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Staying realistic can help when athletes eye next level

When he first began putting up prolific passing numbers at Hilton Head Prep, Matt Layman admits he dared to dream big.

He imagined himself running down the hill on a fall Saturday, flinging passes for the Clemson Tigers.

Like so many other high school stars, the scholarship offers from major colleges never materialized for Layman, but unlike many of the athletes in similar situations, Layman had the good sense to recognize that wasn't the end of the world -- and it doesn't have to be the end of his athletic career, either.

Layman is still trying to find a place to play next fall, and that means he's taking official visits to places like Robert Morris and Davidson College -- a far cry from using those precious visits to stand on a Southeastern Conference team's sideline for a primetime Saturday night showdown -- and Layman is OK with that.

"In the past, I've always said (NCAA Division I) or I'm not doing anything," Layman said this week. "But I've realized that I love sports; sports is my thing; sports is my family's thing. I can't imagine myself not playing college sports, so I'm going to try and pursue my dream somewhere at the next level playing sports, whether it's football or baseball."

Although he has always come across as a level-headed kid, Layman's response was somewhat surprising, if only for the rarity of his realism.

In today's age of participation trophies, every child is deemed a superstar -- if only in his own household -- by the time he can pick up a ball. As a result, many young athletes have it pounded in their head from an early age that they will one day play at Big State University, and they -- along with their parents -- take it as a personal affront when their options are limited to walking on at a small-conference school with a direction in its name or taking a partial scholarship to play for a team that will never play on TV.

When letters begin to arrive from the largest NCAA Division I schools in a given region -- around here, that's South Carolina and Clemson -- Mommy and Daddy get stars in their eyes. And those stars blind them long enough that they can't see the dollar signs attached to the invitation to this camp or that clinic, which more often than not is the real motive for the athlete being on the mailing list.

Whether a coach has gone out of his way for an in-person visit is always a relevant question relative to an athlete's prospects of playing at the next level.

Today's technology makes it easier than ever for college coaches to evaluate a massive number of potential recruits and cull the herd without ever leaving their desk. Highlight videos pop up in their e-mail inboxes and on YouTube, so there's no need to waste a trip to see a player in person unless they've seen enough on video to warrant it.

The simple, if sometimes painful, fact is most college coaches know a Division I athlete when they see one -- just like you most likely would recognize a supermodel if she were walking among the soccer moms at the grocery store. And when they see an athlete with the innate ability required to excel in major-college sports, they do more than mail off a form letter, which is the recruiting equivalent of posting a birthday message for that Facebook friend you haven't spoken to since high school.

Certainly, players with Division I talent slip through the cracks every year, and people like USC Beaufort baseball coach Rick Sofield make their living identifying and recruiting them. So-called "showcase" camps and tournaments take place throughout the country almost every weekend, and each one is filled with high school kids who are convinced they have the skills to excel in their given sport at the next level, if only the right coach were in the right place to see it.

Occasionally, they're right.

For the most part, though, high school athletes with that kind of talent don't have to go out of their way to find a school that will give them an athletic scholarship -- the schools find them, and they line up for their services.

The dynamic is different for the so-called "non-revenue" sports, of course. Getting on the radar with a big-time golf or tennis coach, for example, typically requires players to amass a certain number of rankings points by playing in the most competitive tournaments. Those events are spread throughout the country, and often run throughout the week, which is why aspiring college players flock to schools like Heritage Academy, where they can build their school schedule around their training at specialized facilities such as the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy, Van Der Meer Tennis Academy or Smith Stearns Tennis Academy, among others.

Never mind that most full-time programs at such training facilities cost more per year than attending the college from which the athletes and their families are hoping to attract a scholarship offer.

None of this is meant to suggest there are right or wrong answers in the recruiting process -- or at least not definitive ones. In fact, the answers are often less important than the questions prospective college athletes and their parents ask along the way.

And the first one ought to be whether they're being realistic with themselves.