Training the next-gen of college athletes amid a pandemic

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid the groundwork for what a return to high school athletics may look like Tuesday, more information will be released later this month. 

In the meantime, student-athletes are losing time and opportunity. Not only with lost practice time but also exposure. 

Marcus Lancaster, CEO of UTS Sports at 8th Day Gym on Market Street in Grand Rapids is working hard to make sure his athletes still have a chance to compete and be seen by college recruiters.

“For most of these student athletes it is really doing them a disservice,” Lancaster said. “Not being able to showcase their talent. This is the prime part of their high school career for being recruited.”

The goal is to find scholarships for these athletes to continue their academic and athletic careers post-high school graduation. It’s much more difficult now. 

“What we’re doing is thinking of creative ways to help these student athletes get to that next level, which is you know, playing college basketball,” Lancaster said. “We do that by promoting them and sharpening their skills. We do a lot of the skill development training. Ball handling, shooting, you know, working on creating space from our defender, a lot of defensive work, we’re really heavy into that.”

It’s a method Lancaster says is tried and true, with success stories like Angel McCaughtry who plays in the WNBA for the Las Vegas Aces and Jenn DeBoer, a standout GVSU graduate who will continue her career overseas.

“For our guys and girls this is why we are one of the premier programs not only in the state of Michigan but in the whole country,” Lancaster said. “Things have slowed down, but a couple of states are opening back up and we will continue to have an AAU season for our student athletes.”

Even if it means taking players out of Michigan to compete elsewhere. 

“We are going to the state of Indiana. The state of Wisconsin and playing in some of the other top tournaments in these other states to you know get our guys that platform,” Lancaster said. “Got to get them seen by these college coaches, get their names out here.”

Especially for 2021 graduates like Kentrell Pullian of Benton Harbor. 

“He’s a point guard. He’s being recruited by a few Division I programs and a few Division II programs. Pretty high ranked player in the state,” Lancaster said.

Due to COVID-19, Pullian will tell you he’s still underrated, not receiving the attention he feels his play deserves. He believes that would be different if he had more opportunities to compete.

“Got to compete in front of good players. We play good teams we have to compete that’s it,” Pullian said. “It’s just liked the exposure. Getting us out there. Coaches need to see the grind in us. The work ethic.”

Under current Michigan High School Athletic Association safety guidelines, the grind has been ground to a near halt. 

“Common equipment, such as the ball, must be cleaned as permitted during a practice or workout,” The MHSAA said in a statement. “If outdoors, individuals must practice physical distancing. If indoors, drills are allowed that keep all players physically distant; there should be no physical contact or close contact of players in groups of 50 or fewer.”

As you can imagine, these guidelines are difficult when dribbling and dunking for your athletic future. 

“As the director of the program, I’m concerned,” Lancaster said. “You know, we want to try to do what we can to take whatever necessary precautions that we need to take.”

Sanitizing the ball periodically, making space between players while working out and trying to limit as much contact as possible are all included in some of Lancaster’s precautions at UTS Sports. 

“That’s just been our goal. You know, following the guidelines. Following everything that we supposed to do to obviously create a solid environment for our student athletes and parents as well,” Lancaster said. “This is hurting their stock so, hopefully, you know some things can change. I’m praying for all student athletes.”