At the start of each practice, Huntington Beach High School athletic director David VanHoorebeke gives his athletes a pep talk. But since the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. announced its stricter academic requirements last month, his talk sounds more like it was written by Jaime Escalante than Knute Rockne.
VanHoorebeke and his fellow coaches at Huntington Beach High have been warning their student athletes that now more than ever, they will have to hit the books as consistently as they hit the jump shot if they hope to play college sports.
Last month, the NCAA ruled that beginning in the 1995-96 academic year, the minimum grade-point average for student athletes to maintain their eligibility to play sports will be raised from 2.0 to 2.5.
Since then, educators, coaches, players and boosters have been pondering the implications of the change and its possible effect in Orange County, where high schools have long been a training ground for top-notch college players and more than a few professionals.
Some say the change in eligibility requirements will unfairly prevent gifted athletes from getting into colleges that otherwise may have accepted them. In fact, some say, some student athletes may become so discouraged by the new requirements that they may simply abandon high school sports if the possibility of getting into college is diminished.
But others say there is no reason why gifted student athletes can't also be just plain gifted students. With more tutoring, extra help and early warning about the new grade-point average requirement, they predict that high school athletes will be pushed toward succeeding more academically.
"The last time (the NCAA) put new regulations on the grade-point average, some people argued that it would push kids out of high school," said John F. Dean, superintendent of the Orange County Department of Education. "But the students came around. The desire to play was even stronger. I don't think a C-plus (average) is an unrealistic demand. We're constantly attempting to help kids stretch themselves. Why don't we let the kids prove to themselves that they can achieve?"
One who disagrees with this assessment is Stan Thomas, commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation's Southern Section, which oversees one-third of the state's high school teams. Thomas says the new requirement puts undue pressure on student athletes.
"This is going to create a monster," Thomas said. "There are some youngsters who do not do well in academics. How about these kids who are really working hard to maintain a 2.0? Now they up the ante to 2.5. This will have a dramatic impact."
To play college sports in schools in the NCAA's Division I--the organization's top classification--entering college freshmen will had to have maintained a 2.5 grade-point average in core high school courses like English and science, which are considered college preparatory classes.
Graduating high school seniors who fail to meet the grade-point average requirement will be ineligible to play as freshmen in NCAA colleges unless they score higher than 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
California requires high school athletes to maintain a 2.0, or C, average to be eligible to play sports in college. But some high schools have established higher standards of their own.
At Century High School in Santa Ana, all students are required to take core curriculum classes, said principal Gerald Arriola. The school has only a handful of classes that are not considered college preparatory.
"Our student athletes already have that so-called burden on themselves and they are doing extremely well," Arriola said.
As of Friday, Century High School's basketball team had a record of 14 wins and 7 losses. The team's grade-point average is 3.1, said coach Greg Katz.
"Once the rules have been set, the student athletes are going to adjust to them," Katz said. "Those who are going to goof off will goof off. Those who want to get to college and play sports, they are going to make it no matter what."
Katz also brushes aside talk that the new rules will be especially discriminatory against ethnic minorities. After the NCAA made its decision, some athletic directors and educators criticized the upgrade, saying that 70% of the athletes likely to be denied eligibility under the new standards will be black.
"That's a lot of hay," said Katz, who coaches in a school that is 94% ethnic minority. "These people must look at (predominantly) minority schools and think we are a bunch of dummies. That kind of reasoning is an insult to minority students. The students just need to know the rules and they'll adjust to it."
One such student is Ronald Aristondo, a strapping 16-year-old basketball player at Century High. The sophomore is the starting forward on his team and his coaches say he's got great potential, both athletically and academically.
With a 3.2 grade-point average in hand, Ronald has no fear of the stricter NCAA's standards.