Column: Multi-sport high school athletes are a vanishing breed, but are valued for their adaptability
There are more than 20 pairs of shoes scattered in Charlie Rocca’s closet. Around the bedroom are aluminum bats, hats, thigh pads, footballs, baseballs and mouth guards. The Verdugo Hills senior has enough used sports equipment to hold a garage sale. It comes with being a two-sport athlete.
They might be disappearing in the high school ranks amid the pressure to pursue a singular sport 365 days a year, but multi-sport athletes still exist and lots of coaches appreciate their sacrifice.
“We are always looking for two-sport guys,” UCLA baseball coach John Savage said. “They just appear to be able to adapt to situations a little quicker. The toughness they can bring is always a boost to the team concept. We have had some really good high school football/baseball players in our program.”
Rocca was a receiver and defensive back for Verdugo Hills’ football team that lost in the City Section Division III championship game. Now he’s an All-City outfielder who has hit a school-record 10 home runs for the baseball team while batting .522 with 32 RBIs.
There are lots of people who believe using different sets of muscles helps for each sport. Rocca agrees.
“Those drills we do in football helps with strength,” he said. “Growing up, I played basketball, baseball and football. You’re an athlete if you do that. It feels good being able to play all those sports.”
Clearly there’s been a history of pressure applied to multi-sport athletes from coaches, including, “If you’re not with the team, you will fall behind.” Or, “If you don’t participate in offseason practices, you’ll be at a disadvantage.” But there are plenty of schools where coaches are making deals with other coaches figuring out schedules and reassuring parents and athletes that they will be supported in their attempt to play multiple sports.
At Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, where Giancarlo Stanton of the New York Yankees once played football, basketball and baseball in the same school year, baseball coach Tom Dill has two football standouts in his starting lineup — quarterback Noah Taylor and linebacker Michael Whiteside. There’s also two water polo players and a cross-country runner on the team.
Dill and football coach Kevin Rooney came up with a plan years ago. They’d pull out a calendar and create a schedule for the multi-sport athletes so they didn’t feel guilty when missing a practice or game. No one has ever complained. They appreciate someone bringing organization and simplification to their situation.
“We don’t let kids vote. We tell them where to go,” Dill said. “I have baseball guys doing morning lifting with football. We share our guys.”
There’s some very good multi-sport athletes this season.
Hayden Winters, a linebacker for Anaheim Esperanza, is batting .491. Chris Wilson, a linebacker in the fall, is 5-0 as a pitcher for unbeaten Arcadia. Alex Jemel, a starting safety at Mission Viejo, is headed to Oregon State for baseball and has three home runs. Nathan Manning, the standout quarterback for Mission Viejo Capistrano Valley, is batting .385. He also plays basketball. All-league football player Justin Simpson of Orange El Modena is a standout shortstop hitting .459. Quarterback AJ Esperanza of El Modena is batting .350 as the starting catcher.
Perhaps the most impressive performance by a multi-sport athlete came from the girls’ ranks last week. Kelli Godin of Santa Ana Mater Dei won the 100- and 200-meter titles at the Orange County track and field championships while also starting at third base for the softball team. She’s headed to UCLA for softball.
Verdugo Hills baseball coach Angel Espindola is just happy Rocca insisted on playing football and baseball.
“I think it has made him a better and more diverse player,” he said. “He knows how to compete and does not shy away from a challenge. It would be easy to tell Charlie that he should just focus on one sport but then he wouldn’t have become such a great competitor.”
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