Senior athletes gear up for college play, offer advice to underclassmen

Senior Grace Cooper catches her breath during a swim meet. Cooper was named the Illinois Swimming & Diving Senior of the Year this year. “I started swimming competitively when I was seven years old. I knew I wanted to play in college when I reached the fourth grade,” Cooper said. Photo courtesy of Grace Cooper.

For many high school students, the fall of their senior year is a stressful time filled with applications, financial aid, college visits, essays, letters of recommendation … the list goes on and on. The attempt to impress college admission committees nationwide is one requiring dedication and determination. But a longer, more selective process is happening behind the scenes for some students. 

Varsity athletes are already being looked at by colleges, in some cases long before their senior year starts. Scouts attend sporting events and families have phone calls with various athletic programs. Day-long meetings with coaches occupy the summer schedule of these young hopefuls. This lucky, small percentage of student athletes have the yearning, will, and opportunity to advance their play to a more professional state, turning carpools to basketball practices and flights to soccer tournaments into a legitimate part of their lifestyle. The dream to obtain a college scholarship is on the minds of numerous student athletes in high school.

Though not impossible, these athletes must show a steadfast commitment to their sport and be willing to elevate their talent to the next level, amidst masses of other athletes all around the country vying for the same spots.

Senior Grace Cooper received an offer from the University of Texas, Austin, to compete on their swim team. Committing in the spring of her junior year, Cooper obligated herself to an institution earlier than the majority of her peers. Swimming for her was natural from the moment she tried it out.

“My mom put me in swim lessons and I fell in love with being in the water. I love the competition of swimming since I am a very competitive person in everything I do,” Cooper said.  “Also, the friends and the community it has brought me is like family, and we all are like minded and just bond so well. It keeps me self disciplined, which is useful in many aspects of life right now, like school.”

Cooper’s love for water aquatics has transcended beyond the realm of high school swimming. Not only will she swim in college, but she plans to try out for the Olympics in June. 

Deryl Leubner has formed a close relationship with Cooper, being her swim coach during her high school career and watching her skill blossom throughout the years. Leubner said he believes that Cooper has every possibility to place in the finals for her Olympic try-out, as long as she stays healthy and committed to her sport.

“Anytime you get a kid who’s as talented as she is, works as hard as she does, and likes the sport as much as she does, I think it’s just fun to be apart of,” Leubner said. “Grace has always been really, really good. She has probably been capable of swimming in college since she was 10. All of our swimmers can swim in college, it’s just a matter of finding the college that’s best for you.”

Though not impossible, these athletes must show a steadfast commitment to their sport and be willing to elevate their talent to the next level, amidst masses of other athletes all around the country vying for the same spots.

In Cooper’s case, her determination, natural capability, and strong connections with coaches and mentors have led to a bright future up ahead. Genuine interest is the first of many flames to be lit in a serious athlete looking to play in college. Putting an emphasis on the sport while playing is one thing, but creating a bond that impacts other aspects of your life is just as important.

Senior Matthew Trakszelis recently signed with Xavier University for soccer, and exemplifies the point that building a long term relationship with your sport is a necessity for college gameplay.

“I started playing soccer when I was 3 years old,” Trakszelis said. “I have played for Team Chicago, Chicago Fire Academy, and I currently play for FC United at the Developmental Academy level.”

Trakszelis said that because he started playing so early, he has had the opportunity to travel and experience more things related to his sport. Visiting new places is a crucial benefit that can strengthen one’s love for a sport. These events, in particular, garnered more exposure for Trakszelis and deepened his connection with soccer.

“I love playing in games and the opportunities I’ve had. I have traveled to Canada, Costa Rica, and all around the United States to play,” Trakszelis said.

Just as with applying to college, wanting to and actually being able to are two different things. Your dreams could be of high-tier academics or decorated athletic programs. Without the talent and attractiveness you bring, however, these dreams simply remain dreams.

“It was a dream of mine to play Division I, and it’s become a reality,” Trakszelis said.

Xavier University’s men’s soccer team is a member of the Big East Conference in the NCAA, and play teams such as Marquette University, Villanova University, and Seton Hall University, among others.

The desire to participate athletically in college flourishes at different times for everyone. For Cooper, she has had her eyes set on college play since the fourth grade. For senior Caroline Engelhardt, she said she truly decided she wanted to play collegiately during her freshman year softball season.

“I love softball because it’s a team sport, yet you still have the individuality of the sport. I love the game too, the atmosphere is amazing,” Engelhardt said.

In August of 2019, just a week after her senior year began, Engelhardt announced her commitment to Winona State University in Minnesota, where she will continue to play softball at the Division II level.

A student athlete is not the only one who can benefit from an athletic scholarship. In Engelhardt’s case in particular, her father Christopher pointed out the financial benefits to less money being pulled from the bank account.

“Receiving a scholarship from a school is an incredible achievement,” Christopher said. “Our family’s approach to college funding has always been a shared approach.  Carly fulfills her part of the equation with her scholarship and my wife and I can contribute from the 529 plan that we have set up for Carly. In the end, there will be some out-of-pocket expenses, but they will be more manageable with her scholarship.”

Looking for the right sports program can become a challenging task on its own. Student athletes have almost double work to do when researching for colleges. Not only must they find one right for their major and personality, but they additionally must consider the school’s team for their sport, and decide whether they can truly benefit from the program.

Senior Madison Frazer, who will play soccer at Northern Illinois University next year, admitted the strenuous nature of the recruitment process, but said it was exciting communicating with coaches about something that she was really passionate about.

“The most stressful part was finding and choosing a school that fits me both academically and athletically and making sure that I choose the school that will make me the happiest,” Frazer said. “It’s a lot of emailing and calling coaches. It’s a lot of work but in the end, it’s worth it.”

Senior Madison Frazer moves to put the ball into play at a soccer game. “The thing I love most about soccer is the competitiveness and also the fact that it has brought me so many friends and memories that I will never forget,” Frazer said. Photo courtesy of Madison Frazer.

Insecurities over the intended balance of college sports and college curriculum is something even those who do not play a sport can speak to. College athletics reach a new level of time management, dedication, and prioritizing.

“I am most nervous about balancing my time and homework. With playing a sport in college, we travel a lot and we train 6 days out of the week, and I’m nervous I will fall behind academically,” Frazer said.

The rigor of collegiate athletics is common knowledge among lower levels. Juan Leal, one of Frazer’s coaches throughout her high school years, honed in on the fact that many coaches are able to pick up on the skill and success needed to snag a college scholarship. He said one of the main reasons he began coaching was to help others learn about the sport and play at a competitive level. In Frazer’s case particularly, he said he saw this exact principle coming to life.

“I realized that when she was a freshman, she was competing and sometimes winning against 4 of our college bound players that were seniors that year.  She played almost every minute as a freshman and totally dominated at defense,” Leal said. “ I knew then that she was a special player and had potential to play at the next level.”

Leal mentioned that competing on a college level is not an easy process, and a lot of hard work and dedication is necessary to reach this position. He did, however, stand by the notion that Frazer has the absolute ability to advance even higher in the ranks of professional soccer, and encouraged rising players that they have the opportunity to do the same.

“The biggest difference is the time commitment and travel.  In college, it takes a lot more of your time and energy. It also requires a lot of travel, which again translates to time,” Leal said. “It is important to know your ability and have attainable goals.”

The allure of post-secondary gameplay consistently captures the time and energy of student athletes everywhere. Every year, College Signing Day is held in high schools across the country, where athletes officially commit to play at the college level, extending their internal contract with a sport they have grown to love throughout the years.

“I’m most excited for a new beginning,” Engelhardt said. “I am going to college with a travel teammate of mine, and I can not wait to play at one of the best Division II schools in the country.”

Boasting skill, experience, and drive are necessary assets for college play. Senior baseball player Tyler Heidkamp, however, said that he believes staying humble and aware are just as important. 

“My advice to someone who wants to play any sport in college is to check every box they can possibly think of that might help them to get better at their sport,” Heidkamp said. “Don’t ever get comfortable, because when you feel like you are good enough, you are in trouble.”

Senior Tyler Heidkamp winds up for the pitch during a baseball game. “Baseball is my favorite sport simply because of the game inside the game. There is much more to it than when it is shown on TV,” Heidkamp said. Photo courtesy of Tyler Heidkamp.

Heidkamp is one of the most recent seniors to announce a college athletic commitment, signing with Parkland College in Urbana, Illinois, in late October. Strong faith and hope serve as some of his proudest qualities. He said that getting better at his craft and playing at a higher level was most important to him, rather than straining himself for a more prominent program.

“It will honestly end up being whatever God has in store for me. I don’t really have a plan. My goal is to get in and transfer to the Power 5 after the first year,” Heidkamp said. The Power 5 are considered to be the most prominent, respected, and popular athletic programs in Division I athletics. Schools in this ranking include University of Missouri, Purdue University, University of Louisville, and Baylor University.

What starts as a slight hobby can blossom into a promising career in a sport you love. The talent to score a college offer and the bravery to take it are two defining moments in a student athlete’s career. If taken seriously, it could be the first of many professional openings.

“My advice to someone who wants to play any sport in college is to check every box they can possibly think of that might help them to get better at their sport,” Heidkamp said. “Don’t ever get comfortable, because when you feel like you are good enough, you are in trouble.”

— senior Tyler Heidkamp

“I am excited about meeting my future teammates and friends and the overall college experience,” Frazer said. “I’m also excited to play at the next level and really be a part of something bigger.”

Something bigger. That something might be an Ivy League college for some students. That something might be a high rank in the military. For serious, talented, committed athletes, it’s about taking something you love and giving your all, using the bulk of your time and majority of your energy to perfect a skill that brings you joy. 

“Trust your heart and go where you think you would be happiest, not where others think you should go,” Cooper said.

Alex Prince is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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