Late Wednesday night my daughter, Marina High senior Chanda McLeod, will return home from high school basketball and club volleyball practices, plop into an old wooden chair at the kitchen table, and end 3 1/2 years of personal drama by signing a letter of intent to play volleyball at Arkansas.
As a reporter who has interviewed countless high school and college athletes in a 27-year career, I thought I knew everything about college recruiting.
Then I experienced it as a parent and was helpless to insulate my family, and especially my teen-age child, from the way this emotional roller coaster inevitably plays out.
It will be tough for my wife, Ellen, and me to have our first-born child leave us for the Ozarks. She's the fourth generation of a family raised within walking distance of Pacific Coast Highway.
But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that this process isn't about parents, many of whom push their kids into sports hoping they will get a scholarship offer and go to college for free. Recruiting is a rare passage to adulthood for a handful of high school athletes skilled enough to take their games to the next level.
After Marina won a 1997 state volleyball title and the 1998 Southern Section Division I-A basketball championship, Chanda, a two-time Southern Section first-team volleyball selection, told me she wanted to go to college to win an NCAA volleyball title.
Arkansas, ranked No. 13 in the country last fall, has recruited what many believe is among the top five freshman volleyball classes. Chanda has an opportunity to start as a freshman. In 2000 the Lady Razorbacks will travel internationally, perhaps to the Far East. Their roster includes players from Puerto Rico to China, Oregon to Albania.
And now it also features the school's first freshman volleyball recruit from Southern California.
Getting to Chanda's final decision is a story in itself. For one thing, she is a left-handed right-side player, known in volleyball circles as an opposite. It's a position not every college puts high on its recruiting list, particularly for a player who stands only 5 feet 10.
To her disdain, many college coaches said they wanted to switch her to the left side as an outside hitter. That was true in the case of one Southern California coach, who dangled a scholarship in front of Chanda and three outside hitters, saying the first one to jump gets it.
Twice, college coaches led my daughter to believe she was their top recruit, but then offered their scholarships to someone else. Two of her campus visits were abruptly canceled when those colleges received quicker verbal commitments. Last November, Chanda read about one of those in the newspaper before the coach called her to break the news.
Nevertheless, she had fine institutions from which to choose, and it pained her to have to turn down other good offers. She tearfully rejected Indiana, for instance, even though she would be allowed to play volleyball and basketball. And the Hoosiers' assistant volleyball coach, Elaina Oden, a two-time Olympian from Irvine High, is Chanda's idol. But being a Hoosier, Chanda said, just wasn't in her blood.
Only time will tell if being a Razorback is.
But for now, at least, during Wednesday's small celebration with family and teammates, we'll toast the end of this momentous event, even though the process wasn't as glorious as most of us have been led to believe.
The first recruiting letters arrived in the summer of 1996. A basketball letter came from a community college, and two four-year schools--one each for basketball and volleyball--sent questionnaires, the only correspondence allowed by the NCAA before July 1 of a player's junior year.
Eventually, letters from about 70 colleges filled three large packing cartons.
But getting letters doesn't put you any closer to getting a scholarship. Most are fishing expeditions. Return the questionnaire and your name gets put on a mailing list.
Some of the mail was at least creative. Arkansas sent a 1999 team photo with Chanda's head cut into it. It proclaimed her "1999 Freshman of the Year."
Then there was a complimentary letter from a basketball coach in Northern California. Inside the envelope was mistakenly stuffed a second letter, word for word the same, but addressed to a girl in Delaware.
I mailed that second letter to the kid in Delaware. We never heard from that coach again.
It was 10:30 on a Thursday evening last July 2. I ventured out of the hotel past the state capitol building and into the Sacramento Convention Center. Competition in the 18-and-under division at the prestigious Davis Volleyball Festival was still in high gear.
This is an opportunity for college coaches to find prospective players. Most of the top national club teams, including Chanda's top-seeded Orange County Volleyball Club NIKE team, had long-since concluded play for the day. But action was furious this night on 26 portable plastic courts.