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Reality must balance hope for athletic scholarship

It's Saturday night at the indoor athletic complex, where the games teenagers play have taken on new meaning for many financially stretched families.

During this economic winter of discontent, playing fields have become even more significant as scholarship testing grounds for the soccer player hoping to make a college team, the tennis player bent on catching a coach's eye, the volleyballer dreaming of small-college fame.

For many teens playing individual or team sports for their schools, for club teams or in recreational leagues, it's all about getting noticed. These athletes are in a different situation, of course, than the blue-chip stars who have been under the big-time college recruiting microscope since eighth grade and have plenty of scholarship offers.

Many parents have been caught up in this torrent of sports-scholarship activity, too -- sometimes barking out demands and criticisms during the game at anyone within earshot.

I suppose some dads and moms feel entitled to make their presence known because they've shelled out thousands of dollars -- or much more -- for team fees, uniforms, tournament travel expenses, private lessons, and math and English tutors.

The net effect: There's a whole lotta financial stress spilling onto the bleachers every weekend in gyms, soccer fields and community centers.

I was recently on the receiving end of an ugly soccer-dad meltdown -- all for politely asking the father standing in the front row of the bleachers to sit down so those behind him could see the 16- and 17-year-olds play.

"I'll stand if I want to," the dad told me not once, but twice.

I have the patience of Job, but I scooted to another section.

To me, this boorish behavior is another sign of our hard economic times. Amid layoffs, salary freezes and dwindling savings accounts, some parents are pinning even more of their children's college hopes on obtaining athletic scholarships.

I totally understand how parents can get caught up in this drama, especially if some college is willing to offer serious dough to cover part or all of a son or daughter's tuition, room and board. It could be a ticket for a better future, and who could argue with that? But listen up, all you increasingly tired and stressed-out parents. It's time for a heavy dose of financial-aid reality.

While many of the larger Division I and Division II colleges and universities offer athletic scholarships amounting to

$1.5 billion annually, only about

2 percent of high school seniors receive aid to compete in college, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Moreover, many athletic scholarships provide only partial support, according to FinAid, a college financial-aid Web site. Smaller schools, including Division III programs, are precluded from offering athletic scholarships, and instead provide academic scholarships or other forms of financial aid.

So unless you have a 7-footer who can dunk, a baseball player who can throw a ball through a cement block or a track star who can flat out fly, don't expect a full ride. You'll still need to bring some money to the table.

Another thing to keep in mind: There are no guarantees to full or partial athletic scholarships. At most schools, students must make satisfactory progress in the classroom to avoid losing the aid; getting cut from the team could also mean losing the scholarship.

Now, on to programs and resources that could help your high school athlete get noticed.

For many teens, the way to get on a college recruiter's radar screen is to attend showcase camps or tournaments that are held around the country year-round. Some might be in your own back yard. Typically, coaches from all college levels attend these programs and evaluate players. An online search will turn up dozens of showcase programs.

You can also get a lot of good information about athletic scholarships at www.finaid.org, which features a list of smaller schools offering sports funding.

There is also a section on recruiting services that charge a fee for promoting your high schooler to college coaches. Finally, make sure you check the NCAA Web site, www.ncaa.org, for the most up-to-date information on eligibility issues and other ins and outs of athletic scholarships.

In times like these, there will continue to be competitive pressure on parents and their children when athletic scholarship money is on the line. The stress and tensions in the bleachers might not always be pretty, but that's better than ugly.

E-mail srosen@kcstar.com.

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