I looked at their Sports to see if they had mine because if I did sports I knew I would stay focused with academics. So I wanted to start out in a Jr. College. Jackson had great opportunity for me and that’s why I chose there (a few hours from his home.  When I was looking for a school to go to I started looking for a Jr. college first because I believe it will be a great start for me in my career and in sports. I was also looking for opportunity. So Jackson was a perfect fit for me. The campus is great, classes, athletics, and not to mention the scholarship the coach gave me which was something I couldn’t let down. It’s also why I try to get a few guys from my high school which is Penn to come to Jackson because they don’t know what they are missing. Then after Jackson I am hoping to transfer over to Robert Morris University and continue there.

A.J. continues to grow as an athlete. He just ran a 16:38 5K in the off season, a personal record.

The NCSA Athletic Recruiting Network has over 250 team members helping athletes find the right fit for them. Here are some insights on the Junior College fit:

“Talking from experience, Junior College baseball was a great option for me. I played at a very small small High School in upstate NY. I felt it was in my best interest to ease my way into the college picture and stay local at a smaller school. Those 2 years were huge, and it allowed me to flourish in the classroom and on the Diamond. I was All Conference 2nd base my sophomore season, which lead to a full NAIA baseball scholarship to King College, in TN.”

Matthew Malinowski, NCSA Collegiate Scout

“Starting my collegiate career at a 2-year program was the best decision I made. From there I transferred to a DI Big East program (St. Johns University in New York) to play women’s basketball. The classes I took at the 2-year program were just as hard if not harder than some of the classes I took at the 4-year institution.”

Amanda Rawson, Senior Recruiting Coach/Training Assistant

“Softball-wise it can be a great option for some students to move into playing at a higher level. A few years ago we (NCSA) worked with a Texas player that went to Chipola JC in FL for a year (she had great grades and all – just not the right opportunity to play D1 – had some offers but wanted bigger level school).So she went for a year,-they won a championship, and then next year moved on to Texas Tech.”

“Some use the JC as a money saver (the top JC schools have two times as many Softball scholarships as do D1 NCAA schools). Some use is to gain maturity as they are not ready to leave home.Some are not sure about academics so they chose 2 year and will take that 1st year of General Education classes and explore academic options. A few for the women’s’ side use it academically so for those reasons dispel the talk that all JC schools are good for is the low academic kids. There are 4 year schools who request for JC kids at times to fill in those gaps on their roster. Softball JC’s that are very competitive are in the states of FL, TX, CA & AZ – but there are some top schools in various states.”

Joyce Wellhoefer, Senior Recruiting Coach (Softball), NCSA

“I attended North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City IA to play baseball there. I thought that a JuCo might have less talented student athletes, but that was a large myth. Everyone I played with was extremely talented; we had 4 or 5 D-1A players and one got drafted. It was an honor to play with such talented athletes. My parents also liked the idea of JuCo baseball because it was only a 2 year commitment so if I got injured or if the team wasn’t a good fit, I would be transferring after 2 years either way.”

Tim Murphy, NCSA Collegiate Scout

“The JC experience will allow athletes to:

– improve their game at the college level of competition

– live on her own (most do not have student residential housing)

– develop a list of personal and academic responsibilities

– get maximum grades

– open their eyes to the realities of the real world”

Scott Fuller, NCSA National Collegiate Scout

“I speak about Junior Colleges all the time when I do my College Recruiting Simplified talks. As a former athlete (UCLA and NFL) who has watched the type of athletes who go to certain schools I have noticed that many JuCos are just as competitive as some of the D1 schools. Growing up in Texas it was not such Taboo to see excellent student-athletes wind up at JuCos because all athletes do not have the academics that might land them in a D1 athletic program. There are more JuCos here in the state of Texas than the rest of the States so the opportunity is great, especially for Texas Student-Athletes. I like to emphasize that many D1 schools have specific JuCos that they use as feeder schools every year because they know they have great talent. When I was at UCLA, we used to get JuCo players all the time who would end up either starting or becoming contributors to the program. Chad Ochocinco, of the NFL’s current top receivers, started out at Langston University in Oklahoma then transferred to Santa Monica JuCo in Los Angeles,Ca before heading to Oregon State.”

Othello Henderson, NCSA Recruiting Expert/Speaker

Athletes that have started out in Junior College include future Hall of Famer Albert Pujois of the Cardinals, Super Bowl star QB Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, Major League Baseball All Star Evan Longoria of the Rays, the legendary Nolan Ryan, Danielle Adams, MVP of the Women’s Basketball Final Four for National Champion Texas A/M (30 points and 9 rebounds in Title Game win vs Notre Dame), WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoops, several of the key players on the Marquette University men’s basketball team that made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in March, Ben Wallace of the Pistons, and Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers.

Charlie Adams, NCSA Athletic Recruiting Network Expert/Speaker

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About the author
Charlie Adams