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Playing the Game: The ups and downs of collegiate sports careers

Lessons from the experienced

Read about lessons learned from Sailors assistant basketball coach Jim Bronner and Steamboat springs 2012 graduate Jake Miller.

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D-I: This division manages by far the largest athletic budget with the most scholarship dollars to offer. Nearly 350 schools carry Division I membership and field more than 6,000 teams on campuses nationwide. Football revenue rules all with D-I, and the division is divided up into two parts: schools that participate in bowl games, and those who do not. All sports outside of football are D-I.

D-II: The NCAA boasts about the “balance” of this division with high-level athletics despite operating at significantly smaller budgets. It’s the smallest division between D-I, D-II and D-III. Like D-I and unlike D-III, however, D-II athletics make regular appearances on television and can offer scholarships.

D-III: It’s as simple as this: Division III athletes are academic-first folks. D-III student-athletes are subject to the same admission and academic standards as non-athletes, and D-III schools often are smaller, academically rigorous institutions. Without recruiting driven by scholarship money, the NCAA states that D-III helps minimize conflict between athletics and academics.

On a sunny Monday, Steamboat Springs High School graduate Carter Kounovsky bounces from calculus to applied statistics at Lake Forest College, a small, beautiful campus tucked away just north of Chicago, a few strides away from the Lake Michigan shoreline.

This day is a little different than any other day Kounovsky has experienced as a student-athlete, either as a Steamboat Sailor or as a Lake Forest Forester. On this day, he’s a collegiate national champion.

Kounovsky is now a national champion handball player, just months after trying the sport for the first time ever.



It wasn’t supposed to go down like this.

Kounovsky is a soccer player, and more notably, a basketball player. And basketball is the reason he’s at Lake Forest College in the first place.



Being part of a team

On April 14, 2014, Carter Kounvsky put a pen to a blank sheet of paper and signed his name across a line that he drew.

As a high school basketball player committing to an NCAA Division III athletic program, he had to sort of fake his way through a signing day ceremony, which was held at the very gym where he led the Sailors hoops squad in scoring just a few months earlier.

Division III sports programs don’t offer athletic scholarships, nor do they recruit high schoolers onto their athletic teams in the traditional way.

Whereas a Division I prospect collects his or her offers from schools, weighs the options and picks a program where he or she can go on the proverbial “full-ride” scholarship, Division III programs, like Lake Forest, can only usher potential players through the financial aid process and hope that the student-athletes the colleges are interested in reciprocate that interest and commit to their sports program without the incentive of scholarship money.

Kounovsky was a very good high school basketball player but not an all-time great one, and full-ride Division I scholarships weren’t coming his way. He also was a very good high school student but, again, not the kind that was going to woo the Ivy Leaguers, his dad, Bart Kounovsky, said.

“Sports has always been a big part of Carter’s makeup,” Bart Kounovsky said. “Moving on to the next level and being on a team, a group of guys, that was very important toward his college experience, academically and athletically.”

With hopes to play college basketball, Carter actively promoted himself to D-III programs, and he attracted the attention of longtime Lake Forest College hoops coach Chris Conger.

“(Conger) basically said ‘Yes, if you want to come to Lake Forest, you’ll be on the basketball team,’” Carter said. “He said. ‘You won’t play much, but you can work your way up.’”

Lake Forest, which has an academic acceptance rate of about 50 percent, offered something that modern-day Division I programs don’t — a junior varsity team. Carter probably wasn’t going to light up the scoreboard on the Foresters’ starting five, but he could begin there, on the JV squad, and climb upward.

Then Conger, after 18 years as head basketball coach, resigned less than a month after Carter scrawled his name across that blank sheet of paper and committed himself to playing college ball 1,100 miles away from home.

Difference across divisions

More students are enrolled in NCAA athletics than ever before, but the recruiting game can be a vicious pursuit involving coaches, parents and players, which can leave talented high school athletes in tiny towns like Steamboat on the outside looking in.

“I think the tough thing anymore about getting a Steamboat kid to a D-I school is that D-I schools are now recruiting freshman and sophomore kids and getting verbal commitments from them,” longtime Steamboat Springs volleyball coach Wendy Hall said. “We just don’t have the exposure here to get them out that young.”

Division I athletic talent outside the club skiing scene isn’t getting recruited out of Steamboat Springs in the same way as it is in the Denver metro area.

The two former Sailors-turned-Division I stars that come to Hall’s mind are Colleen King, a 6-foot-1, left-handed standout on the volleyball court who went to play for the University of Denver, and Katie Carter, a 2003 Sailors graduate, who went on

D-I: This division manages by far the largest athletic budget with the most scholarship dollars to offer. Nearly 350 schools carry Division I membership and field more than 6,000 teams on campuses nationwide. Football revenue rules all with D-I, and the division is divided up into two parts: schools that participate in bowl games, and those who do not. All sports outside of football are D-I.

D-II: The NCAA boasts about the “balance” of this division with high-level athletics despite operating at significantly smaller budgets. It’s the smallest division between D-I, D-II and D-III. Like D-I and unlike D-III, however, D-II athletics make regular appearances on television and can offer scholarships.

D-III: It’s as simple as this: Division III athletes are academic-first folks. D-III student-athletes are subject to the same admission and academic standards as non-athletes, and D-III schools often are smaller, academically rigorous institutions. Without recruiting driven by scholarship money, the NCAA states that D-III helps minimize conflict between athletics and academics.

to be an All-American Final Four player with the UCLA Bruins volleyball squad.

According to the NCAA website, Division III is where most high school athletes land. There are 180,000 student-athletes at 450 institutions — mostly smaller, private schools — making it the largest pool of athletes sanctioned by the organizing body. By comparison, there are nearly 350 Division 1 schools and 300 Division II schools with a total of roughly 282,000 student-athletes combined.

And when it comes to making the decision to continue one’s athletic career at a far-away Division III school, Hall and the NCAA just about echo each other.

“Academics are the primary focus for Division III student athletes,” the NCAA website states.

“I think when a kid tells me they want to play, the first thing I ask of them is to look for academics first and foremost,” Hall said. “What kind of things are you interested in? That kind of thing. Then I try to give them a good idea of the level they should probably look at.”

Hall’s latest athlete to commit to playing at the college level is senior middle blocker Taylor Harrington, who is verbally committed to D-III Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, a small but rigorous liberal arts school that has athletics too. Hall is also doing her best to get junior libero Maddie Labor noticed by D-I programs, a tougher task, she said, because top-flight NCAA programs don’t carry many liberos and, by now, have their recruiting classes largely intact.

Whatever the school, the location or the division level of athletic play, one benefit of playing on a college sports squad rings true for Hall.

Being part of a college team is a good thing, she said — a great thing — and it can unlock doors that can swing wide open through academics if the right opportunity presents itself.

“If a kid has any desire to play at all, I really encourage them to find a fit somewhere,” said Hall, once a college athlete herself at Colorado Mesa University. “It’s an amazing experience to be a college athlete.”

Handball, “See how you like it”

The same day Lake Forest College announced the resignation of its former head basketball coach, assistant coach Ken Davis was promoted to fill the vacancy.

And with the shift in leadership came some changes to the program that would immediately affect Carter Kounovsky.

For starters, the junior varsity program Kounovsky thought Lake Forest had really wasn’t much of a program at all, and players on that roster rarely saw competition. On top of that, Davis made it known that things weren’t going to be the same when he took over.

“He kind of made it clear he wanted to try to make some changes,” Kounovsky said. “He just said ‘We have too many guys on the team to maintain everyone.’”

Kounovsky, fighting through Mononucleosis at the time, an illness that causes extreme fatigue, had to try out to make the basketball team, and he was cut during the opening days of practice.

“Carter got caught in that numbers game,” his dad Bart said.

A few days later, Carter Kounovsky got a text from fellow Steamboat Springs graduate Christi Valicenti, a standout Sailors tennis player from 2008 to 2012, who developed into a star at Lake Forest.

In addition to being a Foresters tennis player, Valicenti also was a member of Lake Forest College’s handball team, led by legendary coach Mike Dau. She heard about Kounovsky’s situation — that he had committed to be a student-athlete and was suddenly just a student.

“She just texted me and said ‘Get registered and try out to play handball, see how you like it,’” Kounovsky said. “She took me in, got me a pair of gloves and showed me the basics. It seemed pretty fun.”

Swallowing his pride

Steamboat Springs 2014 graduate Cutter Pasternak got caught in a numbers game too, only his numbers came in the form of dollar signs.

Pasternak was in the same gym as Kounovsky last April when Pasternak also put pen to paper and signed to play baseball at West Valley College, a junior college in Saratoga, California, on the outskirts of San Jose.

As an out-of-state student, Pasternak was expected to pay higher tuition and fees than California residents. He would have to float his education and living expenses largely on student loans and his parents’ dime.

But as a collegiate baseball player for the Vikings, Pasternak believed he was living out a lifelong dream.

“I’ve loved baseball my whole life,” Pasternak said. “My goal was always to be a baseball player.”

With a heavy practice and school schedule his first semester, Pasternak put off visiting the financial aid office until the final day of the course-drop deadline. He squeezed into the West Valley College financial aid doors right before they closed.

What waited for him there was some grim news.

“So this lady tells me ‘I don’t know if anyone has told you, but our school is in default with the Department of Education and we can’t give out loans,’” Pasternak said. “I was like ‘I have to find $15,000 through my parents?’ She said ‘yes.’ That just wasn’t possible.”

Adding to the problem was a lingering shoulder injury, one that required surgery and was going to keep him out of his opening season with the Vikings, anyway.

Suddenly, Pasternak had to face reality while living in a house full of baseball players who came from wealthy families who didn’t have to sweat the tuition rates or the cost of living in California’s Bay Area.

“I had to decide in two days,” he said. “I finally got to the point where I said I can’t screw myself or my parents with a loan. My shoulder isn’t ready, and I can’t play. I don’t know what I’m doing here so I packed my stuff up.”

He left Saratoga on a Monday with a heavy heart and a mind full of negative thoughts During the 17-hour drive back to Steamboat, he questioned himself — “Am I done with baseball and college? What will I tell the people back home? What’s next?”

“When I left, I thought ‘God, everyone is right. I couldn’t do this,’” Pasternak said. “I was so frustrated.”

He returned home and killed time working at Cook Chevrolet, still nursing the surgically repaired shoulder, still wondering what would come next.

Pasternak decided to get proactive on the school side of things, so he retook the ACT, wrote numerous college essays and sent his application to Colorado State University, a school he knew he’d love.

Fast forward to now. Pasternak still has a tough decision to make, but this time, he’s deciding what major to focus on as a CSU freshman. He may have spent his teenage years pursuing a baseball dream, but now, he’s working on reinventing his life and his future.

“For once in my life, I’m being a normal student,” he said. “It’s like getting a second chance at high school.”

Christi Valicenti’s chance

Unlike Carter Kounovsky’s shot at Lake Forest College basketball, Christi Valicenti’s career as a collegiate tennis player blossomed.

As a two-star recruit coming out of Steamboat Springs High School, Valicenti had more than 20 schools — mostly Division III — interested in her talent, her dad Tom Valicenti said. She could have been a lower-rung player in a Division I or II program, but she wanted a hybrid of ample playing time and premiere academics. Lake Forest fit her perfectly.

“We loved the academics of it,” Tom Valicenti said. “The communications department is one of the top 10 in the country, and she wanted to play at the top of the lineup.”

In her three years on campus, Christi Valicenti has built a Foresters resume that includes 95 career victories, just three wins from a school record.

Valicenti’s skills on the tennis court caught the eye of Lake Forest handball coach Mike Dau, who is always looking to recruit athletic students he can mold into championship handball players, and he asked her to join his squad.

And as Kounovsky’s college sports career was unraveling, Valicenti reached out to her friend.

She shot Kounovsky that text, urging him to give handball a try. He did, and last weekend in Portland, Oregon, the two helped Lake Forest win its 18th men’s and women’s combined national handball title — the type of championship Carter couldn’t seem to snag on the basketball court.

“My daughter recruited him the same day they cut him,” Tom Valicenti said. “Carter’s heart was broken. He’s a great kid and a great athlete, and they didn’t give him a chance.”

Looking at the big picture

At Lake Forest College, Kounovsky dabbled with intramural basketball, but the league wasn’t even close to competitive, and it certainly didn’t provide the atmosphere the former Western Slope first-team All-Leaguer was accustomed to.

But looking ahead, Kounovsky has much bigger decisions to make than who will suit up on his intramural squad next season.

He said he often thinks about finishing this spring at Lake Forest and transferring back to Colorado and attending a school like CSU instead. He was driven by a deep desire to be a collegiate basketball player — the reason he’s on campus in the first place — but reality is starting to set in. No matter his desire, that aspiration might have come and gone.

“I think about playing basketball,” Kounovsky said. “It hasn’t gone out the window, but I don’t think I’ll play collegiately or competitively. I’m deciding right now for the future.”

The handball thing kept him on a team, and the Lake Forest academics shouldn’t be ignored. He said his dad has hinted he’d like to see him stick it out in Illinois — basketball or no basketball.

“He kind of wants me to stay here I think,” Kounovsky said. “This school is perfect for prepping me for a job out of college.”

Bart Kounovsky hasn’t forgotten how important athletics are to his son, but he’s also looking at the bigger picture.

“At least from mom’s and dad’s perspective, that athletic piece is part of his total education,” Bart Kounvosky said. “It’s not all what you learn in the books. The basketball didn’t work out the way he wanted. Maybe this handball is now part of the college experience.” ●

To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll


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