Commentary

Growing number of high school athletes making early jump to college

Updated: May 6, 2009, 8:22 PM ET
By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy and Jon Mahoney | ESPN RISE Magazine

Like countless high school seniors, Robert Stock felt stressed about what he'd wear on prom night. He had his tux, but hoped it would never come out of the closet.

Instead, Stock wanted to be in his USC baseball uniform playing in the 2007 College World Series.

After graduating from Agoura (Calif.) a semester early in December 2006 to play ball at USC the following spring as a 17-year-old freshman, Stock had a foot in both worlds. Though his girlfriend was still in high school, Stock's heart belonged to the USC baseball team.

Prom vs. NCAA playoffs: It's not a dilemma many teenagers face. But for Stock, who's part of a growing trend of high school athletes graduating early to pursue the next stage of their athletic careers, it was reality.

Unfortunately for Stock, USC got swept by Cal and Stanford at the end of the regular season and didn't make the playoffs. Fortunately for his girlfriend, she had a date for prom.

"It was kind of bittersweet," Stock says. "But it was great to have one last hurrah with my friends."

At prom, Stock had plenty of stories to tell about college, including dorm life and frat parties. And though not quite as exciting, stories about the sacrifices that go into graduating early are even more plentiful. From cramming extra classes into an already busy schedule to missing out on the last few carefree months of high school, graduating early presents myriad challenges.

[+] EnlargeRussell Shepard
Troy Fields for ESPN RISERussell Shepard left high school early to enroll at LSU.

The journey begins well before athletes like Stock get their high school diplomas. Players who opt to enter college ahead of schedule typically must choose that route by their sophomore or junior year of high school so they can load up on credits.

As a junior at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), quarterback Matt Barkley decided he wanted to start his career at USC early. Having already completed his science and Spanish requirements, Barkley dropped those courses in favor of another English class. He also took trigonometry and pre-calculus at the same time and doubled up on theology courses to fulfill Mater Dei's graduation requirements.

Add in an online music course and Barkley was ready to enroll at USC this past January, five months before his Class of 2009 peers at Mater Dei were scheduled to walk.

"I know it sounds like a lot, but it really wasn't too bad," Barkley says.

Once all the high school classes have been taken care of, life on campus begins. In the first -- and final -- semester of his senior year at Hart (Newhall, Calif.) this past fall, baseball player Trevor Bauer would wake up at 7 a.m., attend class from 8-11:15, then be done for the day. In his first semester at UCLA this spring, he has crammed more into a day than that other Bauer on "24."

Bauer wakes up at 5:30 a.m. for an early-morning weight session, then has breakfast, goes to class, eats lunch and runs through baseball practice for three hours. After a shower and dinner, it's time to hit the books before trying to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Then he wakes up to do it all over again.

Not far from UCLA's campus, Barkley lives in USC housing with former Mater Dei teammates and current second-semester freshmen Robbie Boyer and Khaled Holmes in an effort to better acclimate himself to college life. That helps Barkley feel like he's back home in Orange County, with a few exceptions.

"I miss my mom's home-cooked meals," he says. "Anything she makes, I'd eat it right now."

[+] Enlarge Shade Weygandt
Jensen Walker for ESPN RISEShade Weygandt left high school early -- but didn't leave the comforts of home.

Like Barkley, Shade Weygandt and Bobby Brown finished high school early this year to focus on their sports. Unlike Barkley, Weygandt and Brown still enjoy the comforts of living at home.

Brown graduated in December from Cherry Creek (Greenwood Village, Colo.) to pursue his slopestyle skiing career and spend the first few months of 2009 atop breathtaking mountains, perfecting his craft. What distinguishes Brown from other early graduates is that rather than being on a college campus, he's now a full-fledged pro with sponsorships from companies like Salomon and Under Armour.

Brown took his last high school exam the day before competing in the Winter Dew Tour. "I think on that last final, a math test, I filled in almost all B's on the Scantron," Brown says with a laugh. "I was so ready to go to the mountains."

He then went out, won the men's slopestyle title and hasn't looked back. Weygandt, on the other hand, graduated early from Mansfield (Texas) in January to prepare for her career at Texas Tech. As the nation's top prep pole vaulter, she didn't think competing in high school one last year would be as beneficial as training on her own.

So instead of spending her days at Mansfield, the three-time state champ has spent the spring following a personal daily training regimen and competing unattached in national high school events and open college meets.

"I really thought about going to Texas Tech early," Weygandt says. "But to go there and compete, I would have been thrown right into the meets, and I think it would have been unfair because it's such a mature sport."

If anybody understands the difficulties of being thrown into the fire, it's Stock. After batting .456 as a junior at Agoura, he hit .253 at USC during what should have been his senior season of high school ball.

"The biggest adjustment for me was the pitching," says Stock, a pro prospect as a catcher who also pitches for the Trojans. "In high school, if a pitcher falls behind 2-0 you're gonna get a fastball no matter what. In college, pitchers have good command of their off-speed stuff, so you don't know what's coming."

Getting on campus early helps football players perhaps more than any other athletes. Early enrollees get the opportunity to participate in spring ball, allowing them to experience the speed of college football well before the season rolls around and giving them a much greater possibility of earning playing time right away in the fall.

Each year, more and more football recruits take this route. More than 100 players from the Class of 2009 enrolled early, up from fewer than 20 in 2002. LSU alone had four early enrollees from this year's top-ranked recruiting class.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Zach Cordner for ESPN RISEMatt Barkley is following in the footsteps of other USC quarterbacks who enrolled early.

Class of 2008 quarterback Landry Jones graduated early from Artesia (N.M.) last year to enroll at Oklahoma, where he's learned a whole lot more about football than he could have by staying in high school for one more semester. Not only did he get a head start studying the Sooners' vaunted offense, he also got to learn the ropes from eventual Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford.

"I think I was privileged to come in early to learn from him," Jones says. John David Booty knows that feeling. Well before becoming a backup QB for the Minnesota Vikings, Booty took the idea of graduating early to the extreme. Soon after quarterbacking Evangel Christian (Shreveport, La.) to its second consecutive state title as a junior in 2002, Booty enrolled at USC an entire year ahead of schedule.

He arrived in Los Angeles the July after his junior year for offseason workouts. Surrounded by future NFL players Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Lofa Tatupu, Matt Leinart and Matt Cassel, Booty quickly realized the game had changed.

"The size wasn't a shock; it was how fast and athletic they were," Booty says. "It was such a big jump from high school to college."

Regardless, by midseason of what should have been his senior year of high school, Booty had been promoted to second-string quarterback -- behind Leinart and ahead of Cassel -- for a team that won The Associated Press national title. When Leinart left for the NFL in 2006, Booty stepped into the starting role with far more experience than most first-year starters. He finished his USC career ranked fifth in school history in passing yards.

"I had two older brothers who had gone through high school, and their senior years were the best of their life,"Booty says. "I do regret not getting to experience it, but I don't regret the decision I made."

No regrets: That's the common theme for all of these players. Graduating early will allow Stock to be draft eligible this June at age 19. Couple his early start to college with the fact that he was already young for his class, and Stock has the chance to get a two-year head start on his pro career compared to other draft-eligible college players.

Stock may have missed half a year of high school (and almost his prom) in the process, but he's happy with the end result.

"Ultimately, I want to be a Major League Baseball player," Stock says. "Coming out early has allowed me to get better through three years in college. And I'm still only 19, the age of most freshmen."

Two years after Stock's prom vs. playoffs dilemma, Bauer could face something similar.

Despite graduating from Hart in December, Bauer has the opportunity to walk with his high school class on June 4, a day before college baseball's Super Regionals begin. If UCLA makes it that far, it'd be impossible for Bauer to attend both.

In that case, Bauer would gladly choose his baseball cap and glove over a cap and gown.

"My parents told me a picture of me in my UCLA uniform is a good enough graduation picture for them," he says.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy and Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.

Jon Mahoney is a football and baseball editor for ESPNHS. Email him at jon.mahoney@espn.com.