Multisport athletes draw attention of college recruiters
Posted by Dean Holden at May 23rd, 2013
by Chris Harlan, 12 May 2013
Mt. Lebanon’s Alex Bookser has footwork nimble enough to impress college football coaches, partly because the 6-foot-6, 295-pounder can spin with ease.
Maybe turning around fast isn’t always the mark of a good offensive tackle. But his ability to throw a discus with proper technique shows a certain coordination not always obvious for a lineman wearing cleats.
“If college coaches see you’re really good with footwork in the circle with the shot put and the discus, then they think that usually translates over to the football field,” said Bookser, who has two dozen scholarship offers, including from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and Tennessee. “A lot of the O-line coaches that come in are ex-throwers, so they can relate.”
Many WPIAL football stars have proven themselves multi-talented this spring. Along with Bookser, other top recruits from the 2014 class will be at Baldwin on Thursday for the track and field championships.
Among those qualified are Aliquippa’s Dravon Henry, Bethel Park’s Mike Grimm, Gateway’s Montae Nicholson, Mt. Lebanon’s Troy Apke, New Castle’s Malik Hooker and Washington’s Shai McKenzie. All seven have major college scholarship offers.
For most, track season provides an enjoyable yet competitive way to stay in shape. For others, like Nicholson in the hurdles, there are realistic hopes for winning gold.
And for all, it provides some athletic diversity.
“Every recruiter that comes in asks invariably, ‘Do they play another sport?’ ” Mt. Lebanon coach Mike Melnyk said. “They want to see the kids doing something else.”
Gateway track coach Tom LaBuff would like to see more talented football players compete in the spring.
“Western Pennsylvania, for whatever reason, seems to have this philosophy that you need to get into the weight room and grunt and groan,” LaBuff said. “We lift weights as much or more than they do in the spring as part of our training program.”
Bookser began throwing in seventh grade, in part because his mother was a sprinter in high school and his father high jumped.
Some of his football teammates are newcomers to track, having joined this spring only after Melnyk urged them. That includes Apke, a Penn State-committed receiver who has helped bolster a 400-meter relay team that’s one of the WPIAL’s fastest.
“I basically told all of our skill kids that if you don’t play a (spring) sport, then you’re running track,” Melnyk said. “We do speed training and strength training with our kids who aren’t in track — because I obviously can’t make it mandatory — but there’s something about the competitive edge of competing against other schools that’s good for you and makes you train a little bit harder. There’s a finish line at the end, which makes it different than just putting in the yardage.”
That finish line motivates Nicholson. The Gateway junior holds the WPIAL’s fastest 110-meter hurdles time this season (14.55 seconds) and won the event at the Mars Invitational, Baldwin Invitational and Class AAA central qualifier. Nicholson’s also a 6-3 safety with scholarship offers from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12, among others, who all covet an athlete who can clear 42-inch hurdles with ease.
Nicholson also will long jump and run the 400-relay Thursday.
“He likes competing, and he likes track,” LaBuff said, “but football is his No. 1 sport.”
College football coaches have visited Gateway’s track practice to watch, a distraction his coach would prefer to avoid.
“We just try to remind him that in season, he needs to keep his focus (on track),” LaBuff said of Nicholson, who missed much of last track season after being injured during a seven-on-seven football event. “Sometimes we have a hard time doing that, but he’s a really good kid who works hard.”
Henry, a defensive back, was part of an Aliquippa 400-meter relay team that set a WPIAL Class AA championship record in 2012. Henry finished fifth at last week’s qualifier in the 100 meters (11.49), just ahead of McKenzie (11.51).
McKenzie, a running back, has been a sprinter and thrower for Washington since joining the track team last year. A hamstring injury sidelined him for several weeks, but he has recovered.
“I basically joined track so I can maintain my speed, get faster and maintain my weight,” he said, but also enjoyed the camaraderie that led to Thursday’s victory in the WPIAL Class AA team championship. “It was good to contribute.”
Grimm, a 6-6, 320-pound lineman, qualified in the discus.
Hooker, a receiver, cornerback and basketball player, qualified in the high jump.
Bookser placed first in the shot (50-2 1⁄4) at last week’s Class AAA southern qualifier and second in the discus (141-10). He threw 160 feet at the team championship. He would need even more to win a WPIAL title (the WPIAL’s top discus throw this season is 187-2). But Bookser could qualify for states, a goal he has set for himself.
“There have been times when I thought I really didn’t want to do this anymore,” he said, “but I decided I can’t not do it, so I want to be the best I can possibly be.”