To call the current college recruiting and signing process a circus would be an understatement. Television stations fight for broadcasting rights for signing ceremonies, high school gyms transform into small Hollywood studios and high school student-athletes morph into B-list celebrities throughout the period.
While many schools jockey for position to land the commitment of blue-chip athletes, coaches at a small number of them are limited on who they can pursue due to stringent academic admissions requirements. Thanks to an influx of talented local athletes, Stanford University remains extremely competitive athletically without compromising its academic integrity.
Stanford’s combination of outstanding athletics and top-notch academics have made it a popular destination for some of Fairfax County’s most well-rounded high school athletes. Sean McGorty, Sophie Chase, Janet Hu, Whitney Burks and Andi Sullivan have all pledged commitments to the Cardinal in the past year.
“As I’ve grown up, I’ve always strived to do well in school, which is something I really take pride in maintaining,” said former Chantilly High cross-country star Sean McGorty, now a freshman at Stanford. “Stanford’s reputation speaks for itself. You’re always reading about Stanford professors in articles and it’s very appealing to athletes who are focused on academics as well.”
One trip to Palo Alto, Calif., was all McGorty needed to make his decision.
“The campus is beautiful,” said McGorty, who chose Stanford over Princeton, Georgetown, Villanova and a host of other schools. “It’s one of the nicest [campuses] I’ve ever seen. The buildings are beautiful and well maintained, and the weather, especially for cross-country where you’re running outside, is perfect.”
While McGorty holds the title as the region’s top cross-country male athlete, Lake Braddock’s Sophie Chase is his equally impressive counterpart. Like McGorty, Chase also broke regional and state cross-county records, and like McGorty, she will also attend Stanford this fall as a student-athlete.
Michael Mangan has coached Lake Braddock’s cross-country team for 13 seasons. Over the years he has seen a number of his athletes ursued by various universities. Mangan said Stanford’s recruiting process differs from those at other schools mainly because of the rigid academic requirements that must be met by all applicants.
“There is uniqueness in that the student has to qualify academically,” he said. “[To Stanford] it doesn’t matter how good or impressive of a distance runner you are if you’re unable to qualify academically. The coaches will not be able to do much for you in terms of admissions. Sophie was an outstanding student, so thankfully, none of that was an issue.”
Janet Hu is the nation’s second-ranked high school swimmer and will be a rising senior at Oakton this fall. The 2012 Fairfax Times Female Athlete of the Year shattered numerous national age-group records and has competed at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. A swimming prodigy at a young age, Hu said she had a college decision in mind years ago.
“Stanford has always been my dream school and I feel that Stanford has both great academic and athletic programs,” she said.
The aspiring human biology and pre-med major named Stanford’s sterling academic reputation as one of the determining factors that led to her verbal commitment earlier this summer.
“It definitely played a role in my decision to [verbally] commit to Stanford. However, it was the combination of the great academics, athletics, [the] campus and weather that helped me make my decision.”
Stanford’s recruiting surge into Northern Virginia is impressive in a couple of ways: its reach and influence is strong enough to span 2,800 miles, and its coaches have encroached on a territory that has long been controlled by strong academic programs such as Georgetown, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Maryland among others.
While McGorty, Hu and Chase are beginning their Stanford journey, a few former Northern Virginia natives are already fully entrenched in theirs.
Alex Carter and Kevin Hogan were members of the 2013 Rose Bowl Champion Stanford Cardinal football team, and both played instrumental roles in leading the Cardinal to the 2012 Pac-12 football championship. Hogan, a McLean native, served as the team’s starting quarterback. Carter, a Briar Woods High School product and cornerback, was the team’s lone true freshman starter.
The two will be joined by a familiar face this year. Former Stone Bridge quarterback Ryan Burns recently reported to Palo Alto for fall camp. Stone Bridge head coach Mickey Thompson has sent his fair share of players to powerhouse football programs, but Stanford’s recruitment process stood out in unique ways.
“Their level of thoroughness really impressed me,” he said. “With them, nothing is guaranteed unless you take care of your grades. The one thing that really stood out to me with their recruitment of Ryan was that there was no compromising. If Stanford offers a scholarship, it’s contingent on the student maintaining their grades. If that fails to happen, the offer is going to be pulled.”
By most accounts, Stanford’s academic rigors haven’t negatively impacted performance on the field. The school’s athletic programs boast a combined total of 117 national championships and an NCAA record 448 individual sport national titles.
Several factors can be listed when one examines the success of Stanford’s model. For one, its admissions officials place a strong emphasis on only targeting capable student-athletes who have demonstrated the ability to balance a rigorous academic course load with athletic demands. This reduces the chances of that student-athlete becoming overwhelmed once on campus.
Another factor is Stanford’s refusal to pacify its student-athletes or isolate them from the general student body. McGorty’s father Kevin, a former track athlete at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spoke about his early observations of Stanford’s approach with its athletes.
“[Sean is] not going to go in and room with another student-athlete. As a freshman he has to room with a regular student,” he said. “They don’t separate their student-athletes. They treat everyone as equals. Back when I ran at North Carolina, we had our own dining area and athletic dorms. At a lot of universities today, they’ll isolate you and keep you around members of that particular team. Stanford definitely does not do that.”
While Stanford’s stronghold on Northern Virginia is sure to subside at some point, local athletes are fully taking advantage of the school’s current presence. Several have already offered verbal commitments.
South County standouts Whitney Burks (softball) and Andi Sullivan (soccer) are two who fall under that category. Burks and Sullivan are widely considered to be among the nation’s best in their respective sports and have made their desires to attend Stanford well known. Both have verbally committed and anxiously await final admission.
Part of Stanford’s attraction to the area and its athletes perhaps lies with the quality of education provided by the Fairfax County Public Schools system. A large number of the district’s schools are permanent fixtures on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of the nation’s top high schools, and its students are well equipped to handle the rigorous academic demands of Stanford.
“Even though Stanford has such a great academic reputation, the schools in Fairfax County and Northern Virginia have always done very well in preparing kids for college by giving them challenging courses,” McGorty said. “While Stanford’s academic requirements might be a barrier for some, I think Fairfax County [Public Schools system] is one of the best in preparing students for that challenge.”