Varsity Xtra: Dual threats -- Athletes find success on the field and court
January 9, 2014 7:23 PM
Ben Howard/Post-Gazette photo illustration
From the gridiron to the hardcourt: these four players have made their mark in football and basketball this year.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Chase Winovich has a future playing football in the Big House, but he had this little high school quandary: To be or not to be a basketball player one more time.
Winovich, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School and a University of Michigan football recruit, thought about not playing basketball this season. He considered taking time to heal some football wounds, or maybe graduate early and start college at Michigan in the spring semester.
But in the end, Winovich decided to lace up the sneakers one more season. He's glad he did.
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Winovich is an integral part of a 9-2 Thomas Jefferson team, averaging 10 points a game. He is a poster child for a group of WPIAL football stars with Division I college futures who, despite a growing trend of specializing in one sport, didn't give up on basketball. Those football stars are now playing major roles in gyms around the WPIAL this season.
"I talked to my brother [Pete] about playing basketball and he told me you have only one senior year and make the most of it. So I decided to play," Winovich said. "Plus, there is nothing like high school sports.
"Once you get to college, football is like a job. I decided to play basketball with the boys I've played with since I was 6 years old."
Of the 22 players on the Post-Gazette Fabulous 22 all-star football team, 36 percent are playing basketball and some are having major impacts.
In addition to Winovich, the other seven playing basketball are New Castle's Malik Hooker, Elizabeth Forward's JaQuan Davidson, North Allegheny's Elijah Zeise, Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams, South Fayette's Brett Brumbaugh, Seneca Valley's T.J. Holl and Gateway's Montae Nicholson.
All but one have made verbal commitments to play football at a Division I college, or have scholarship offers from Division I schools.
New Castle's Hooker is an Ohio State football recruit, but was a member of the Post-Gazette Fabulous 5 basketball team a year ago. He is averaging 23.2 points per game this season for New Castle.
Davidson is a Pitt football recruit who is averaging about 13 points for Elizabeth Forward. Nicholson is a Michigan State football recruit who is playing basketball this season for the first time since ninth grade. He is averaging eight points and seven rebounds for Gateway.
Brumbaugh was the quarterback of an undefeated South Fayette football team and already has a few Division I scholarship offers for football, despite being only a junior. Should he play basketball and risk getting hurt? He didn't think twice about it.
"I know I don't have a future in basketball, but it's a sport I've always loved," Brumbaugh said. "Even though football is my main sport, basketball is up there. My parents have always wanted me to play sports, and I've always felt like why not play more than one sport and get the full high school experience?
"I think basketball keeps me in shape. Even in the summer time, I play basketball and it kind of helps keep your footwork up."
But there are plenty of top-notch football players who give up on basketball, or other sports, and just concentrate solely on football. High school athletes specialize in one sport more often these days, for a number of reasons.
Some parents tell children to pick one sport. There are football coaches who won't say it publicly, but discourage kids from playing basketball or other sports. They urge them to get in the weight room more. Also, there are basketball coaches and some in other sports who don't exactly encourage their players to play other sports.
Bill Cherpak is the highly successful football coach at Thomas Jefferson, and also played college football at Pitt. He encouraged Winovich to play basketball and has done the same to other standout football players.
"These kids nowadays think they have to get so much bigger before they go to college. They think they need to be huge and that's the biggest myth in the world," Cherpak said.
"I know high school coaches who don't want their kids to do anything but be in the weight room every day and coaches who do football stuff with their players, like run through plays, even in the winter.
"We don't do anything in the winter and I can't tell you how many college coaches who have come to our school over the years and they want to see a kid play another sport. They want to go to a basketball game and see how athletic they are."
Four of Thomas Jefferson's five basketball starters are football players.
At some schools, the football coach and basketball coach have a good relationship and work together to make it possible for athletes to play both sports. For example, they might schedule summer workouts at different times so athletes can attend both. But some football and basketball coaches at schools tug at players.
Winovich said: "I'm sure a lot of coaches are out for their own good and own interest. I know one football player who told me he couldn't go on some college visits because his basketball coach wouldn't allow it. But our head coach in basketball [Dom DeCicco] loves football."
Nicholson isn't the only standout football player on the Gateway basketball team. Delvon Randall, a Temple football recruit, is an excellent basketball player.
"To make [football and basketball] work, coaches have to work together and that's the first thing," Gateway basketball coach Mitch Adams said. "The kids have to buy into everything, too. If they don't buy in, it doesn't matter what the coaches do."
Western Pennsylvania has had some terrific football-basketball players. Joe Montana and Joe Namath are two of the best-known from many years ago. Back in the 1970s Canevin's Tom Clements had to decide between going to Notre Dame to play quarterback or North Carolina to play point guard. He chose Notre Dame.
In the past decade or so, some football stars who also were basketball standouts were Aliquippa's Darrelle Revis, Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor, Upper St. Clair's Sean Lee and Woodland Hills' Rob Gronkowski.
"I think there are still kids nowadays who look at guys like Gronkowski playing a few sports and want to carve their own niche," Adams said.
But there have been excellent football players who gave up basketball for whatever reason. Paul Posluszny did not play basketball his senior year at Hopewell. Neil Walker, second baseman for the Pirates, played football as a senior at Pine-Richland, but gave up basketball.
Luigi Lista-Brinza was Central Catholic's standout running back the past few years. He was a terrific basketball player in grade school and played basketball as a freshman at Central Catholic before giving up the sport.
"After my sophomore [football] season, I just wanted a good offseason, so I ended up not playing basketball," Lista-Brinza said.
"Definitely, when I look back on it now, I regret it. I think basketball was my favorite sport coming into high school. ... I would definitely say to anyone today: Don't give up on basketball. It keeps you running and staying athletic. If you like it, you'll have fun playing it."
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: email@example.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh
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