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College career no guarantee for Anne Arundel athletes during pandemic

Northeast's Jaylin Albury, the Capital Gazette Newspapers boys' basketball Player of the Year, is one of many seniors who are struggling to find colleges to continue their athletic careers in during the pandemic.
Northeast's Jaylin Albury, the Capital Gazette Newspapers boys' basketball Player of the Year, is one of many seniors who are struggling to find colleges to continue their athletic careers in during the pandemic.(Paul W. Gillespie)

The world crashed down on Northeast seniors Jaylin Albury and Darrell Sheppard on March 12. It should have been enough that they lost the chance to bring an Eagles boys basketball team to the state semifinal for the first time since 1988, or that they lost the shot to play in front of Division I scouts.

“Georgetown would have been a stretch," Albury said, "but playing in front of coaches like him would have been great, so I could showcase my skills.”

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Albury became the first Eagles boys player to ever be named the Capital Gazette Boys Basketball Player of the Year after a record-breaking season. Darrell Sheppard make the Second Team All-County, eclipsing the Northeast record for most points scored in a game (40).

And yet, ever since their season came to its fruitless end, neither player ― just like so many seniors in Anne Arundel ―can seem to find a school that will let them continue their athletic careers.

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Coronavirus, Albury said, made sure of that.

“It’s surprising how this all went," he said, "for everything to being going great, and then this comes. We’re basically surviving on our own right now.”

Like graduation, prom and a spring season, the comfort of knowing what the future holds is something else stolen from the Class of 2020 by the pandemic. Of course, there’s also no guarantee there will even be college seasons this year either.

“It kind of sucks to be the class that gets stuck in the middle of this,” said South River senior guard Julia Fitzwater, who also played tennis and lost her season.

South River's Julia Fitzwater is one of many seniors who are struggling to pick colleges to continue their athletic careers in during the pandemic.
South River's Julia Fitzwater is one of many seniors who are struggling to pick colleges to continue their athletic careers in during the pandemic.(Paul W. Gillespie)

Fitzwater eclipsed 1,000 points and averaged 15 points per game in her final season with South River, earning her a spot on the Capital Gazette first team, too.

She’s had some fortune finding Division II options for college basketball ― Salem in Massachusetts, and Frostburg State, among others ― but not being able to see the campus in person has made her feel stuck.

“I don’t want to decide somewhere where it doesn’t fit my interest or it doesn’t feel like I belong," Fitzwater said. “It would be nice to go visit and see what the atmosphere is, how it would benefit me to be more successful."

She feels the deadline pressure of summer’s end, when schools, in some capacity, should resume. She doesn’t expect she’ll be able to make visits before then.

“I don’t see an end to this,” Fitzwater said, "I’ll go with all the information I have to pick the best option.”

Not every senior even has the ability pull the trigger and commit. With in-person visiting stripped away by necessary physical distancing, Albury, like other senior hopefuls, has to become the initiator.

Once a full day of classes ends, Albury converts into his own advertising agency, emailing two to three colleges a day, sending texts, making calls, keeping as many options on the line as he can balance.

He had one offer practically table-set, Northeast coach Roger O’Dea said, from California University of Pennsylvania. But when Albury came down to dinner, the plates were cleared. From what Albury, and Sheppard, understand, Cal Penn was expecting two transfers.

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“Bringing on someone who has experience in college helps them more than bringing on a freshman," Albury said. "I think that’s what that was. But I know I can’t just wait for one college. I’ve got to keep looking forward, look for a better place.”

Transfers have been on the rise for years, increased by the addition of the transfer portal last year. This year’s total is just 100 transfers away from meeting that of all of 2019 (992). Currently, the NCAA requires a transferring athlete to sit a year before eligible to play again in basketball, football, baseball and hockey. The NCAA was expected to vote on whether will allow a one-time exemption on May 20, but instead tabled the discussion until the 2021-22 school year.

But already, the effects are being felt by the Northeast players.

“I think the transfer portal really messed things up for them,” O’Dea said.

These kinds of difficulties have begun to change the way coaches in Anne Arundel County are advising their players.

“These kids need to realize that the recruiting process has landscape. Now everybody wants to be older,” Southern boys basketball coach Will Maynard said. “You’ve got to recognize that if you have a good offer, and you’ve been on a good visit and you’ve got a good relationship with the coach, you need to take the offer. If you wait 'til the spring, you’ve got to deal with JUCOs and the transfer portal. Last thing you want to do is deal with the transfer portal.”

Northeast's Darrell Sheppard is one of many seniors who are struggling to find colleges to continue their athletic careers in during the pandemic.
Northeast's Darrell Sheppard is one of many seniors who are struggling to find colleges to continue their athletic careers in during the pandemic.(Paul W. Gillespie)

Sheppard’s contacted six schools, but the NCAA’s recent decision to extend its “dead period” for all Division I and II schools through June 30, prohibiting in-person scouting and face-to-fact of any kind, has made his search harder. Though athletes are still permitted to send emails and texts this month, Sheppard can’t visit anywhere and it’s dried up his options.

“It’s been more than a month of just sitting here,” Sheppard said, “and really just hoping.”

O’Dea said Albury is waiting until he could potentially visit campuses in July. The Eagles are fielding calls daily from Division III programs, but Albury is hoping to garner some financial help through scholarships. Some programs have told O’Dea that they can’t hold out much longer.

“If he goes D3, someone got very lucky,” O’Dea said.

Sheppard, O’Dea said, is waiting to see what his best friend does.

Several athletes who’d once aimed for a four-year university are reconsidering. Sheppard has plans to spend his first year at Anne Arundel Community College. Meade’s Oct’taviah “OJ”Jenkins decided to play at Monroe Community College, a Division I JUCO program.

After a year of turning both academics and athletics around, Meade lineman Shawn Gross doesn’t know what he’ll do yet.

He stopped by Mustangs football coach Mike Francis’ house on Mother’s Day, because he was lonely, missing his mother who died three years ago on her way to see her son play football. Gross also wanted Francis’ advice on the senior’s future options. He wants to find a trade school where he could also continue his sport. He’s considering joining the military.

He’s also considering what his mother wanted for him.

“Her role was for him to be the first one in the family to go to college,” Francis said.

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Meade nose tackle Shawn Gross drills. Meade football hosted its first home playoff game in 18 years on Friday, a highlight of a turnaround season that has changed the program's culture and had a profound impact on the lives of some of the student-athletes involved.
Meade nose tackle Shawn Gross drills. Meade football hosted its first home playoff game in 18 years on Friday, a highlight of a turnaround season that has changed the program's culture and had a profound impact on the lives of some of the student-athletes involved. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Landing athletes anywhere at all has been tricky for Francis. It’s not just that the pandemic has made connections between college programs and high school seniors as shoddy as small-town Internet.

The NCAA waived eligibility requirements regarding SAT scores, which helps Francis’ athletes, considering they’ve been waiting to retake the SATs since March 14. But that’s not the only thing they’re waiting on.

“We have a handful of seniors waiting ... to see how their grades ended third quarter,” Francis said. When all this came about, it slowed down the process, almost to a crawl, for sure. We don’t know.”

Francis has always been a realist, and as the pandemic continues, it’s helped him contextualize things when he’s laying out options for his players.

“I’ve never subscribed to selling kids on dreams. The truth of the matter is the world is not good for everybody,” Francis said, “so how do you make it work for you? I’m not going to make you think you’re going to play Power 5 football when you can’t. We’re going to take advantage of the opportunities in front of us.”

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