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The Emotions of Sports: The transition game

Many athletes achieve greatness in high school, but the challenge is to sustain that same level

Posted: August 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 7, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Valencia graduate Lonnie Jackson (20) sits on the bench and looks at the clock during his final game with the Vikings, a 70-58 playoff loss to Etiwanda on Feb. 22 at Valencia. Valencia graduate Lonnie Jackson (20) sits on the bench and looks at the clock during his final game with the Vikings, a 70-58 playoff loss to Etiwanda on Feb. 22 at Valencia.
Valencia graduate Lonnie Jackson (20) sits on the bench and looks at the clock during his final game with the Vikings, a 70-58 playoff loss to Etiwanda on Feb. 22 at Valencia.

Everyone has to start somewhere.

That somewhere is usually on a small field at a local park or a small gym at a junior high school or a church.

The crowd is sparse, mostly just a handful of parents who have come to encourage their kids making their first attempts at competitive sports.

Inevitably, the crowds get bigger and the venues get larger as the kids grow older and play at higher levels. Athletes have to prepare as they move up from one level to the next in their respective sports.

The anticipation of making those moves can prove to be a grating experience.

"I really have no clue what to expect," says Valencia graduate Lonnie Jackson, who is preparing for his first Division I basketball season at Boston College. "I can't even imagine myself playing at Duke (one of Boston College's conference opponents) right now. It's crazy to think about myself playing on TV in front of millions of people. It's hard to even think about."

For a lot of athletes, playing at the NCAA Division I college level is a dream come true. Naturally, waiting for the first crack at realizing that dream isn't always easy.

It's a mixture of excitement, nervousness and ignorance. Ignorance of what to expect at the next level.

Jackson just finished one of the most successful basketball careers in Santa Clarita Valley history, scoring a Valencia High-record 1,995 points across four seasons. He broke two more school records in his senior year when he scored 39 points and sunk 10 3-pointers against Saugus on Feb. 8. Both were single-game bests.

That doesn't change the fact that he hasn't played a minute of Division I college basketball yet.

"Everything in my past, everything at Valencia isn't there anymore," Jackson says. "Everybody at the college level has done what I did."

Canyon High graduate A.J. Wallerstein confirms Jackson's preconceived notion of the college game.

Wallerstein, now a senior offensive lineman at the Air Force Academy, remembers visualizing his first college game several times in his head leading up to it.

He still wasn't prepared.

"You'd think that college and high school are similar, but they're nothing alike," he says. "When you get to college, it's bigger. It's so much bigger than anything you've ever seen before in your life."

Last season, Wallerstein earned a full-time starting job, and he participated in Air Force's 14-7 victory over Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl. He was also a member of Canyon's 2006 CIF Division I state champion team.

Beyond the big games, what sticks with athletes like Wallerstein are the months that lead up to a college debut.

"I had the butterflies going in the stomach," says Wallerstein of his first college game. "You kind of know what to expect, but at the same time, it's never going to be the same as practice. You get out there and see those lights. They're bright. They're really bright."

It's a level most athletes hope to reach. From the beginning of their playing days as little kids, the goal is to ascend to the highest levels of competition.

The idea of playing in front of bigger audiences with more on the line is something to embrace.

"I think that's why I was so successful visualizing (playing at a higher level)," says Saugus graduate Nicole Giordano, who played softball for the University of Arizona and was a rostered player on the 2004 USA Olympic softball team. "Everyone made fun of me that I can have the worst thing happen to me and I'll be like, ‘Well, at least this didn't happen,' and I was always able to make a negative into a positive."

The anticipation comes in different forms, Giordano adds, depending on what level you're playing.

Leading up to college and the Olympic games, she felt the pressure to perform. She wanted to make sure she was earning her scholarship and her standing on the team.

In high school, however, Giordano remembers feeling relaxed in her first varsity high school softball game at Saugus due to the camaraderie with her teammates.

But not everyone has an easy time at the prep level.

Though golf is an individual sport, recent Hart High graduate Nikki Prichard admits there's a difference when your team is counting on you to perform. As was the case four years ago when she faced her inaugural varsity high school tournament as a freshman.

"I was pretty nervous in my first match," Prichard says. "I had some expectations from people ... After the first hole, I was more relaxed. The first hole is always the hardest. Once you start talking to the other girls and you get going, it's fine."

With college golf on its way for Prichard at the University of Nevada-Reno, she'll soon face another first. It's a moment she doesn't express much anxiety about.

"I've kind of accepted that you can't really do anything about it and you have to just play your game and give the best result possible," Prichard says.

Anticipation isn't necessarily a bad emotion for an athlete to feel before stepping into uncharted territory.

Those who can use the apprehension as a performance booster are the ones with the best chance to succeed.

"I know it's going to be tough," Jackson says of playing college ball. "I know it's going to be a lot of ups and downs, but I just have to be ready. I have to be tough."

For a player like Jackson, who has proven to thrive time and time again in adverse situations on the court, the tension is welcomed.

The hope is that after the preparation and practice, the butterflies and the visualizations, it will all be worth the wait.




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