What Price Glory? For Top H.S. Athletes, Next Level Isn’t Always What They Envisioned

  • Maureen "Mo" Moran stands in her classroom at Samuel Morey Elementary School in Fairlee, Vt., on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Moran played lacrosse while attending Lebanon High School, but made the decision to leave her college lacrosse team to meet the demands of her math major. While she felt sad about leaving initially, she was reassured when thinking of the nights she had to thaw her hands to do homework or when she gave her jersey to a teammate that got blood on hers, knowing she wouldn't be put in the game. Moran will soon be an elementary school math teacher and is considering working to create a lacrosse team at her school. "I will eventually go back," Moran said. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Esme Cole stands in her home in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Cole played lacrosse and field hockey while attending Hartford High School. Cole, who has played lacrosse since fifth or sixth grade, felt relief when she made the decision to leave the sport in college. While the field hockey team was always welcoming to her, she faced bullying and "cliques" on her college lacrosse team that made her feel unwelcome. She currently has joined the Kenyon College women's rugby club team and is heading into her senior year of college. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cyrus Rothwell-Ferraris stands on the Hanover High School football field on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. Rothwell-Ferraris played football, baseball and basketball when attending Hanover High School but stepped away from the sport, particularly football, due to concussions and the culture. Rothwell-Ferraris will soon teach English and coach football at the Trinity-Pawling School, where hopes to change the culture of football. "I hope for every player to feel their value," Rothwell-Ferraris said. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover’s Cyrus Rothwell-Ferraris breaks through the line for a gain against John Stark on Aug. 31, 2012. (Valley News - Jenna Schoenefeld) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Despite heavy defensive traffic, Lebanon’s Mo Moran, center, gets off a shot during the Raiders’ girls lacrosse win over Keene on May 2, 2012. (Valley News - Theophil Syslo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford's Esme Cole runs towards the goal during the Woodstock at Hartford girls lacrosse game at Dothan Brook School in Wilder, Vt., on May 6, 2014.(Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

  • Will Gault. Courtesy of Castleton State sports information.

  • Brady Boisvert. Courtesy of Nichols College sports information.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/19/2018 12:13:54 AM

Ashley Brown says the hardest thing she’s ever done was telling her parents she was dropping out of the University of Vermont and abandoning her slot on the Catamounts’ NCAA Division I field hockey roster after playing 13 games as a freshman.

A close second might have come months later. The former Hartford High standout struggled to keep a stiff upper lip after her old college team, fresh off a game at Dartmouth, arrived en masse for dinner at the West Lebanon restaurant where she worked as a server.

“I was embarrassed and I tried to avoid eye contact,” said Brown, who was also answering area residents’ regular questions about why she was back in town. “It was very awkward for me, but thankfully, I didn’t have to wait on them. That would have been insane.”

Seven years later, Brown has literally and figuratively moved on, resettling in the Denver area to continue a nursing career.

Any number of Upper Valley athletes who graduated high school last June are likely to find themselves in similar circumstances as Brown when they move on to the next level: After standing out in high school competition and having put in several years trying to prove they’re talented enough to play at the collegiate level, they’ll find themselves leaving the teams they worked so hard to join. In some cases, the choice will be dictated by changed priorities; in others, the athletes will realize they don’t much care for the atmosphere or demands of collegiate competition. For still others, it won’t be a matter of choice: They’ll discover their bodies won’t allow them to continue playing.

In one sense, Brown was different from most Upper Valley athletes: She was among the 2 percent of U.S. high school athletes playing at a school that offered her a scholarship. The vast majority of Upper Valley residents playing in college — there were more than 300 during the 2017-18 school year — compete at the NCAA Division III level, which doesn’t grant athletic scholarships.

Still, the demands on athletes at small schools have increased in recent years as institutions race after sports success. For instance, Colby College, an 1,800-student school in Maine, is constructing a $200 million, 350,000-square-foot athletic center scheduled to open in 2020 for its Division III programs.

“I wish the commitment for Divison III was a little less,” said onetime Lebanon High football star Ryan Milliken, now playing at Plymouth State after quitting the football and basketball teams at Springfield (Mass.) College last year. “If I had a scholarship, that would be different, but it’s pretty much as big a commitment as Division I.”

Brown said she never looked anywhere else after deciding she wanted to play for the Catamounts at age 12. She attended their summer camp, but said she should have cast a wider net that included Division III programs.

“It’s crazy the pressure that’s put on a 17-year-old to choose, and I wasn’t mature enough to figure it out,” Brown said. “The hardest job I’ve ever had was playing Division I sports.”

A Different Level

The realization that collegiate sports might be different than envisioned tends to hit a few days or weeks into an athlete’s college career. Despite at least a basic realization that this level will be harder, it’s often a shock to land down a depth chart and compete with older, stronger, faster teammates.

Christian Johansen, now 25, was a Hanover High freshman when he began attending summer camps for college prospects. Johansen, whose father, Tom, played at Dartmouth, went to such events at Duke and the University of Virginia and targeted Brown, Yale and Middlebury by his senior year as a Marauder.

He wound up at Middlebury, playing for three seasons.

“You may be a stud in high school, but in college, everyone is,” Johansen said. “Some people respond to that with nerves and others say ‘Sweet, let’s see if I can hang with these guys as well’.”

Another Hanover athlete from the same era, football player Cyrus Rothwell-Ferraris, had his sights set on playing Division I and took a post-graduate year at prep school to further that goal. He wound up at Division III Wesleyan (Conn.) College, a title contender in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.

Rothwell-Ferraris said he was the strongest and fastest player on his prep school football team, but found himself “on the bottom of the totem pole” when he suited up at Wesleyan. So was former Hanover baseball teammate Liam Gantrish, who’d walked on to the basketball team at Kalamazoo (Mich.) College, a Division III school he discovered while reading a book about 40 under-the-radar college and universities. The 5-foot-11 guard said he chose Kalamazoo in part because he felt the coach was encouraging about his chances, but once there he encountered noticeably bigger and taller players.

“I didn’t set myself up well,” said Gantrish, who spent the summer after high school graduation playing American Legion baseball. “I was delusional, almost. That’s the mindset of an 18-year-old kid. Don’t worry and everything will work out.”

Cooper Hardy, a 2012 Lebanon High graduate, had originally hoped to land in the NESCAC, considered by some to be the Division III equivalent of the Ivy League. When not enough interest materialized, however, he heeded the recruiting call of Wheaton (Mass.) College, where he thought his goal of playing for a national championship might be realized.

From the very start, though — at the earliest summer scrimmages — he sensed a higher intensity among his Wheaton teammates than he’d experienced at Lebanon.

“Nobody’s out there just to be out there,” Hardy said. “Everybody’s out there because they’ve invested a lot of time and energy to be there, and they’re not going to let anyone take a spot away from them.”

Esme Cole, a 21-year-old rising senior at Ohio’s Kenyon College, discovered a less-forgiving environment when she joined its Division III field hockey program from Hartford High. Her teammates’ skills were high enough that almost any bobble of the ball or positioning failure was glaring.

“A mistake was a really big thing,” said Cole, who also played lacrosse for Kenyon, but who stopped playing varsity sports last spring. “In high school, you’re expected to make one. In college, you’re expected not to.”

In order to minimize mistakes, athletes are expected to do as much training and skills work on their own as possible. It’s self-starters like that whom 19th-year Dartmouth field hockey coach Amy Fowler pursues: academically and athletically driven young women who can’t quite play in a top-level circuit like the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“If you want to win the league championship, there can’t be anyone sitting back,” Fowler said. “Princeton? Yale? Harvard? Their kids are motivated to do more voluntary stuff, so we need that, too.”

All-Consuming Pursuit

Brown recalls that while other UVM freshmen were enjoying parties and making friends, she was practicing, playing, attending mandatory study hall, lifting weights, traveling to away games or cramming in study time.

“I completely underestimated what Divison I sports were going to be like,” Brown said. “I didn’t realize I would be committing my entire life to a sport. Other people had a social life and I did not.”

Her experience isn’t uncommon. Brown University, a member of the Ivy League, reported that 32 percent of the 221 recruited athletes in the class of 2011 eventually quit their sports.

At Ithaca (N.Y.) College, an annually strong Division III athletic program, only 46 percent of the 247 athletes in the Bombers’ 247-member class of 2014 played all four years.

Katelyn McPherson, Dartmouth’s associate athletics director for peak performance, said communication between coaches and athletes is crucial from their earliest meetings.

“I encourage our coaches to be very candid in the recruiting process,” said McPherson, a former women’s basketball captain at Colby-Sawyer College. “I think our students know it’s going to be a bigger time commitment, but there’s an adjustment period where that reality hits them hard.”

Hardy remembers lifting weights at 5 a.m., attending class much of the morning and early afternoon, then trying to fit studying around a 6 p.m. practice. And that was during the spring in a Division III fall sports program.

“That’s what shows the difference between those who really want to perform and those who do it because they want attention and to be adored,” Hardy said.

The NCAA includes more than 460,000 athletes, and a 2015 poll of Division I competitors showed they spent an average of 34 hours a week on sports in season, up two hours from five years earlier. Baseball was at 40 hours and football at 42. Division III respondents said they averaged 28.5 hours per week on athletics, up 1.5 hours in the same span.

The poll showed Division I athletes spent an average of 38.5 hours per week on academics in season, up from 35.5 in 2010. In Division III, the average rose to 40 from 38.5.

Physical Demands

Sometimes the choice to stop playing college sports isn’t much of a choice at all.

Brady Boisvert, a 2012 Lebanon High graduate who excelled in soccer and baseball, targeted the NCAA Division III level and chose Nichols (Mass.) College because of his desire to continue playing both sports.

Boisvert said he adjusted well to the higher level of competition during two seasons of Nichols soccer and baseball, but epilepsy symptoms arose during the summer of 2015 and before his third soccer campaign. He began experiencing what he calls a “roller coaster” sensation, like he was rising and falling even while standing or lying still.

One night while home in West Lebanon, Boisvert went to bed early because he didn’t feel well and woke up in an ambulance at 1:30 a.m. He’d suffered a grand mal seizure.

“I guess I was stiff as a board and then flopping around on the floor,” Boisvert said. “This disease has definitely matured me and shown me there’s a lot more to life than just sports, which are just kind of an extra blessing.”

Boisvert recovered enough to return to school during the spring of 2016, but came down with mononucleosis, ending a hoped-for baseball season. He withdrew from school and hasn’t been able to drive for the last two years.

Obstacles aside, Boisvert works at Stateline Sports, plays adult baseball with the Connecticut River Ironmen and hopes to finish his degree from a New Hampshire college in the coming years.

Rothell-Ferraris’ health also declined while he was at Wesleyan, when he suffered the last two in a string of six or seven concussions that dated back to his early days at Hanover High. The concussions happened on back-to-back days, and Rothwell-Ferraris spent most of the next three months in bed.

Rothwell-Ferraris played two Wesleyan baseball seasons as a reserve, but a pitch broke his hand his sophomore year, wiping out most of that campaign. He was rediscovering a love for playing music at the time and ended his sports career.

“I’d had a mostly healthy semester in the fall when I didn’t play and that gave me the freedom to explore things intellectually and academically,” Rothwell-Ferraris said. “There was mourning and grief and a shifting in identity to being a wider, more-connected person through various avenues instead of being an athlete who also goes to school.”

Hardy, the Wheaton soccer player, was fast cementing a reputation as a physically intimidating central defender when he suffered a concussion during the spring of his freshman year. Another occurred two games into his sophomore season. The latter incident didn’t initially seem too serious, but Hardy experienced increasingly painful headaches and even after three weeks away from soccer, found himself in Spanish class “not able to process much of anything.”

He withdrew from school.

Changed Priorities

Will Gault, a football, hockey and lacrosse player who graduated from Woodstock High in 2015, said he didn’t have problems with playing time or school work during his freshman year at Castleton University. However, he wondered where a business degree would lead him. Emerging from college with debt and vague future plans didn’t seem the way to go, and he realized he wasn’t going to enjoy any type of office setting.

Gault, who appeared in eight Spartans football games as a offensive lineman and was a regular lacrosse participant in the spring, liked tinkering with automotive engines and investigated two-year schools for diesel mechanics. When he found one in Montana and sat his parents down to tell them he’d like to transfer, his mother, Carrie, though he was joking.

“I was a little bit lost,” said Gault, who graduated from the Montana school earlier this year and is working six days a week for a Freightliner dealership in the state. “I’d never really thought about what I was going to do in the future. I went with the flow and played sports at Castleton because I knew some guys there.”

Cole, the Kenyon field hockey and lacrosse player, got to know dozens of people through her two sports teams. However, she stopped playing field hockey after her freshman year because she decided she didn’t love the sport enough to meet the program’s demands. She hung on in lacrosse for two more years and through a coaching change, but playing time was scarce and some of her teammates were hostile.

“I went through quite a bit of bullying from older girls my first two years,” Cole said. “And the coaches tended to coach the players who were already skilled and the rest of us were just backups in drills.”

Midway through her junior lacrosse season, Cole decided she wasn’t experiencing enough of college life and that lacrosse had become a dead end. She quit and joined the women’s club rugby team the next day, something she said she wished she had done earlier.

“It’s a fun way to work out and have a team environment without all the stress and the hours,” she said. “And the lacrosse girls were nicer to me when I was off the team than when I was on it.”

Johansen loved his Middlebury lacrosse teammates, but focusing on the sport itself became more difficult. He became deeply enamored of skiing and suffered injuries in that sport that hindered his lacrosse performance. He would show up for practice in the nick of time and wearing snow pants, which he admits didn’t endear him to his coaches. He appeared in three games during three seasons before his coach asked for a meeting.

“He said he didn’t think lacrosse was a top priority and I said he was probably right,” said Johansen, who has pursued art, acting, mountaineering and playing in a band during the last decade. “Being an athlete is a open door to the social scene on campus, but I was never one of those guys who only hung out with the team.”

Milliken had his wisdom teeth removed and then suffered recurring bouts of strep throat last summer, leading to a loss of 20 pounds before he joined Springfield’s football team. He felt the positive vibes he’d sensed from the Pride’s coaches during recruiting had vanished.

Unhappy with his place on the depth chart and struggling with school, Milliken quit football to briefly join the basketball team, but then left Springfield altogether before Christmas. He enrolled at Plymouth State, which he said he never truly considered despite being recruited by the Panthers during high school. He participated in spring football practice and, after a summer working as a restaurant server, hopes to see playing time this fall.

Around that time, former Lebanon High and Keene State lacrosse player Mo Moran will be starting her second year as a Fairlee elementary school math teacher. She stopped playing for the Owls, a Division III program, because practice times conflicted with classes she needed to be a math major.

“I was trying to maintain a 4.0 grade-point average and do lacrosse and still get a decent amount of sleep,” said Moran, who didn’t see much game action. “Quitting was one of the toughest things I had to do in college, but it had become totally impractical.”

Life After Sports

Hardy, the Wheaton soccer player who left school after experiencing concussions, was persuaded by his sister Jasmine to join her teaching English in Vietnam.

Upon his return to the U.S., he earned a degree at the University of North Carolina, but did not play sports.

“There’s a lot of fear among (college athletes) about what people will think of them if they don’t play,” said Hardy, noting that he heard that sentiment often while training alongside other Upper Valley collegians at a Lebanon gym after high school. “But no one else is investing all those hours or putting their health at risk, so it should be 100 percent the player’s decision.”

Since stepping away from sports, Hardy has worked as a coach and fundraiser at an Indiana military academy and for a technology startup company in Washington, D.C. The 24-year-old said he’s at peace, but admits he misses having an athletic outlet for his competitive personality.

“You can’t ever recreate the unabashed elation of snapping home a header and running down the sideline to celebrate with your teammates,” he said.

Brown said her family was worried after she dropped out of UVM. She eventually moved to Providence, R.I., with a friend and earned an associate’s degree.

“All the skill sets and behaviors I learned on team at UVM, they’ve gotten me to becoming a nurse,” she said.

Rothwell-Ferraris is excited to start a teaching and coaching career at a New York prep school in September. However, he said he doesn’t believe he’ll ever recover completely from what he estimates were four or five concussions in high school and the two in college.

Johansen spent time this summer working on an Alaskan commercial fishing vessel but has settled in New York and is working to establish himself as a commercial illustrator. One of his fondest, late-stage college memories is starting a club team called the Middlebury Lacrosse Collective. It was comprised of players who didn’t take themselves seriously but who were nonetheless formidable on the field.

“It’s supposed to be fun and a chance to get out your competitive heebie jeebies, but that gets forgotten,” Johansen said. “It’s all about recruiting events and where is someone going to play in college? People mark themselves as athletes and forget they’re a person playing a sport.”

Moran moved on from lacrosse and reached the intramural badminton finals at Keene State. She mows the lawn in her Owls practice pinney.

“You have to be willing to accept when things don’t go as planned,” Moran said. “That was really hard for me, because I was hoping to be a four-year athlete at Keene State, but at least I tried. I feel like too many people are afraid to try and fail.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

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