High School sports losing out to clubs?

By Susan Luzzaro

Is it curtains for high school sports? Are high school athletes playing their hearts out, but nobody’s scouting them for scholarships? Are club coaches, who are also school coaches, recruiting student-athletes? Will all student-athletes have a level playing field?

Joe Heinz, Sweetwater Union High School District’s athletic director, made this surprising statement to the board of trustees July 13: “Over the last ten years far and few between is there a coach that comes to a high school [game] to recruit kids, they are getting those kids in the outside club region. The [club] parents know that, and that’s why they’re willing to spend those tons of dollars to get that exposure for their kids, because in a college recruiter’s mind [at the club games] he’s seeing kids at the highest level playing against similar competition.”

According to board dialogue, club sport fees can range from $1200-$2500.

Heinz said the lure of the clubs is a country-wide issue and that his research reveals that some even believe club teams might be the end of high school teams.

In an evolving response to the situation, Sweetwater schools have begun to create out-of-season opportunities for student-athletes so that coaches can continue to work with students to hone their skills in winter baseball teams or summer basketball teams, etc.

Until now the Sweetwater’s out-of-season programs have varied from school to school, but trustees are anxious to see uniformity in the district. Heinz, in his July presentation, stressed that “this is a big animal.” Heinz is tasked with bringing “consistency and equity” to out-of-season sports.

The inherent problems are: facilities use, wear and tear on facilities, where to get liability insurance—and money—how to collect it, and how to ensure appropriate oversight of it. The other issue that needs to be addressed is, according to the California Interscholastic Federation, CIF, the teams need to be separate from the school and the district.

Heinz has suggested two ways to address the programs. As these are Sweetwater students, one route allows the athletes to use the facilities for free. Nominal fees would be paid by students, coaches would be unpaid, and coaches would obtain insurance and oversight through an outside agency.

The other possibility introduced by Heinz is that out-of-season teams would obtain 501(c)3 non-profit status. This would allow the out-of-season teams to have fund raisers and booster clubs. If the teams went this route they would likely pay their coaches and the district would charge the teams for use of the facilities (courts, fields, weight rooms, etc.)

Both routes are intended to allow coaches to continue to work with their student athletes after the playing season is over. Both routes could induce students to stay in the school programs.

The discussion on sports between Heinz and the board was wide ranging. Trustee Frank Tarantino brought up some hypothetical problems with walk-on coaches, coaches who are not regularly employed by the district but receive stipends for their seasonal work.

Tarantino asked—what if a coach is also the coach of a club team and sends emails to the parents with the logo of his or her club? In other words what if the club coach is recruiting from the school teams? Heinz said this was a topic that required further investigation.

In a July 21 interview Heinz said it was very difficult to recruit coaches. In the old days he said the coaches were drawn from teachers and staff, but now 82% of the coaches are not employees of the district. He also pointed out that elite athletes have big tournaments and it’s critical for our sports program to be enhanced and that to get a coach with background and training was a plus for the program.

Another challenge for Heinz is to equitably address the needs of a very large district with diverse funding opportunities. In the end, he said the trustees might consider a combination of the two approaches when they revisit the topic in September.

CIF San Diego Commissioner Jerry Schniepp said on July 21 that Heinz had shared his plan with him to address the out-of season teams. He applauded Heinz for his efforts, but he said it’s very complicated and hard to fit several programs into one mold.

About the forces driving change in the sports world Schniepp said, “We are an organization that is not built for the 1% of the students who are going to play beyond high school; we want to be that venue, we want we want those quality athletes participating, but the fact of the matter is that 98-99% who compete in high school athletics are not going to play beyond high school and we want to make it a positive experience that isn’t overly demanding, that allows them to have a life, and that allows them to succeed academically and have fun as well as be competitive.

“I get the club world and I think there’s a lot of positive to it, but I also think it’s geared to the individual and the exposure of individual, increasing their visibility and their skill level. But high school should be, in most cases, about the team and about learning the life skills that athletics teaches students. It’s about putting the team first and seeing that there is life beyond the individual and this program is bigger than me as an individual. It teaches those skills that athletics teaches that are difficult to find in any other setting.”

13 comments on “High School sports losing out to clubs?


I think that Mr. Schniepp’s statement should be the aim of high school athletics:

But high school should be, in most cases, about the team and about learning the life skills that athletics teaches students. It’s about putting the team first and seeing that there is life beyond the individual and this program is bigger than me as an individual. It teaches those skills that athletics teaches that are difficult to find in any other setting.” CIF San Diego Commissioner Jerry Schniepp

Even in the sixties there was an effort to bring coaches to upgrade athletic programs at Hilltop High. It did not succeed. I enjoyed participating in team sports and learned a lot about human interaction, setting goals, handling loss, and creating brief communities of interest.

High school is not about the extreme minority that goes on to a high level of sports, although financially helps some of the few who do have exceptional athletic skills. It is about identifying with others, growing emotionally and intellectually, dealing with others, and envisioning a future for developing a unique personal self.

Athletic scholarships do alleviate the some costs of high education. However, raising the level of athletic competition and pressure on students and coaches can distort values and value of athletic competition as well as add additional pressure on stressed teenagers. Who audits the boosters and their fund raisers. Why are non district employees as coaches using public facilities especially since a coach is also a teacher of values A person has only to read the sports pages, especially the Los Angeles Times, to notice how some high schools became athletic factories.

How do clubs handle injuries and sportsmanship issues? How does constant competitive level athletic activities effect developing bodies? Are corporate sports seeping into the values of school district more than is thought to be happening?


All good questions, cvlancer!

The article made me wonder just what sports Heinz is talking about. We know it isn’t football, because that doesn’t exist as a club sport at the high school level.

My guess is that it is more about lacrosse, soccer and maybe volleyball. Baseball? Roller hockey?

Probably not cross country or track.

I know it isn’t swimming, because Sweetwater completely lacks the facilities for handling the high school season, let alone scheduling practices throughout the year–and as swimming is a year-around sport, club teams are just how things are.

And is this being planned just for boys’ sports? Because if so, there are Title IX problems right off the bat.

Yes, there are always competing demands for facilities, and for the students’ available time.

I think that if programs are set up for specific sports outside of the competitive high school seasons, it should be open to walk-ons–so that kids can try things out. If it is a welcoming program that allows for flexibility (none of this “Miss one practice, no matter what the reason, and you are out” kind of thing), it might be a good addition. If funding is available. If it is done equitably. If other sports’ funding isn’t affected.

But I still say, Sweetwater has many areas that need improvement. Should this be a top priority?

What about the fact that Mar Vista’s tennis team doesn’t even have a court?

What about the fact that Sweetwater has approximately twice as many schools as it did 20 years ago, and hasn’t built a pool in about 50 years?

Imagine if all the football teams were forced to share like that?

It would have been helpful if Mr. Heinz had listed the sports this pertains to.

Fran Brinkman

How, terribly sad. What about the student that’ can’t afford the price of the private clubs. Pretty sad that $ has invaded the sports programs. Wow!

Hats off to Mr. Heinz for addressing the issue ‘head on’. This is one of the many first steps the SUHSD is taking to move forward, in a positive manner, on behalf of the students. The many questions raised by the Board are indicative they care. Mr. Heinz’s efforts to speak frankly about an issue that has garnered much attention should be applauded – can’t remember anything his predecessor did other than build the monument to Ed Brand (Ed Brand’s Hall of Fame) at the L street location. Friends looking out for friends I am surmising.

I agree with the others posters concern for those student athletes who do not have the financial opportunities to play for ‘travel ball’ – while many in this community via their parents participate and pay for travel ball there is a greater number who are left out.

However, costly travel ball clubs should not be confused with the clubs that are associated with our local off season high school teams – MANY of those Coaches charge the BARE minimum and use the off season ball as a means to improve on their student athletes skills. As a positive note, the student athletes I just referenced ‘I believe’ benefit from these inexpensive teams – they are participating in a sport they love, with teammates they have bonded with, are learning tools for life such as ‘you win some, you lose some’, and they are keeping busy (sure beats grand theft auto).

***transparency alert – my grandchildren have participated in both the expensive and off season teams.


There are many issues here. As eastlaker mentions there are multiple sports, and we all know football is not part of this. And eastlaker did not mention softball, the girls’ sport.

Clouding the issue is the problem of who coaches at the high school level. There is bias against “walk on coaches” who receive stipends, but most districts have rules that allow any faculty member to take the team, as well as additional pay, if they want to. Sometimes these “stipend” coaches are truly dedicated and the best, but there is no consistency.

Who is the Athletic Director at each school? How involved are they, and how dedicated are they to finding the best coaches at all these levels? That’s a critical part of this puzzle. Good athletic directors insure a pretty good program. Some other athletic directors are using the position to reward sycophants and friends Which is your preference?

There is also the problem of Athletic Directors and others bending the rules and looking the other way to help their friends. Too many times there are kids who attend schools out of their district because they have a particular talent, and their “neighborhood” school doesn’t have the backup talent. There is one instance where a student’s family is alleged to have set up a fake residency in another district so he could be considered a “Resident.” That team won a championship with his help. The coaches know, the Athletic Directors know….CIF often knows…and it often is something known at the school board level, as well.

Fran, while it is unfortunate that a student might miss out because of finances, it is no less unfair that students are not able to play on a particular team because an outside “Talented” player is brought in–against the rules.

It would be great if Sweetwater became the first district to clean this out and make sports at the high school level a true experience in learning the value of honesty, hard work, teamwork and integrity from the adults surrounding the sports programs.

Money is the root of the problem, Ms. Brinkman. Many of the clubs will carry along players on “Scholarship.” Depends on the club, and the value of the player. There are other alternatives, depending on the sport. For instance, there are YMCA- sponsored soccer and other community resources.

wabbit – I can only speak of those AD’s I have interacted with – MOH, Mr. Beal and BVH, Mr. Murphy in those cases I have had a positive interaction and view them as AD’s that are all about the student athletes they are fair, and real sticklers about rules and regulations. I have no doubt that other schools have AD’s that are a positive influence, but the two mentioned are the only 2 I have had interaction with.

Basketball, both girls and boys are 2 of the Programs that would be involved in situations involved in this story.

WHEN/IF ALL Coaches focus on the students and their needs vs.their own bravado (number of wins) and bragging rights then and only then will the true meaning of high school sports be recognized. Fortunately the ‘chest thumpers’ are in the minority, especially in our District. Have you seen how little our Coaches are paid? Add up the practice hours, the travel, the meetings and the games and it would appear they are being paid on an average of about .50 cents an hour.

And,,,,,, least we forget the role the parents play. For, it is some of them who should take ownership for contributing to the problem.

Interesting. But the lack of college coaches at HS games has more to do with talent, skill level and budget than club. Although I agree that club is a hot mess and geared to the Elite Athlete and the “haves” rather than the average athlete or the “have nots”. If an elite level athlete came through Sweetwater there would be tons of college coaches at his/her games.

*******posted above is a comment I received from a Head College Coach I know.

cvlancer Your comments reflect what a lot of parents hope for when they enroll their students in a sport. And like everyone on this blog you have questions that open the dialogue farther than the story. Regarding the developing bodies of young athletes, I read a comment in the Eagle Times by Mr. Schniepp that caused me to think about your question–it had to do with CIF rules and seasons being partly geared to give student athletes an opportunity to rest, repetitive motion injuries came to mind.

Mr. Heinz also said something that caused me to reflect. in the “old days” student athletes were encouraged to play several sports…that might have a positive impact on developing a whole realm of skill sets.


Clubs or travel ball do have some correlation to student athletes making it to the college level, but not all clubs or travel ball teams provide that from the South Bay. Softball and soccer have helped Bonita through the years of having successful teams and sending their girls to universities on scholarship. I remember in the 80’s and some of the 90’s softball was strong throughout the South Bay with their travel ball. Consequently, we had many of our high school Metro league teams represented at the CIF level and being successful. Yet we have very little representation at the Open level with South Bay teams having successes without club ball. Volleyball had club ball for both boys and girls and each have led to CIF championships for Otay Ranch (boys) and Bonita Vista (girls) in the club team era. And yet, Otay Ranch were the only ones that had their high school coach during the club season, yet I am not sure how many continued with college on scholarships. Bonita Vista had many players continue playing at the college level and played club, but the clubs were not from the South Bay. They were from North County. And although I, too, applaud Mr. Heinz’s intention, I am not sure if I totally agree with clubs in the South Bay. There are volleyball clubs in the South Bay, but there have not been many that have stayed and received scholarships. Each have had to leave for the North to get exposure. It is the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, but for those that want to play at the university level have to leave to play with the North County to get exposure. South Bay clubs have yet to get to that level as they do not qualify for National where they get exposure. Bonita Travel Ball softball are renowned and have a national level travel ball, and many of those girls get offers. My point is, club ball at the level we have is just an extension of season where there is no guarantee of scholarship. Unless the culture of sports is like the North County of cutthroat and competitiveness to win at all cost, all that money paid does not lead to scholarships. Ask South Bay volleyball clubs how many of their players have been looked at if they weren’t playing for a North County club. So all that money that parents have paid basically does what for them? That would be no different than what parents will be paying for down here, an extended season. And truly there will be no equity with opportunity. There isn’t any now, and it’s why the volleyball players travel north for club ball.

eastlaker, you, as usual, bring up many excellent points. The two out-of-season sports I heard specifically referred to were soccer and basketball. I think in regard to these activities, the board is seeking to give consistency to the ones that are already in operation.

Facilities, though not part of this discussion, is another point. Where is the eastside swimming pool? There was a report July 13 regarding Mello-Roos fees, but the trustees had also asked for the financial report to be broken down by CFD districts, but that hasn’t happened yet. Would it be impossible to take funds from each CFD for a pool?

wabbitsd, I think your point about walk-on coaches resonates with many I have talked to. There are some who feel that the walk-on coaches have their own playbook, as it were, and that there is not enough consistency. I believe the trustees are looking into some of the allegations. On the other hand, as Mr. Heinz pointed out, many walk-ons bring a strong sports background to the schools which is bound to improve student-athletes’ performance and teams’ performance.

You can bet we all hope that Sweetwater–with its new leadership–will be the first district “to clean this out and make sports at the high school level a true experience in learning the value of honesty, hard work, teamwork and integrity from the adults surrounding the sports programs.”


It is good to have open discussions of this type. Kids like to find a place where they succeed, parents like to see their offspring succeed.

Communities that provide avenues for the success of the children living there are generally good places to live.

Then there is the question of “taking it too far”–because success at any cost isn’t really success. We want well-rounded young people who are able to stand up for what is right, and for themselves when need be. We want young people who know what it is to work for something, a goal achieved in sports, or in an academic endeavor, or an artistic endeavor, or a tangible project helping others.

I still would like to know exactly which sports are under discussion for enhanced school support.

Here’s a thought: what about am after school conditioning programs that any middle or high school student could sign for–so that off-season, the kids maintain their level of physical fitness. Team coaches could set up general guidelines for students in various sports.

My familiarity lies with swimming–which on the club level is of necessity, an all year through sport. In swimming, it is said that every day of missed practice puts the swimmer two days behind in training, which is why the most competitive North County teams have practice six days a week with doubles, or two practices per day during the lead-ups to big meets (for their highest level of swimmer). It takes a truly exceptional swimmer to get to CIFs if that swimmer is not already a club swimmer. (Water polo players can sometimes make the cuts).

So, if we want South County to truly compete with North County, what does that mean? I would hope that it would mean that every student who wants to play or do a sport gets a chance at it. A fair chance, with reasonable practice times, with decent facilities, with coaches who know and care about what they are doing.

A while ago there was some talk of Sweetwater splitting off from San Diego CIF, and becoming their own CIF section. For swimming, that would be a disaster, as it is all time-based, and competing against the fastest is how swimmers get faster. Not to mention that there isn’t even a single facility in the entire Sweetwater area that could function as a CIF-approved finals facility. Southwestern College’s pool complex comes closest, but I heard they were planning some changes and renovation, so they may be unavailable for a time.

South County kids deserve every chance to develop their skills and strengths. It is important that the school districts listen to what these kids and their families are saying.

But if you don’t have the facilities, you will always be coming from behind.

Which can be done–it can be a motivator, to be able to say “I didn’t have all the advantages, and I worked hard and look what I was able to do!” Kids need to learn that there are many people out there who already have a leg up on the competition one way or another.

We need to give the kids of South County a fair shake, a decent chance, and let them know the community supports their efforts. Look at what has happened in Little League–there is strong community support and several teams have had outstanding successes, and it looks like it is ongoing.

As human beings, we all build on success while we do our best to learn from things that weren’t so successful. I am very glad the atmosphere in the Sweetwater Union School District now allows for conversations that open up these topics. Free speech is a great thing, let’s keep talking!

Retired Coach

I need to clarify and simplify my comments. The Club for volleyball in the North County is competitive where there is exposure from college coaches. Volleyball clubs in the South do NOT get that exposure, and the one’s that they do have parents pay for an extended season, NOT exposure to college coaches unless there is a athlete that jumps out of the gym. Otay Ranch, had their JV coach and head coach, as their club coach and had success, but I am not sure how many of the boys continued on to college on scholarship. Bonita girls travel ball softball have a reputation to where college coaches come watch them…and those girls get exposure to college. So, if Heinz is saying club ball will even the score with the rest of San Diego, I am not sure I agree. It all depends who is the coach, and what is the culture of the club. North County is cutthroat, South Bay is always trying to catch up unless it’s girl’s softball, and I have no evidence, but it would seem that soccer had success over the years. I have yet to see breakouts in any basketball team, girls or boys, in the CIF open competition. Football has had its successes down South, but I have yet to see any other team make it in the OPEN level.

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