Skill, hard work, Twitter? Road to competing in college was long for 7 Steamboat high school athletes
May 16, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Seven seniors at Steamboat Springs High School gathered Wednesday in Kelly Meek Gymnasium at the school for one of the first in a series of ceremonies that will define much of the next month of their lives.
Some were actually signing the official paperwork that would extend their athletic careers into college. Others had to sign and send it months ago and instead scribbled on a blank piece of paper for the cameras, playing for their parents and their coaches, who crowded together to snap photos of the moment.
There were two volleyball players, Esté Wilkinson, headed to Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Micah Feeley, bound for Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.
"They're both super academic kids and have big goals for their careers," Steamboat volleyball coach Wendy Hall said. "They're really driven in that arena and because of that, the Division 3 schools fit them like a glove. It's pretty wonderful they get to play volleyball, too."
There were four Nordic skiers, Wyatt Gebhardt, going to University of Colorado; Noel Keeffe, who will ski for University of Utah; and James Colfer and Sadie Cotton, both set to compete at University of Denver. They pulled together tight for a photo Wednesday even though they'll be rivals at three of the top NCAA Division 1 ski programs next winter.
And there was one football player, Canon Reece, headed to a place he never expected when the recruiting process started, to Decorah, Iowa and Luther College.
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It was the start of something for all in the group. It was the end, as well, the end of a grueling, at times confusing recruiting process that relied on the support of parents, help from coaches and one big step into a world that proved complicated, frustrating and rewarding.
Canon Reece by his own admission didn't get serious about college football fast enough, and in turn he found himself working through drills in the dead of winter in the gymnasium at Steamboat Springs High School.
When that space wasn't available because a basketball team needed to practice, he and Sailors' quarterback Drew Bowers took to the school's hallways, Reece running route after route in whatever cramped space he could find to master the intricacies of playing wide receiver at the next level.
"You need a plant step that drops your speed by 40 percent, then you run through it with your hips," he recalled Wednesday after the signing ceremony.
Making it to college football — or to any college sport, for that matter — isn't exactly easy, as Reece discovered in the last year.
There are plenty of hurdles, but he said the state of the Sailors' football program, which won one game each in his junior and senior seasons, wasn't one of them.
A run to the playoffs would have offered some extra exposure, but there's so little exposure in Steamboat Springs no matter how good the team it requires any player hoping to impress college coaches to take some extra steps.
For the Reece family, those extra steps included signing up for an online college football recruiting service, traveling to visit with coaches and being aggressive about sending updated highlight clips to interested schools.
"It'd be different in a big city like Denver. That's where more coaches are looking," Reece said. "In Steamboat, you're isolated from that scene."
Canon did what he could to spread his word, even setting up a Twitter account. It's not the social media hangout for him and his friends. He mostly uses Snapchat for that. But it is one place he'd hoped to connect with coaches and keep them updated on his highlights and stats in the season and his workouts out of it.
Reece had other issues. He's a 5-foot-8-inch, 140-pound teenager who didn't ever truly settle into a position in high school. Some of that's a compliment to his skills. Coaches moved him around the field looking to spark the team. He led the team in both rushing and receiving yards and even threw three passes.
Still, that size? It even worried Canon.
"As senior year progressed, I decided, 'I want to keep playing. I love this sport.' But, I didn't know if I was big enough to play in college," he said.
"You do play a little bigger than that," his father, David Reece, said.
Reece said it was the size that kept him from initially going all-in on searching for a college football team, but once he started, he discovered it wasn't nearly the turn-off he'd thought it may be.
The family made a trip to Valor Christian High School for a camp with coaches from NCAA Division 3 programs.
Reece had no plans to attend school in Iowa, but a friend had looked into the Luther College coach at the camp and spoken highly of the experience.
"And," David added, "that coach's line was short."
Luther didn't offer much of what Reece had hoped to find. It didn't run the offense he wanted to play in. It wasn't in an area he'd planned on attending school.
But, it had other advantages.
"I was looking for a small school with a good writing program, then a football school also," he said. "Luther had everything I was looking for. It had the feel, 'This is home.'"
His family also quickly made a connection with the coach, Caleb Padilla, who started his career in Colorado with Rangeview High School and later Colorado School of Mines.
"I feel really comfortable with the coaching staff," Canon’s mother Leigh Reece said. "I feel like he's in good hands. I feel like there's going to be a brotherhood when he's there, and he'll be well cared for."
The college search isn't exactly torture for athletes.
Wilkinson is headed to a small school in Nebraska where she hopes to study political science and prepare for law school. She considered more than a dozen schools before making her decision.
"I loved it," she said of the process. "I liked going through everything, planning my own future."
In Nebraska, Wesleyan stood out because it's close enough to home and coaches showed her they cared.
"They said, 'I want you!,'" she said. "The coach would text me and say, 'How's your day?' I liked that."
Making it to the next level in volleyball involves plenty of time in the gym and on club teams outside of the traditional high school season, and Wilkinson and Feeley both logged those hours.
Reece didn't have that option as there's no organized club football. Instead, once he got serious about continuing, he began commuting to Denver to work with Jenkins Elite, a coaching outfit focused on quarterbacks and receivers. In particular, he worked with former-Colorado State receiver Joe Hansley, who spent some time with the Oakland Raiders.
He started in January, not long after the high school's team season ended. His focus on improving then had him running routes down the hallway next to the lockers.
"The stuff he's been teaching me is invaluable," Reece said. "To have someone from the pro level, who sees all these ins and outs of the intricacies of route running, it makes it more of an art form."
He can't help but wonder if he'd have started a year earlier. As it was, he looked at one Division 2 school, but didn't receive an offer. Could a year working with a recruiting service, a year training with a receivers specialist have made the difference and opened the doors of D2 schools? Could a lower-end D1 have even been possible?
Reece isn't worrying about that, but instead preparing to head to a school he's genuinely excited about.
His parents, meanwhile, are already back in the process, starting earlier this time with twin daughters Eden Reece and Holland Reece, sophomores who have big plans for college soccer.
“We’re doing a better job this time,” David Reece said, laughing. “Canon was the guinea pig.”