It is a dream for many high school athletes to be offered a scholarship to play their sport in a NCAA Division 1 level school.
Dreams became reality last week for Middletown South's Elijah Smith, Bridget Skinner and Ashley Pankey, who signed "letters of intent" in a little ceremony to officially signal their commitment to attend the college of their choice.
All three have been playing "up" since a young age, constantly challenging themselves to join more competitive leagues. They had to work hard to be noticed among similarly driven athletes.
Ashley Pankey of North Middletown has accepted an offer to play women's soccer at the University of Kansas. The four-year Middletown Varsity standout got noticed by a recruiter during a match in Nevada, as a forward for the elite soccer team, Matchfit Chelsea Beat U17. The coach emailed her, and she agreed to attend the school's summer camp. She got the offer to come play. She had been considering offers from the University of Connecticut and Dartmouth, but loved the big school and chose U. of Kansas in the end.
Her mother Brenda said, "Continuing to play with a club team gets you exposure," she said.
Bridget Skinner, 17, the daughter of David and Joan Skinner of the Oak Hill section, is a top scholar and central defender who chose to put off her choice until junior year, unlike other soccer players who commit by sophomore year. She was offered attractive offers to schools like Boston College, Georgetown, Penn State, Rutgers, Villanova and Virginia. In the end, she went for the vibrant, big school atmosphere of Ohio State. The best thing she did to get noticed, she said, was to join a selective, competitive league like Player Development Academy (PDA). There was this one particular match in San Antonio, Texas that led to several offers. "There were 70 coaches, they were lining the field," she said. The phone rang a lot after that match, she said.
Eli Smith of the River Plaza section scored a full-ride football scholarship to Wagner College on Staten Island, NY to play as a defensive back. He connected with Wagner with the help and support from his parents, Darryl Reed and Melena Green and staff like Middletown HS South Head Football Coach Steve Antonucci.
"My first three years of high school I barely talked to any schools. Close to none," said Smith, who left St. John Vianney in Holmdel and entered Middletown HS South in his senior year when the family moved to Middletown. "My last year, I came out and showed what I have, and the dream came true to play college football," he said. "Never give up on your dreams."
His father avoided the marketing firms that promise to shop your kid to schools nationwide, but did pay a professional videographer in California to work up a highlight reel of his son's best moments. He sent it out to 700 schools himself. Eli got to choose between offers from Wagner and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
"At the end of the day it's about negotiation skills," said Darryl Reed. "I think Coach Antonucci did an awesome job in negotiation with the head coaches over there, going back and forth, on our behalf."
But not every deserving kid gets the golden ticket, said Antonucci. "It's a tough business. It really just comes down to luck sometimes. We've had guys who I thought should have been scholarship players, and they weren't, unfortunately."
"It comes down to the parent and coaches constantly being on the path, and trying to find every avenue possible," said the coach.