The Next Level: The student-athlete signing process & playing collegiate sports and beyond
May 8, 2017
The Signing Process
A senior, Stephaun Carter’s dreams are becoming reality. He will be attending Butler County Community College in the fall and playing football for the Grizzlies.
“I always wanted to play college ball since I was young, but it didn’t really start to hit me [that I could] until about junior, senior year when colleges started hitting me up,” Carter said.
Carter, like many other high school student-athletes, has a common dream: to continue to playing sports beyond high school, but that’s a hard feat to accomplish. For example, of the 151 senior student-athletes at Topeka High School this year, only 20 have signed to play college athletics. That’s 13.2% of senior student-athletes and 5% of all seniors.
While playing at any college level is a rarity for most high schoolers, getting to that level is the hard part.
“You’re choosing your future, what path you’re going to go on, what road you’re going to go down,” Austin Tillman, class of ‘14, said. “It is intimidating and it’s stressful. It’s extremely stressful. Once I finally committed and made the decision I was going to Washburn, there was a sigh of relief. It’s a long, bumpy road the recruitment process.”
Tillman, a linebacker for Washburn University, found his college decision to be a lot easier than the actual recruitment process.
“They [Washburn] were just the most passionate about wanting me,” Tillman said. “Basically, the first day that the coaches could come offer a scholarship, Washburn was at Topeka High, I was meeting with them at 8:00 a.m. in the office and they were like, ‘Okay, this is our offer, here’s what we’re putting down, here’s what we want to do. We want to get you here.’ And no other schools did that. Schools would come in and coaches would just be kind of nonchalant, like it’s another day at work. Washburn would be excited, they wanted to have me and they were hype about it and I just didn’t get that from anyone else.”
Tillman, a former Topeka High football player and wrestler, was lucky enough to find the right situation for him, but a lot of students-athletes miss out on those situations for a lot of reasons, in part because some don’t understand what goes into a good recruit both on and off the field.
“I’m really big on guys that have some grit and by grit I mean toughness. They’re competitive, they’re coachable. You’ll watch a guy go through a skill development session or his highlight film and that’s sometimes tough to tell,” Washburn University head basketball coach Brett Ballard said. “We try to evaluate guys for — ‘Can we coach them? Are they going to come in here and fight through some adversity? Are they going to bring effort and intensity every day? Not just when they’re feeling good, but every day.’ Those guys end up getting a little bit better each and every day and sometimes they, most occasions, end up passing the guys who come in and are a little more talented than them.”
Of the 20 student-athletes who’ve signed, only one has signed to play at the Division One level and 10 have signed to play at community colleges.
“I know it’s [Butler] a community college, but it’s stood out more than any other ones,” Carter said. “I went down there on a couple visits and I really like their facilities. The coaches are nice and friendly and their program is one of the best JuCo [junior college] programs. I plan on playing more college football, so I think they’ll send me somewhere good.”
For Carter, Butler could only be the start of living his dream. Butler County is one of many community colleges in Kansas that has produced not only Division One talent, but professional talent, including former NFL running back Rudi Johnson and NBA small forward Stephen Jackson, as well as current NFL players like Demarcus Lawrence, Bruce Irvin, and Damarious Randall.
Playing at the Next Level
For Marcus Fillyaw, class of ‘13, living out his dreams meant playing basketball for three different colleges and traveling over 2,700 miles.
“You’re a professional basketball player, you’re under a spotlight,” Fillyaw said.” I’m in a beautiful place. I mean there’s not much more I could ask for, it really is nice and I think the most satisfying thing about it is I put the work in to get here and it’s kind of cool seeing my reward.”
Fillyaw, a point guard for the Brujos de Guayama in the Baloncesto Superior Nacionale, Puerto Rico has played basketball at the junior college, division one, division two, semi-pro, and professional level since graduating from Topeka High School.
“I knew what I wanted to do and obviously my path didn’t go the way I thought it would — changing schools two different times and starting semi-pro and all of that — but it’s just that fear of failing,” Fillyaw said. “I never wanted to fail. You develop a routine and some consistency that’ll help you get to that goal and I think I was very consistent, I still am as far as my workouts and my habits when I practice, and you just kind of find out what works for you and stick to it. A lot of praying, a lot of good luck, but I think consistency is one of the biggest things.”
Finding that routine can be crucial to an athlete’s success, especially as the transition from high school to college athletics — and in Fillyaw’s case, one college level to another — can be substantial.
“Guys got bigger, they’re a lot bigger and more athletic,” Fillyaw said. “It’s a much bigger adjustment from that [junior college] level to the division one level, at least it was for me. It makes you think a little more when you’re out there. How to be a smarter player, especially if you’re not as athletic, kind of like I am. I kind of have to outthink people and adjust.”
“The athleticism at the next level — when you’re going from high school to junior college — there’s just another level up in athletic ability, quickness, speed, height, strength, and so that was an adjustment for me,” Brett Ballard said. “I really had to commit even further to the weight room and getting quicker, stronger, and faster and the talent and skill level of the players. There’s really good high school basketball in this state, but when you go to the junior college level, you’ve got the best one or two players from everybody’s high school team, so it’s just a level up.”
Ballard, who’s worked for Bill Self and coached with Danny Manning, has also played under Roy Williams. A graduate of Hutchinson High School, Ballard played at Cowley and Hutchinson Community College for two years before transferring to Kansas University as a preferred walk-on.
“I knew I wanted to coach, so I felt like going to walk-on was probably the best opportunity for me to, one, be at Kansas and be in that situation, but to also learn from coach Williams, which would probably help me down the line with my coaching career,” Ballard said. “So I made that decision and it was unbelievable, just being apart of that program and learning from a hall of fame coach in coach Williams was valuable for me.”