Halfway through the club season two years ago, Trinity Corney noticed teammates on a Norco Volleyball under-15 team and opponents were getting bigger and stronger. The games were becoming far more competitive.
Girls weren’t playing volleyball for fun anymore. They were all trying to attract the attention of college coaches, hoping to secure an athletic scholarship to help cover some, or all, of the rising costs of a college education.
It wasn’t so much the money, though, that motivated Corney.
She simply wanted to keep playing the game she loved through high school and maybe even at the college level. After all, her mother, Jodi (Niswender) Brinkley, had played at Penn State, where her team twice went to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament and advanced to the title match in 1997.
“Before, it was an option, but I was still a little bit too young,” Trinity said.
Now, just 15 years old, she finds herself in the middle of the complex and often confusing ecosystem of college recruiting.
College coaches could watch her play, evaluate her talent and talk to her high school and club coaches. But they were forbidden by the NCAA and other bodies governing college sports from speaking to her.
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Some left word with her club coach that they were interested. Some followed up with postcards and letters sent to her home. Others emailed Norco Volleyball club director Cathy Mahaffey and Trinity’s coaches with invitations to elite camps where they could get a closer look.
To get the attention of many of the colleges Trinity wanted to take a closer look at, she had to make the initial contact.
So with the help of her mother and a website designer who works with several Norco Volleyball families, she set up her own website, complete with biographical, academic and athletic information. She posted highlight videos for coaches to watch.
Trinity sent emails with links to that website to as many as 100 of the more than 1,800 schools in the country with college volleyball programs. She maintained a spreadsheet of which schools and coaches she talked to and what each had to say. She kept track of where other prospects were committing, making sure schools she was interested in still had a spot for a 6-foot-2 middle blocker and right-side hitter.
“The process is extremely overwhelming,” Jodi said. “And when you’re looking at the map of the United States, and you think, ‘Where do I want to go to school?’ I think you have to have some kind of connection to narrow your search.”
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Jodi was familiar with the dozens of recruiting services available to families like hers. But she felt it was better for her daughter to rely upon the resources available through her club director and coaches, high school coach and Jodi’s connections. Trinity had been playing volleyball in the Norco program since she was 10, and her coach at Fort Collins High School, Jared Rudiger, talks to college coaches just about daily as a national director of volleyball for Triple Crown Sports, which puts on some of the largest showcase events in the country.
Trinity’s under-17 Norco Black team is one of 578 high-level club teams scheduled to participate in the Triple Crown NIT, the nation’s largest showcase event, Feb. 16-18 in Kansas City. Rudiger, who runs the tournament, said teams will play matches on 69 courts at one location and seven courts at a nearby facility. More than 550 coaches, representing 245 NCAA Division I schools and 82 schools at the Division II, NAIA and junior college level had registered to attend the event as of Tuesday, Rudiger said.
Not all will see Trinity play. But hundreds of coaches will, just as they did at last year’s Triple Crown NIT, the Junior Olympic national championships and a handful of other club tournaments.
Some already knew who Trinity was, thanks to those emails she had sent out.
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College coaches start building their recruiting lists on what they see from 13- to 16-year-olds on the club circuit, Rudiger said. Some fill their recruiting classes with early commitments from players who are just starting high school despite NCAA rule changes designed to delay those scholarship offers and commitments until the athletes are older, Colorado State University coach Tom Hilbert said.
“The rules are being designed to say that we cannot start recruiting a kid until they’re in high school, and if every coach would do that, it would be great,” Hilbert said. “But we all know that’s not going to happen. … You go through the entire Big Ten right now, and of those 14 teams, at least 10 of them are done recruiting through the class of 2021. It’s crazy.”
Trinity’s class was the first in which college coaches were restricted from contacting prospects until Sept. 1 of their junior year of high school, Jodi said. So she and her family had to pare down her list of options despite limited communication with the colleges themselves.
Rudiger, with his extensive contacts, was a huge help, she said, as were Mahaffey, Norco coach Scott Swanson and former CSU All-American Angela Knopf. They each had an extensive network of contacts they tapped into in an effort to help Trinity find the right fit.
“You have to be pretty diligent and consistent on using your resources,” Jodi said.
Although Jodi had been through college recruitment herself 25 years earlier, she wanted to make sure Trinity was the one making every important decision along the way.
“It’s her decision, it’s her life, it’s her future,” said Jodi, a district manager for The Buckle clothing stores. “… I think because I experienced it personally, I knew how much commitment it takes and, yes, she’s got to make that decision. She’s got to be the one who is happy with her decision.”
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The breakthrough for Trinity came last summer, while she and her Fort Collins High teammates were attending a team camp at the University of Wyoming. Rudiger had told Wyoming coach Chad Callihan and his assistants — who were also recruiting Fort Collins High libero Erika Jones — to keep an eye on Trinity.
“I said, ‘Put her on your radar, watch her during camp,’” Rudiger said. “And sure enough, there was a session where Trinity just played lights out in a practice drill.
“Sure enough, the ball got rolling from there.”
A week later, Wyoming invited her to Laramie for an official recruiting visit on Sept. 1, the first day they could host a high school junior.
“That’s when I really knew this is the place I was meant to be, because it’s far enough away from home but still close,” Trinity said. “I met all the girls, and they were absolutely amazing, super welcoming, everything like that.”
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She gave the Cowgirls a verbal commitment Sept. 6 and hasn’t wavered since. She can’t officially sign a letter of intent with Wyoming until this fall, during her senior year of high school.
“I’m so proud of her and so excited for her,” Jodi said. “And now, she gets to really just continue to grow her skill set to play at Wyoming and have a great junior and great senior year of high school. It’s pretty exciting.”