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New media conveys message for high school athletes

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After graduating from Arizona State, Vito Gonella (St. Vincent de Paul High Class of ’05) took a job as a recruiting coordinator at the university. His Saturdays were busy, but his Sundays were a little freer, allowing time to immerse himself in one of his favorite subjects: St. Vincent football.

Gonella would quasi-religiously check maxpreps.com and rivals.com for the latest on the Mustangs. He’d scan their individual statistics, their upcoming schedule and recent results.

“And hopefully they’d beat Tomales,” Gonella said. “I’d check all that — who rushed for what, how many tackles.”

Now an operations assistant with the Miami Dolphins, Gonella doesn’t have nearly as much free time, but he still checks in on St. Vincent when he can.

Elijah Qualls received a different benefit from the Web. Now a Casa Grande senior, Qualls, a running back and defensive tackle, become one of the West Coast’s hottest football recruits last spring. If you Googled his name in February, you were presented with nearly 10,000 links. By mid-March that number had grown to 270,000 — stories, databases, YouTube film clips, Facebook, etc.

“I feel the Internet sites such as scout.com, rivals.com and ESPN really helped Elijah,” said Gauchos coach, Trent Herzog. “I also feel that YouTube was a big help as, last I checked, over 10,000 people had watched his highlights — and that was months ago.”

Herzog also used digital technology, a game-film-posting system called Hudl, to send Qualls’ highlights to a number of universities. The athlete wound up committing to Washington, though several schools remain in contact.

Every month, it seems, these types of stories become more common. High school athletics, once a provincial subject, are now available to sports addicts at a depth once reserved for the NFL or Major League Baseball. Your likely response to that observation: Duh. This is the Internet age, and information on practically any topic is just a click or two away. But the growth in prep sports coverage is particularly remarkable.

Consider the ways in which a devoted fan can follow his favorite team. Newspapers might not cover prep sports any more thoroughly than they used to, but stories tend to be posted quickly, and are easily searchable, on websites such as patch.com and our own pdpreps.com.

Local coverage is supplemented by collective sites that range from regional (norcalpreps.
rivals.com
) to statewide (calpreps.com) to national (maxpreps.com).

Some high school programs, like Healdsburg wrestling and Analy football, maintain their own web sites, and others — Piner cross country, Ukiah football and Maria Carrillo athletics are examples — have Facebook accounts. Rapid-fire game updates are frequently traded via Twitter. Prospects and their proud parents post highlights on YouTube.

It has all changed the game for athletes, their families, high school student bodies and loyal alumni.
Central to the picture is MaxPreps, which has gone from obscurity to market dominance in less than a decade.

When Andy Beal founded the site as SacPreps in August of 2002, his ambitions were modest. A parent and former high school coach, Beal thought fans should be able to compare the records and statistics of prep teams in the Sacramento area.

He hired two computer programmers and an office assistant, and began asking his local coaches for their assistance in entering data.

“That first Friday, we went to bed pretty darn nervous — how many coaches would really buy in to what we were doing?” said Beal, who still oversees the web site. “We were targeting 55 schools, and praying we’d get half of them. The next morning, 35 of 55 had posted overnight. We were jumping for joy. Within a few weeks, 53 of 55 were on board.”

Today, MaxPreps works with more than 40,000 coaches around the country, in a wide array of sports. In the heart of football season, its peak traffic period, the site draws about 6 million different viewers a month, logging on about 12 million times. CBS acquired the company in 2007.

Excluding the parent corporation’s legal, marketing and financial teams, 37 full-time employees tend to the web site, 31 of them based in Cameron Park, east of Sacramento.
If the North Coast is an indication, participation in MaxPreps remains inconsistent. Some schools make sure statistics are updated weekly. Herzog enters his personally, saying it takes him 20 to 30 minutes per week.

But some coaches prefer not to publicize individual stats. Others simply don’t find the time. Many smaller schools don’t even post rosters. And MaxPreps, so strong in football and basketball, tends to fall short in covering other sports here like soccer and cross-country.

Still, the information available to followers of high school sports, including the far-flung families of athletes, has grown beyond recognition in the past decade. And that goes for images, too.

YSN365, which covers prep sports mostly in Marin and Sonoma counties, has distinguished itself through its extensive video documentation. Dave Cox, then an announcer and producer for Comcast, experimented four years ago by shooting and posting one of his son’s Little League games. He was amazed when it drew more than 200 views. Now YSN has more than 1,700 Facebook followers.

Cox licenses his videos — he does practically all of the technical production himself — to larger sites like MaxPreps, but also posts them, along with stories, to the YSN365.com site.

“I don’t see it as competition,” he said. “As more people are flying around the web, I don’t think many of them are saying, ‘I’ll go to NorCal Preps today, but not PD Preps.’ They go to all of them.”

Indeed, Cardinal Newman alumnus and Monterey resident Sheridan Silver, who played on the Newman team that made it to the 1989 Division 4 state final, uses a combination of sites to keep up with the Cardinals.

“I do MaxPreps. They have good information on records and statistics,” Silver said. “But if I want to get the details of games, I check in on your site (pdpreps.com) on my phone.”

And because of the Web’s interactivity, viewers are able to shape coverage in ways that a letter to the editor never could.
As the Press Democrat transitioned to a new online platform late last year, it began to get strong feedback through Facebook and PD Preps: improve your wrestling coverage. The paper responded, in pictures and words.

While friends and family bond through digital media, others use them to gain a competitive edge. Coaches, for example, can get a head start on breaking down opponents by looking at statistics on MaxPreps or scouring newspaper sites.

“It helps when I’m scouting,” Herzog said. “Who’s the top pass rusher on the team we’ll be facing? Who’s the leading tackler? Who’s the cornerback we want to stay away from because he’s a threat to intercept the ball? You get a (jersey) number, and then you find them watching film.”

Meanwhile, college and professional scouts turn to the web to dig up potential recruits. In basketball, web-based scouting networks are common. Two years ago, Cardinal Newman basketball coach Tom Bonfigli got a phone call from a recruiter at Siena

College in New York who had used one such network to discover then-Newman guard Xavier McCall.

It all adds up to a much smaller and more accessible world — which is what the Internet was supposed to do all along. Vito Gonella’s world would be a little less balanced without it.

“I moved to Arizona, went to school there, lived there seven years, moved all the way out to Florida,” he said. “It’s humid as hell here. Not much to remind me of NorCal where it’s beautiful and the fog comes rolling in over the hills. The only way to stay connected is to check MaxPreps and see how St. Vincent is doing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.