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College coaches explain what they look for in athletes

Augsburg associate head wrestling coach Tony Valek (left), Eau Claire head wrestling coach Tim Fader (center) and University of Northwestern-St. Paul men’s assistant basketball coach Doug Linton each shared their thoughts on what it takes for high school athletes to catch the attention of a college coach and then succeed at the next level.

Catching a college coach’s attention starts with talent.

Keeping a coach’s attention is a skill that athletes and parents don’t realize is almost as important.

Earlier and earlier in their careers, high school athletes are starting to think about how they can continue their careers after high school. The summer is a key time in the lives of young athletes for making plans to refine skills and figure out exactly how far they think they can go with athletics.

Mapping out what will be necessary for the future is difficult. Following a path that someone else took can be confusing when you consider there’s not perfect science to catching a coach’s attention.

After an athlete is deemed talented enough to contribute to a school, coaches said room for growth and character were the most important things to consider.

Tim Fader, the UW-Eau Claire wrestling coach, said intangibles were often just as important as talent. He mentioned one simple test that he’s used on kids when their parents are around.

“I flat out ask them if they want to wrestle in college,” Fader said. “If they say yes, those are the kids that you follow up with. A lot of kids will say they don’t know or act unsure.

“That’s a major red flag.”

As for identifying talent, University of Northwestern-St. Paul men’s assistant basketball coach Doug Linton said kids with talent separate themselves.

“When a coach is watching a kid on film or sees them in a game, what’s going to jump out, obviously, is that kid’s skill and athletic ability,” Linton said. “From that point, it becomes more about the contact with the kid, contact with the coaches, people that know them (to learn what type of person they are).”

Augsburg wrestling associate head coach Tony Valek echoed those sentiments: “Usually, (after identifying talent) we talk to high school coaches because they’ll let you know if it’s a guy who is working hard every day and doing the right thing socially.”

Valek said finding the recruits that are good students who may be flying under the radar gives the athletes a better chance at succeeding athletically.

“The niche we’ve kind of tried to create, is the good students can take care of the (work) classroom and then we’ll have more time to work with them,” Valek said. “If we don’t have to worry about that with them, then there’s a lot more time to get better.”

The number of athletes that make the jump to the NCAA level varies by sport, but for the most part, this includes less than 10 percent of participants from high school programs. According to the NCAA, nearly 8 million students currently participate in high school athletics in the United States, but only about 480,000 will move on to college programs.

In football, for example, 6.8 percent of the 1,083,308 high school participants will go on to play for a NCAA institution, with only 2.6 percent making the jump to Division I programs.

The highest ratio of high school athletes moving on to the NCAA level is in women's ice hockey, where 24.1 percent of players will join a college program.

Valek pointed out that the recruiting moving earlier and earlier in an athlete’s career is both interesting and concerning for athletes.

“I think it’s really important for a kid to go out and explore your opportunities with an open mind,” Valek said. “There are a lot of opportunities out there and kids need to find good fits.”

If a kid desires to play sports in college, and they aren’t the best player on their team, each of these coaches said late development is something they account for.

Linton said there’s always time to put in work to become a faster and stronger athlete.

Fader said the first athlete he worked with at UW-EC was a wrestler from Bruce. He had the work-ethic and attitude that made him an “ideal athlete,” according to Fader.

“He was good at baseball and he was all-state in XC. He was really athletic and motivated,” Fader said. “When he was done he finished third in the country. He was 11 seconds away from being in the national finals. He did his work and he had no questions asked. He was an ideal athlete.”

And then there are those kids that were overlooked because they played in a weak conference or for a traditionally weak program.

“Sometimes you find an athlete that hasn’t had a ton of coaching,” Valek said. “If that kid hasn’t improved at a lesser program it could lead to big things once they get to college.”