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  • JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    McClatchy's Leia Gaspar is an All-Metro Conference second baseman-catcher in softball, all-league in volleyball and a basketball player.

  • PAUL KITAGAKI JR. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

    Tyler Winston plays center field for the Antelope baseball team. He was an All-Capital Athletic League selection in football and basketball this year.

  • JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    McClatchy senior Leia Gaspar says balancing her participation in three major sports with her classwork can be strenuous. "A lot of nights I don't get much sleep," she said. "But I still have a passion for all three."

  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Antelope senior Tyler Winston is usually around the ball in basketball, and football He also has remained busy during the summer with baseball, basketball and football.

  • BRIAN BAER / Bee file, 2012

    Antelope senior Tyler Winston is usually around the ball in basketball, and football He also has remained busy during the summer with baseball, basketball and football.

Preps Plus Extra: Challenge of playing three major sports grows tougher

Published: Monday, Apr. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Apr. 22, 2013 - 8:02 am

Antelope's Tyler Winston and McClatchy's Leia Gaspar are energetic teens, multidimensional athletes and good students.

The seniors also are members of a vanishing breed – athletes who play three major sports in high school.

This year, Winston already has been selected to the All-Capital Athletic League team in football and basketball and is expected to receive the same honor in baseball. He has signed a full-ride scholarship offer to play football for San Jose State.

Gaspar was an All-Metro Conference player in volleyball and softball and an off-the-bench contributor to a playoff-qualifying girls basketball team. She hopes to attend either UC Davis or Dominican University of California in San Rafael, though she said it's unlikely she will play collegiate sports.

At 62 area schools with enrollments of 500 or more students surveyed by The Bee, there are only 23 boys and girls athletes who play all three major sports.

Numerous reasons contribute to the decline:

• There's growing pressure at younger ages for athletes to specialize in one sport to improve their chances of landing a scholarship or win a starting spot on a high-level high school team.

• More high school teams are training or practicing year-round in a bid to win league, section and CIF championships.

• The continued growth of off-campus club sports, travel teams, showcase events and specialty coaches is leading to more conflicts with high school teams.

• High-achieving students are battling for fewer and fewer college openings, increasing academic demands.

• In a challenging economy, more students are working to help pay for college.

• It's more difficult to stay healthy when playing and practicing so often. Christian Brothers' Hayden Jones and Pioneer's Zack Aukes were major three-sport athletes last year until shoulder and elbow surgery, respectively.

Specialization creates conflicts

Several of the area's largest and most successful high school athletic programs report they have no athletes who play all three major sports.

"I feel with all the year-round programs, athletes are specializing early," said Steve White, Oak Ridge's athletic director and girls basketball coach. "Parents pay the club coaches a ton to train the child, and most club coaches do not work with the high school coaches to allow the athlete to play a high school sport at the same time."

At Lincoln, athletic director and softball coach Donna Tofft said there is a natural winnowing of multi-sport athletes.

"We usually have around 20 to 25, most in the freshman class," Tofft said. "By the time they are seniors, we average around two to four, as they get older and they get jobs, cars. Most of our students are not affluent, and they must work for insurance, gas money, et cetera. Interests also change."

Antelope boys basketball coach Rob Richards said some high school programs are as guilty as club teams when it comes to forcing kids to pick among sports.

"I don't like coaches that send subliminal messages: 'Yeah, you should go to your (other) practice, but other guys are going to move ahead of you if you do,' " he said. "The whole idea of making a 14- or 15-year-old kid pick one sport just isn't fair."

Athletic directors agree that they're constantly trying to reinforce on their coaches the importance of sharing athletes.

"Expecting an athlete to play one sport the whole year long is unreasonable and a very poor idea for their physical well-being," Davis athletic director Dennis Foster said.

But with overlapping seasons and year-round training, conflicts are inevitable.

Coaches' cooperation is vital

Rio Americano senior Guillermo Salazar's decision to attend a baseball showcase in Arizona last fall in a bid to try to earn a scholarship instead of playing in a football game led to a players' mutiny and the eventual firing of coach Christian Mahaffey.

Despite the highly publicized incident, which divided the community, Salazar already had decided to give up basketball, his favorite sport growing up, after playing the sport at Rio for three years.

"I wanted to get ready for baseball," said Salazar, who will play the sport at UC Davis but not on an athletic scholarship. "I did miss it, though. Seeing the team I've played with since freshman year make a playoff run was fun to see but also hard to see because I wanted to be playing with them through it."

Winston and Gaspar feel they have been fortunate they didn't have to give up any of their sports, which they say they love equally.

"I look at high school as a time to do as much as possible and to play with your friends because once you get to college, that's not going to be an option," Winston said.

Gaspar even gave up club volleyball after her sophomore year so it wouldn't impact her high school sports schedule.

"Being able to represent my school is the ultimate," Gaspar said. "Playing three sports is really hard, really challenging, especially this year with my (Advanced Placement) classes and senior project. A lot of nights I don't get much sleep. But I still have a passion for all three."

Both say their coaches have been cooperative and understanding when it comes to scheduling.

"I've never been forced to have to choose," Gaspar said. "About the only pressure I get is from my teammates on the basketball team and my coach, but it's good-natured. They'll keep asking me, 'Isn't volleyball over yet?' "

Richards said Winston's three-sport achievement would be impossible without cooperation from football coach Matt Ray and baseball coach Javy Valdivia.

Since Winston works at football, basketball and baseball simultaneously during the summer, Richards puts together what he calls the "Tyler Winston calendar." The idea is to try to avoid as many conflicts as possible.

"If Tyler can make 70 percent of all three, that's better than losing him in one sport," Richards said. "We're not perfect. We hit little bumps in the road. But unlike some schools, we sit down and talk about it."

The pace can be grueling

For athletes who play all three major sports, summer can be their busiest season.

In one weekend last June, Winston played basketball on a Friday night in a tournament in Elk Grove, a baseball game the next day at Antelope and another basketball game that evening in Elk Grove. Then on Sunday, he went to a four-hour San Jose State football camp at Sheldon High School.

Even though Antelope went deep into the postseason this fall in football, Richards still allowed Winston to play in the Optimist All-Star football game in late December, although that's a month when the Titans play nearly half their regular-season basketball schedule.

And because the Titans repeated as Sac-Joaquin Section Division II basketball champions this season, Antelope's season was still going well into the start of baseball.

While Valdivia would have preferred to have Winston from Day One of practice and believes the center fielder has pro potential, he accepts the arrangement.

Valdivia only has to think back on his own experience as a major-sport athlete at Winters.

"Baseball was my love, but nothing tops Friday night football – the atmosphere, playing in front of your fans and fellow students," Valdivia said. "Now as an educator and coach, I keep reminding myself, it's not about me; it's about what's best for my students.

"I still look back fondly on my high school days. I wanted Tyler to enjoy that same experience."

Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson



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