Student-athletes in southeast Ohio face challenges when trying to take their game to the next level, but with the right mentality they can go as far as they aspire to.

Southeast Ohio Athletes find their Way to the Next Level

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Most high school student-athletes have a similar goal: take their talents to the next level. For some, that goal is easily achieved leading to new collegiate goals, but for many it is not so simple. Students in southeast Ohio are already at a disadvantage because of the lack of attention from college and university recruiters, but lack of funding for sports in high school is becoming an issue now, too.

Fulfilling dreams and shaking adversity

Naylan Yates is a senior at Vinton County High School and a two-sport athlete. On the football field, he is one of the best players in the area, and the same can be said for his play on the basketball court. He is not just talented athletically, however, his coaches and peers are quick to acknowledge his intelligence and work ethic.

In mid-January, Yates verbally committed to Concord University in another Athens–Athens, West Virginia–to play Division II football. While this fulfilled his dream of playing football at the next level, two other aspirations were left unsatisfied.

Yates met with the coaching staff of Ohio University’s football team in late-January to break down film and discuss possibilities for the future.

A week later, on national signing day, Yates tweeted his final committment to Ohio University, where his remaining dreams would finally be met.

On February 7, national signing day, Naylan Yates tweeted his commitment to Ohio University where he’ll play QB.

“OU has given me the opportunity to play Division I football and that’s always been my number one goal, even starting off young,” Yates said. “And it was at Ohio University that I wanted to play.”

Yates will begin his journey this summer when he begins working toward his degree and participates in summer camp with the Bobcats as a preferred walk-on.

On Feb. 8, 2018, Naylan Yates signed his letter of intent to Ohio University. (Photo by Red Thompson Jr., Jackson Telegram)

Committing to a college or university is just the beginning of a long road to success.

Adjustments to life in intercollegiate athletics

Dominique Doseck is no stranger to southeast Ohio. She is a 2015 graduate of Athens High School, current junior on the Ohio University Women’s basketball team and her father works at Alexander High School in Albany, Ohio.

While she has been in the Hocking Hills region of the state for quite some time, adjusting to college basketball wasn’t a walk in the park.

“I came in freshman year and I was slow, sophomore year still slow,” Doseck said. “But this past summer I lost quite a bit of weight so that was my biggest adjustment to being out on the court and speeding up my game.”

Many area high schools are so small that student-athletes are big fish in a little pond. After  graduation, that mentality can come back to haunt them.

Matt Combs is in his eighth year as the athletic director at Vinton County and has watched several athletes go on to play at the next level. He has seen students both fail and succeed at the next level, but has noticed a trend over time.

“I think the biggest reason kids from rural communities, like in southeast Ohio in general, have trouble is they just don’t mentally get themselves ready for what to expect,” Combs said.

Combs added that the biggest thing that high school coaches and administrators can do to make students better prepared for college is to be honest with them. Prepare them to start over at the bottom of the totem pole again and gradually work their way up.

Proximity to home, money and comfortability

In order for an athlete to take their game to the next level, they must be recruited. But for some, the process is more complicated because of factors like cost and proximity home.

That’s the case for Vinton County High School senior Cassie Bentley. Bentley committed to Shawnee State University on May 1, 2017, but not before other schools had heavily recruited her.

Bentley will be joining one of the top girls basketball programs in NAIA Division I, but she admits that she didn’t choose it solely for that reason.

Cassie Bentley warming up prior to the Lady Vikings TVC-Ohio matchup with Nelsonville-York on Feb. 1, while her father talks game plan with his assistants. (Photo by Josh Gregory)

“…I like the distance from home. It’s about an hour and fifteen (minutes) from my house; about an hour from McArthur. It’s a real good distance and that’s kinda why I picked it.”

Being close to home and her family was important for Bentley, but her family was rather excited about the opportunity as well.

“Well, it saved me some money,” Cassie’s father Rod Bentley said. “I was very happy.”

He also noted that Shawnee State’s head coach, Jeff Nickel, made their family feel welcomed and comfortable. Another key asset to any student’s success.

Doseck noted that everyone is different and the decision on where to play at the next level can differ from person to person.

“I think it just depends on the person and how close you are to your family,” Doseck said. “You can be close to your family and still move away, stay in contact and feel close to home.”

Pay to play

Due to a lack of funding, some student-athletes in the area may have an additional obstacle to overcome: paying to play high school sports.

Right now, Alexander High School’s athletic teams are open to anyone and do not charge any fees to participate. That could soon change as a shortage in the budget could force the school to move to a system where students must pay to participate.

The change is being considered because of multiple failures of a proposed income tax.  It will go on the ballot in the school district again in May.

For at least one Alexander graduate, this change would be upsetting.

“…if kids want to go out and play, then they should be allowed to come out and play,” Alexander graduate and Ohio University freshman Chace Harris said. “Especially because I know we haven’t had a lot of numbers – we had like only 30 some kids on the football team last year, so I don’t think we should try to deter kids from trying to play.”

Southeast Ohio representation at Ohio University

In total, Ohio University has 411 student-athletes competing during the 2017-2018 school year. Of those, only 32 (20 men and 12 women), 7.25 percent, are from southeast Ohio.

Student-athletes from southeast Ohio are represented by 32 athletes among the 411 total.

12 of the local athletes are on the so-called “profit” sports teams of football, and men and women’s basketball, including 10 on the football team. Nearly half of the remaining local athletes are involved in either cross country or track and field.

But why are there so few athletes from this region playing at Ohio University? OU freshman athlete Chace Harris believes it’s due to the little amount of recruiting done in southeast Ohio.

Coaches don’t recruit around the areas around here very much,” Harris said. “They kind of go to a place like Cincinnati, Columbus and other places like that around Ohio.”

Many athletes will take advantage of off-season sporting events put together by organizations such as the Amatuer Athletic Union to compete at a higher level and perform in front of scouts against talented players from across the county.

Southeast Ohio student-athletes leave lasting impressions

Student-athletes have left their marks on high schools all across southeastern Ohio, including Nathan Yates.

Yates is leaving Vinton County as one of the most decorated athletes from the region and his legacy will be felt for long to come.

“His success in college will allow our younger players to witness the pathway to achieving successful results,” Vinton County head football coach Jeff Downs said in a statement. “His legacy at Vinton County will be that he transformed our offensive culture.”

Those same athletes have also made an impression on Ohio University’s recruiting directors. Bobcat football recruiting coordinator Brian Haines recently spoke on the impact that local players such as Hunter Edwards from Nelsonville-York High School and Brody Rodgers from Athens High School have made on the program, acknowledging how great it is to have them involved.

Once rivals, Naylan Yates and Brody Rodgers will be teammates at Ohio University.

Regardless of the school and sport, student-athletes who take their talents to the next level are representing southeast Ohio and they don’t forget it.