Tyler Zeller

From the small town of Washington, Indiana, Tyler Zeller played in the McDonald's All American Game; University of North Carolina recruited him to join the Tarheels this year.
Photo: maxpreps.com

Tyler Zeller is a 6-foot-11, 215 pound center from Washington, IN, population 11,380. Rivals.com, a highly respected online recruiting service, ranks Tyler the 33rd best men's high school basketball prospect in the country. Tyler has committed to play basketball at the University of North Carolina.

Darius Miller is a 6-foot-6, 215 pound forward from Maysville, KY, population 8,993. Rivals ranks Darius the 43rd best basketball prospect in the US. Darius will play at the University of Kentucky for second-year head coach Billy Gillispie — himself from Graford, TX, population 578.

Frankie Sullivan is a 6-foot-1, 185 pound guard from Uniontown, AL, population 1,636. Frankie is the 105th best basketball prospect in the country, according to Rivals, and will play for the Tigers of Auburn University this year.

These young men have two things in common—they are all top nationally ranked basketball recruits and they all hail from smaller communities, as do growing numbers of recruits in major college sports.

Five years ago in 2003, 16 of the top 150 college basketball prospects according to Rivals.com were from counties that could be considered rural (according to the Index of Relative Rurality). In 2008, that number has nearly doubled: 30 of the top 150 Rivals.com basketball prospects are from smaller towns. This trend seems to suggest that more and more recruiters are finding quality players away from the city.

“For the longest time, college coaches thought of small towns as places with less talented, undersized athletes, where even the best players were playing against sub par competition, and coaches didn't know how they would do against the top competition,” Pikeville (KY) College assistant men's basketball coach Matthew Taylor says. “Now that's changing. You have better coaching in rural schools, and there are a lot of coaches, many of them originally from small towns themselves, who are willing to give these kids a chance because the quality of coaching is up, and as a result the quality of play and competition is up, too.”

Taylor also acknowledges that as major NCAA Division One colleges recruit more rural kids, smaller NAIA member schools — like Pikeville College, where he coaches — are losing prime recruits themselves.

Darius miller

Darius Miller, from Maysville, KY (pop. 8993), led Mason High School to the state championship and was a top 50 national recruit; he'll play for University of Kentucky this fall.
Photo: Courier-Journal.com

“The big schools are definitely tapping into our pipeline,” Taylor says. “Our recruiting base used to be made up mostly by kids from the surrounding communities. Now our recruiting base is mostly former NCAA Division One guys who are better suited to play at our level, and transfer down, with some rural kids still in the mix.”

With the growing urbanization of America over the past 40 years, college coaches have concentrated on finding new players among urban and suburban high schools, reasoning that the best talent in the country is comparable to average talent found in the city.

In some cases, they have been wrong.

Former University of Kentucky and Cleveland Browns Quarterback Tim Couch was the top high school quarterback in the country his senior year at Leslie County (KY) High School. He would go on to be a Heisman Trophy finalist at the University of Kentucky. Despite having a disappointing pro career by some standards, Couch was still ranked number six on ESPN's list of the top 10 high school athletes of all-time. Couch is from Hyden, KY, population 204.

NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley is from Leeds, Alabama, population 10,455. “Sir Charles,” as Barkley would later become affectionately known in the NBA, excelled in basketball at Leeds High School as an undersized (so often the knock on rural athletes) and overweight power forward. As one Auburn University recruiter famously said of Barkley, “I went down to Leeds, and saw this fat guy that could play like the wind.” That fat guy would go on to be a standout at Auburn and enjoy a stellar pro career. Barkley was chosen NBA MVP in 1993, while with the Phoenix Suns, and was named among the NBA's 50 greatest of all time.

Former Boston Celtic hero Larry Bird is rural America's poster boy athlete. Hailing from French Lick, IN, population 1,941, “The Hick from French Lick” starred at Spring Valley High School, where he still holds the all-time scoring record. Bird went on to win three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics in the '80s and was named MVP three times also. He, too, was chosen for the NBA's 50 greatest of all time team.

In the eyes of many coaches, these guys have been exceptions to the rule. However, there seems to be more and more parity in recruiting between rural and urban athletes.

Armintie Price

Armintie Price, from Myrtle, MS (pop, 407), graduated from Myrtle High School and went on to lead the University of Mississippi team. She's now playing for the Chicago Sky. The WNBA named her Rookie of the Year in 2007
Photo: University of Mississippi

“A lot of bigger, Division One schools are contacting our staff on a much more regular basis inquiring about our girls,” Rowan County (KY) Senior High School girl's basketball assistant coach Chris Tolliver says. “Our school achieved some success by making the state tournament this past year, and now we're scheduling better competition in bigger cities, which in turn is going to result in more exposure and attention from schools for our players.”

Tolliver cites the priority rural schools are beginning to put on hiring good coaches as another reason rural athletes are faring better with college recruiters.

“When I was coming up,” Tolliver says, “schools weren't concerned with finding the best coach. Instead they would hire so-and-so's dad, who has another day job but used to play ball, and that was their qualification. Now, they're hiring people whose day job is coaching, or at least somebody with a coaching background, who may have minored in coaching at college.”

Though the quality of coaching and competition may have improved in non-metro schools, rural athletes face other hardships, problems not necessarily of their own making.

In these times of rising gas prices and a flailing economy, rural athletes — many of them from lower-income homes and poorer schools than their urban counterparts — contend with more formidable financial obstacles.

“Money is a big thing,” Letcher County Central (KY) High School football standout Sidney Fields says. “The economy is bad, and it's harder for families around here and other rural areas to come up with an extra $500 to send their kid to a camp that could help them get recruited to college. And with us not getting the same media coverage that Lexington or Louisville kids get, we have to raise money to go to camps and work harder when we get there to get our names out.”

Socioeconomic pitfalls aside, Sidney does not believe there is a huge gap in talent between rural and urban kids.

He says that at a recent University of Kentucky football camp, he posted the fastest 40 yard dash time for his position (linebacker), running it in 4.92 seconds, and also impressed the UK staff with his weight lifting ability–bench pressing and squatting more than any other camper at his position. Most of these campers, according to Sidney, were from big cities: Lexington, Louisville, Indianapolis, Memphis, Chicago, Nashville, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.

“I believe we have to work harder coming from small towns,” Sidney says. “But if you're good enough, and you have to be good enough no matter where you're from, you're going to go places.”

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