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Prep seniors try to balance recruiting with other obligations

Updated October 10, 2019 - 7:59 pm

Darnell Washington has made full use of an unusual schedule for Desert Pines this season.

The Jaguars had two byes wrapped around a game in late September, so the highly recruited tight end hit the road. Washington took a trip to Georgia when it hosted Notre Dame on Sept. 21 and went to Florida for its game against Auburn on Oct. 4.

As the No. 8 overall national prospect in the ESPN 300, the 6-foot-8-inch, 265-pounder has seen all sides of recruiting — from the lavish praise from coaches, to the dark side of reading negative social media comments. It has made for a stressful process, Washington said, but on those two Saturdays, he just enjoyed football and the festive atmosphere.

“That’s one thing I really do enjoy is visiting,” Washington said. “I took two of my official visits to Georgia and Florida. (ESPN) College GameDay was there, and I got to see how the tailgating is. It’s different from the West Coast to East or the South. They just take football more seriously (in the South).”

Desert Pines coach Tico Rodriguez has been at the school since 2001 and said more than 20 Jaguars have gone to Division I programs in the past six years. But Washington’s recruiting has been something entirely different from the others, as illustrated by the fact Alabama coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart were in the stands for one of Washington’s basketball games last season.

Handling the attention can be difficult, and it doesn’t stop once the season begins. The visits might not be as frequent, but recruiting still can consume plenty of an athlete’s time and take away from his responsibilities at school and on the field if he doesn’t stay focused.

“In the offseason, I give the players a lot of leeway with recruiting and taking trips,” Rodriguez said. “In season, I want to focus more on the season, and college coaches are focused more on their seasons. Recruiting really slows down during the season because they’re trying to win games. They might come once in a while when they have a bye week.”

Dealing with nonbinding commitments

While Washington said he has narrowed his choice down to “about five teams” and will announce his decision at the Under Armour All-American game Jan. 2 in Orlando, Florida, Bishop Gorman quarterback Micah Bowens and wide receiver Rome Odunze quieted their recruiting before the season started.

Bowens committed to Penn State in February and Odunze to Washington in August. Gorman linebacker Dahlin Mesake’s process went into the season, but he chose Utah State in September.

Those oral commitments are nonbinding, and other schools still have the opportunity to recruit committed players. Bowens said he’s heard some from other schools but not much. He has made it clear that he’s sticking with Penn State and “coaches have respected that.”

“When I started getting offers, I knew I definitely wanted to commit before my senior year so I’d be able to focus on my team, my teammates and just making sure we get done what we have to do,” Bowens said.

Other Las Vegas Valley standouts who made their commitments before the season include Arbor View defensive tackle Tai Tuinei and Chaparral linebacker Iopu Tauilili, both of whom chose UNLV, and Faith Lutheran linebacker Hunter Kaupiko, who picked Fresno State.

While Rodriguez and Gorman coach Kenny Sanchez said they generally stay out of a player’s recruiting process, Sanchez said he will act as a gatekeeper for a committed athlete if another school comes knocking.

“Coaches will still try to see the kids even if they’re committed somewhere else,” Sanchez said. “That’s fine, it’s part of the recruiting process, but what I want to do is take some of the burden off the kid. I’ll talk to him and say, ‘OK, you’re committed. Does that mean you don’t want to talk to anybody else?’ If he says he doesn’t, I’ll tell the coach that. If they aren’t committed, they’re obligated to tell the coach where they are with things.”

Gorman offensive lineman Hayden Engel hasn’t had to deal with the circus created by four-star prospects such as Bowens and Odunze or the five-star Washington, but he still must make a decision.

Engel said he primarily has been in contact with Northern Arizona, New Mexico and Northern Colorado recently. He said the key to not letting the process overwhelm him is to “push it off to the side and go have fun sometimes.” Even with the stress that recruiting can cause, Engel acknowledges it’s a privilege to be in this situation.

“It’s exciting because people want you to come to their school,” Engel said. “They show the love with the letters, the phone calls, the texts, the good-luck texts. It makes a decision hard because they all want me there, and they’re all good places to go.”

Gorman running back Ikaika Ragsdale and Desert Pines defensive lineman Jonathan Pickett are the valley’s top two senior prospects after Washington who remain undecided.

Learning experience for underclassmen

This year’s seniors are nearing the end of their recruiting cycle, and they’ll be off to college next fall. That will leave a new group of seniors facing the same decision, the same excitement and the same stress.

Desert Pines defensive tackle Fatafehi Vailea is one of those juniors starting the process. He has an offer from North Carolina-Charlotte and said that “relieved a big weight off my shoulders to know I’ll be able to go to school for free.” He’s also receiving interest from some Pac-12 schools.

Vailea has drawn confidence in how to handle recruiting from watching some of his teammates.

“Seeing my teammates succeed makes me want to strive for more greatness,” he said. “I build off my teammates like Darnell Washington, (offensive lineman) Tia Savea and (wide receiver) Michael Jackson. I just continue to work hard because they’re setting an example for me.”

National Signing Day is Feb. 5, with Early Signing Period from Dec. 18 to 20.

More preps: Follow at reviewjournal.com/nevadapreps and @NevadaPreps on Twitter.

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2936. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.

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