Eighth-grader is in for big pressure

Having witnessed the immense pressure put on and attention paid to Taylor King after he committed to UCLA before the start of his freshman basketball season at Santa Ana Mater Dei, I have come to the conclusion that parents need to step in and just say, "No" when college coaches seek such early commitments.

Those commitments only raise expectations to an unrealistic level and aren't healthy or beneficial for the athlete, who is immediately and constantly subjected to media and fan scrutiny, denying him the opportunity to mature in a calm, controlled manner.

Now 15-year-old Michael Avery, a 6-foot-4 eighth-grader from Thousand Oaks, has put himself squarely in the cross-hairs of amateur talent evaluators by announcing earlier this month that he has committed to play basketball at Kentucky.

He made his college choice before choosing which high school to attend.

If he hadn't realized how his life would change after his choice became public, he was given a wake-up call when his phone began to ring off the hook.

"I'm getting a lot of phone calls I'm not used to," he said a couple days after his commitment.

The area code of many of those callers: 859, which happens to be Lexington, Ky.

Welcome to your brave new world, Mr. Avery.

"I know they really like basketball now," he said.

Why Kentucky Coach Billy Gillispie would offer a scholarship to an eighth-grader from the Conejo Valley based on his performance in one tournament last month in Ohio is a mystery that won't be solved until November 2011, which is when Avery can sign a letter of intent with the Wildcats. Only then will Gillispie be allowed to comment under NCAA rules.

Avery played for Belmont Shore in a travel tournament two weekends ago at USC's Galen Center, and he looked overmatched in his brief appearances playing against high school juniors and seniors. Anyone could have picked him out as the eighth-grader.

The problem is he'll never be compared with his fellow classmates. The moment he steps onto a court, people will envision him wearing a Kentucky uniform. It's a vision that doesn't fit right now, but that's the fallout of such an early commitment.

"This is the kind of fuel that just ignites people who see faults in college basketball," said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches.

Haney said his organization "needs to take some leadership and figure out what should be done to protect the game and the whole recruiting process" as increasing numbers of prospects make commitments years before they arrive on a college campus.

Avery's father, Howard, said he had advised his son to be patient.

But Avery said, "I really like Kentucky basketball. That's why I committed. I've been following their program for a long time."

King seemed equally convinced of his future at UCLA in the fall of 2003, but he ended up signing with Duke three years later and last month, after only one season, decided to transfer to Villanova.

Avery repeated the seventh grade, making him older than most eighth-graders. Hopefully, he'll have the fortitude and maturity to deal with the expectations.

Last week, he finalized his high school choice, deciding to attend Encino Crespi, which means Coach Russell White will be responsible for guiding him for possibly the next four years.

"The sooner the 'Kentucky-bound' disappears as an adjective from his name, the faster we can move forward," White said.

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Call me an old-timer when it comes to evaluating basketball ability, but I base it on how an athlete performs for his high school team rather than his club team.

I attended a Los Angeles Fairfax spring league game Monday night to watch Renardo Sidney of Fairfax. He took the night off. Instead, I got the chance to see one of the top guards in the City Section put on a show.

Michael Williams, the sixth man on Woodland Hills Taft's City Championship team, made seven three-pointers and scored 34 points in the Toreadors' 50-48 loss to Fairfax.

"He's a prolific shooter," Fairfax Coach Harvey Kitani said. "He's a smart player and doesn't force it."

Added Taft Coach Derrick Taylor: "He's our next star."

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It's time to give respect to senior right-hander Jeff Rauh of Laguna Hills. All he's done this season is compile a 13-0 record with a 1.18 earned-run average in leading the Hawks to the Pacific Coast League title. He has a 4.4 grade-point average and is headed to UC San Diego.

"He throws first-pitch strikes to almost every hitter," Coach Pete Tereschuk said.

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Pro scouts were raving about the 12-strikeout, one-walk pitching performance by Long Beach Wilson's Aaron Hicks last week in a 5-0 victory over Lakewood.

Hicks started the year as a top outfield prospect, but his 97-mph fastball is likely to make him a first-round draft pick as a pitcher. His next start is Thursday's playoff opener against Huntington Beach Edison at Blair Field.

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When it comes to towering over people, 6-2 Camilla Dencer from tiny West Hills West Valley Christian is certainly an intimidating force on the track.

She ran the second-fastest 800-meter time in the nation -- 2:09.62 -- at last month's Mount San Antonio College Invitational and ranks as the favorite to win the Division IV title at the Southern Section-Toyota track and field championships Saturday at Mt. SAC.

Dencer is also an outstanding high jumper, having finished second at the 2006 state championships when she competed for Woodland Hills Louisville.

One of only two girls on the West Valley Christian track team, she signed with UCLA in February. At the Harbor League finals, she won the 200, 400, 800 and high jump.

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Desperate times require desperate measures, and that's what happens when your pool is broken in the middle of the high school swim season.

Venice went three weeks without use of its pool last month. For two days, the experienced swimmers practiced in the ocean off Venice Beach trying to stay in shape. Most wore wetsuits, but two who didn't had to be escorted out of the water. A third swimmer cramped up. It led to a reprimand for Coach Sophie Sabbah.

Earlier, the pool went six weeks without a heater. Swimmers and water polo players had to take warm showers to deal with the cold water.

It's been a year of adversity, but Venice swimmers will get to compete in the City Section preliminaries at 2:30 p.m. today at the John C. Argue Swim Stadium, adjacent to the Coliseum.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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