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NEGLECT IN CLASSROOM: RECRUITS' PAINFUL LESSON.

Byline: Gerry Gittelson Staff Writer

They say a dream without a plan is just a fantasy. Ben Olson certainly believes so.

Olson, a quarterback at Thousand Oaks High, will sign a football scholarship with Brigham Young University today - national letter-of-intent day.

Gifted with size and athleticism, Olson developed into ESPN's No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation by working with a private coach, attending skills combines and passing for more than 2,600 yards and 32 touchdowns this past season. Just as important, Olson also maintained a high grade-point average throughout his high school career and achieved a qualifying score on the Scholastic Assessment Test.

Olson and many others who also will celebrate scholarships today understood that all the football talent in the world leads nowhere if you're ineligible to earn a scholarship.

Others didn't have such foresight. For the many football seniors who have the tools to succeed on the field but won't receive scholarships - mostly because of academic deficiencies - today is a very dark day.

``Thankfully, I realized very early I had to take the right classes and keep my grades up,'' Olson said. ``It certainly would have been too bad if I had worked so hard on the football field but not been eligible. I took school seriously.''

Of the 23 seniors named to the All-Daily News team, seven aren't academically eligible for an NCAA Division I scholarship because they haven't met the minimum requirements of a 2.5 GPA in core classes and an 820 SAT score.

All seven probably would have earned scholarships. In fact, offensive lineman Victor Romero of Kennedy of Granada Hills received concrete offers from California and others before the season.

However, Romero, blaming no one but himself, failed to remain academically eligible, missed that latter part of his senior season and eliminated himself from consideration for a scholarship.

``I feel really bad. I was lazy,'' said Romero, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder who was the Daily News preseason No. 1 lineman in the region.

Valenica defensive lineman Brandon Fuselier, another All-Daily News selection, also hasn't qualified academically for a college scholarship.

He said he picked up his grades this year but couldn't compensate for poor grades in previous semesters, when he didn't realize he would blossom into one of the region's best pass rushers (he had 20 sacks this year) for a team that advanced to the Southern Section Division III championship game.

``I'm disappointed because I could have gotten a scholarship from a top university, but I didn't make it,'' Fuselier said. ``I'm not OK with that.''

Unfortunately, their situations aren't unique. Many exceptional football players simply don't make the grades.

``I think it's a big shame,'' said Greg Biggins, recruiting coordinator for Torrance-based Student Sports, Inc., ``But a lot of times, it's not fair to just blame the kids. The coaches should feel guilty, too, because I believe they're supposed to help their kids remain eligible.

``It just seems that without doubt there are some coaches that care a lot more about their players, and that's why their kids are always eligible. Also, it seems like the same schools every year have players who aren't eligible.''

Publisher Jeff Duva of PrepStar magazine of Woodland Hills has a different take. He believes high schoolers are old enough to shoulder the full blame.

``Getting a football scholarship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and if kids can't be responsible, then there's a huge price to pay,'' Duva said. ``I'm an ex-coach and I've been there. It's not the coach's job to babysit. If anyone else besides the kid, you've got to point to the parent.''

Under Proposition 48, a few universities - none in the Pacific-10 - grant scholarships to ``partial qualifiers'' for those who have the grades but not the SAT score, or vice-versa. Partial qualifiers can't play their first year on campus. Some colleges also sign ``nonqualifiers,'' who must pay their own way for a year.

For the vast majority who don't qualify, however, junior college football is the only choice. Both Romero and Fuselier say they're going to take that route; they plan to enroll at College of the Canyons in Valencia.

``I haven't given up. I'm going to recuperate,'' Romero said.

Looking on the bright side, Fuselier said junior college football will give him a chance to sharpen his skills.

``I only played football at Valencia for two years. At COC, I can develop more,'' he said. ``At this point, it's my only chance.''

Leon Pinky can relate. He caught 100 passes over two years at Granada Hills High in 1996 and 1997, and he said USC was among several colleges recruiting him. But Pinky fell short in the classroom and a scholarship never materialized. Depressed, he took a year off from football and gained 30 pounds.

``I was a prime example of what not to do,'' Pinky said. ``I was great but couldn't go anywhere because I wanted to party, meet girls and be in the in-crowd. But all that stuff bit me. I remember my last game was the Daily News All-Star Game. I was co-MVP with Kenny Pritchett of Crescenta Valley. He was going to UCLA and I wasn't going anywhere. The lesson is you better worry about school, not just football.''

After failing as a real estate agent, Pinky decided to give football one last try. He enrolled at COC and hit the weight room - and the books. For him, it wasn't too late. He blossomed both on the field and in the classroom, and recently accepted a full scholarship to Tennessee.

But his is a path Pinky doesn't advise.

``I took the long way because I was one of those coulda-woulda-shoulda guys,'' he said. ``But I look at the top prospects now, like (all-state receiver) Steve Smith from Taft, and if I could I would tell him, 'Hey, you better stress academics, too.' ''

Junior college football also is a viable option for those who aren't big enough or don't get noticed, fairly or unfairly. Plenty of high school football hopefuls simply get overlooked.

That was the case for UCLA defensive lineman Ryan Boschetti. His team was 0-10 his senior season at Carlmont High in Belmont, and at 6-2, 220 pounds, he was undersized and didn't want to switch positions.

``I was qualified with a 3.1 GPA, and I played a bunch of different sports and even played in the school band,'' Boschetti said. ``I thought all that would help me. Plus, I had 16 quarterback sacks my senior year. But I just didn't make the list.

``I decided to go to San Mateo JC, and believe me, there isn't much prestige there. Suddenly my team was in the bottom corner of the sports page under all the high school stuff. But I knew I was good enough to play college football, so I worked hard, ate right, got bigger - and got the UCLA scholarship. Now I get to play in the Rose Bowl, which is what I've waited for all along.''

Boschetti said there were times when he wanted to give up.

``It was a day-in, day-out type of thing. Two years went by slow,'' he said. ``But I surrounded myself with hard-working people and hard-working coaches who pushed me to get better. They all knew what was I was capable of and so did I.''

Boschetti probably knows what Chris Davis of Rio Mesa High in Oxnard is going through. A growing number of opposing coaches proclaim Davis has what it takes to play major-college football even though he's had no offers. Davis is a 6-1, 215-pound running back, linebacker and all-state punter and is an excellent student who is fully qualified.

Still, Davis won't be signing with a four-year university today. And he's crushed.

``I was caught in a situation where I really didn't really have an exceptional junior year, then just recently I was (mistakingly) listed as a junior, not a senior, on the all-state team,'' Davis said. ``Plus, we got a new coach at Rio Mesa and maybe I got lost in the shuffle. The bottom line is I just haven't gotten any calls. I'm depressed.''

Then there's quarterback Hudson Gossard.

He passed for more than 3,500 yards and 32 touchdowns for Crescenta Valley this past season, one of the region's all-time-best performances. But he's just 5-9 and apparently no college coach is convinced Gossard might be the next Doug Flutie. At this point, Gossard might walk on somewhere or perhaps join the service, according to his father.

Which brings us back to Ben Olson. On what figures to be the happiest day of his life - his best friend, teammate Dave Anderson, is signing with Colorado State - he said he empathizes with his peers who have fallen short of a scholarship.

``I'll be thinking about them. It's really too bad because I know a lot of them have worked as hard as me,'' he said. ``For me, by my freshman year, I just knew how important my studies would be. I have friends who realized all that a little too late. Maybe they just wanted to be one of the guys and kind of hang out. But I never got caught up in all that. I guess that's why I've done so well.''

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Thousand Oaks High quarterback Ben Olson, here working with clay in class, understood long ago that good grades would help him land a football scholarship.

Joe Binoya/Special to the Daily News

(2) One-time Granada Hills High receiver Leon Pinky had to play at COC out of high school because of poor grades.

File photo
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Feb 6, 2002
Words:1603
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