Fall was for football or volleyball. Winter meant basketball or wrestling. In the spring there was track before baseball took over for the summer. But times have changed, and sports — many of which can be played year-round — have been added. The Georgia High School Association currently sanctions 15 different sports, ranging from lacrosse to tennis and cross country to swimming.
While the fall and winter offer a relatively few number of athletic options, the spring offers so many choices that a high school athlete could play a different one each year and still not have tried them all before graduation. Each of the six high schools in Cherokee County field teams in soccer, lacrosse, tennis, golf and track and field for both genders each spring. Baseball is offered for the boys as well.
But the choice is more than just what to play in any given season. Many athletes are choosing one sport to play all year.
While the belief is that athletes who specialize in one sport by playing not only during the high school season, but year-round thanks to other outlets, will have a better shot at playing in college, that isn’t necessarily the case.
According to an April 2014 study conducted by the UCLA School of Medicine, specialization isn’t always a good thing. In fact, the study concluded that there was no advantage to specializing in one sport until just prior to beginning college.
Many Cherokee County coaches say they have been trying to send that same message for years.
Brent Budde, who coaches football at Woodstock, played several sports himself as a high school student in both Salem, Ill., and Paulding County. He lettered four years in both football and baseball and twice in basketball. He was an avid golfer, too, and coached the sport at Woodstock for 15 years.
When it comes to sharing his football players with other athletic programs, he certainly doesn’t mind.
“I tell our football players, the group that I maybe can influence, that they will be better football players if they play basketball, or if they wrestle, or play baseball or run track. I think we have gotten into a period of specialization where kids think they need to play one sport in order to get good at it.”
The numbers back up Budde’s claim of supporting multi-sport athletes. Woodstock had approximately 30 football players that either wrestled in the winter or ran track in the spring. Some did both.
“I probably have 20 on the football team that run track,” Budde said. “I probably have 10 who wrestle, along with playing football. Then, I have a couple baseball, maybe two basketball, and a couple that do lacrosse.”
Cherokee track and field coach Charley Ingham said part of what he likes about his school is that the coaches share players.
“If we see an athlete that we think would be good, we don’t hesitate to tell the other coach,” Ingham said. “That is why I say we have such a family here at Cherokee.”
Many of Cherokee’s football players are members of the baseball, track of lacrosse teams, while others wrestle.
Driven by travel teams and the availability of indoor practice facilities, many parents push their children to compete at the highest level. However, according to Creekview baseball coach Mike Nayman, the cost of being great can add up.
While Nayman has several multi-sport athletes on his team, including Kyle Wilkie, Chandler Wold, and Dawson Ewers, he believes the financial obligation that comes with being part of multiple teams can be prohibitive for some athletes.
“It’s unfortunate, but I think kids sometimes get driven into one sport because of the investment that is made in younger years by families,” Nayman said. “Parents try to get the best instruction, or on the best travel program. Before you know it, the families have made quite a financial commitment, and then there is pressure on the athlete to succeed because of that commitment.”
Many of the families supporting young athlete, expect the investment to lead to a college scholarship. Only, full rides don’t come against often.
Even more uncommon is becoming a professional athlete. For all of the high school athletes Cherokee County sends to college each season, only a few have had that education paid for with an athletic scholarship. Athletes like Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis or San Francisco 49ers fullback Bruce Miller — both products of Woodstock High School — or professional golfer Chris Kirk, who graduated from Etowah, are few and far between.
While playing one sport exclusively throughout the year might benefit athletes who would otherwise not be good enough to play either on the varsity team or at the next level, most college-bound athletes are talented enough to play more than one sport easily. Budde said recruiters who visit his football players like to hear they are well-rounded.
“When they recruit kids, they ask, ‘Does he play other sports?’” Budde said. “I think that’s what they are looking for, too.”
Budde said year-round opportunities didn’t exist when he was a high school athlete, and they still don’t in more rural areas.
“We didn’t have fall baseball when I was in high school, so I played football,” Budde said. “Nowadays, you have fall baseball and even fall lacrosse. In smaller communities, like south Georgia, or rural communities, you have more multi-sport athletes because the other opportunities don’t exist.”
The consensus among local coaches is that wrestling will make football players stronger, while track will increase their speed. Basketball will keep female athletes fit for softball or volleyball. Lacrosse and baseball allow football players to stay competitive in the offseason.
The sports that have seen the most specialization are those played by individuals as part of a team, such as swimming, golf and tennis. For many athletes in those sports, the high school season is secondary to their competitive season, which often lasts from summer through fall. In swimming, it isn’t uncommon for an athlete to skip a high school meet in order to compete with their club team.
Etowah swimming coach Virginia Richards bucked that trend with several multi-sport athletes on her squad, including one who wrestled, which involved competing in two sports simultaneously.
“I have had swimmers that also participate in football, cross country, track, soccer, volleyball, baseball and even wrestling,” Richards said. “I think, with the running sports, particularly cross country and track, it can help with endurance. For some of the others, I think swimming is more a fun sport, while they focus more on something like baseball.”
Still, Richards had her share of exclusive athletes, such as Megan Young, Lauren Oglesby, Taylor Weiss and Madison DuVall.
One team sport that bucks the trend when it comes to multi-sport athletes is soccer.
Because of the popularity of recreational and travel teams, many high school players haven’t played anything but soccer for most of the lives. The last several athletes recognized as a Cherokee Tribune Soccer Player of the Year have played the game exclusively.
Sarah Goodbread, River Ridge’s swimming and girls soccer coach, said she certainly doesn’t mind her athletes playing more than one sport. After all, she did.
“I was active in both the sports I coach,” Goodbread said. “I don’t think the kids should have to choose unless they want to. I think it’s good for them to cross-train and experience being a part of different teams.”
Creekview boys soccer coach Shawn McClellan said that aside from one of his players being a kicker for the football team, none of his soccer players were active with another team.
“There were days when a kid could just walk onto the local high school team and make an impact, but because the quality of soccer players is so much better now, it’s become hard for a kid to just walk on,” McClellan said. “You have young kids that get exclusive with a sport because they think they will be able to compete better later on.”
McClellan, like Budde, Nayman and Goodbread, believes it’s good for children to play multiple sports as long as they can.
“I think it’s good, especially while they are younger, so they don’t burn out,” McClellan said. “I think (specializing) makes them more inclined to injuries as they get older.”
Nayman, whose daughter, Parker, played multiple sports at River Ridge and now plays basketball at Flagler College in Florida, said it’s important to remember that athletics are just one part of life.
“Decisions start to get made to focus on one sport because they think that’s what they need to do to make it to the next level,” Nayman said. “I hate it that kids feel they need to be locked in because, sometimes, being a kid is about being a kid. The chances of being a professional aren’t really that good. I see kids giving up their second or third sport a lot more now than in years past.”