North central Florida high school student-athletes navigate a future without sports
A yellowish-green cast is wrapped around Natalie Woodard’s left hand.
The multisport athlete recently broke her finger in a basketball game. Her current record for injuries – hit by pitches in a softball game – was five. But the 17-year-old senior said her biggest regret in high school was not playing sports sooner.
“I’m growing up,” she said, sighing. “I’m not that little girl who did flips around the house…It’s so sad.”
The end of Woodard’s athletic career mirrors the stories of student-athletes throughout Florida and the nation. For high school seniors who end their athletic career at the high school level, their final season is a culmination of all the small steps and all the trials and errors that lead to one final game.
According to the 2022-23 High School Athletics Participation Survey, the National Federation of State High School Associations found that 297,389 boys and girls in Florida participated in the state’s high school-level sports. In other words, more than three Ben Hill Griffin Stadiums would be needed to house these athletes.
But getting into NCAA sports is harder than getting into an Ivy League College. Yale’s acceptance rate in 2023 was 4.5%, according to Yale’s Office of Institutional Research.
The NCAA’s 2020 study on the probability of transition from high school to college sports shows that high school girls play collegiate volleyball at a 3.9% rate.
Bronson Middle and High School is located in Levy County, between Gainesville and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Wooden telephone poles and barbed wire fencing line Route 24 leading to the school. Spanish moss dangles from the trees that stretch over the road, swaying slowly with every car that passes by.
During her time at the school, Woodard has represented the volleyball, basketball and weightlifting teams, but she said softball was her favorite sport. She started playing in her sophomore year and she said she wouldn’t forget the moments in the dugout with her teammates.
“Even though we don’t like the person outside of school, we’re sisters on the field,” she said. “We’re always there to help each other out. We’re not going to tear each other down.”
Woodard said she expects her last softball game will be emotional.
“Everything’s just hitting me,” she said. “Softball ends in May. We’ll have two weeks left of school, and then we’re gone. It’s so emotional and upsetting.”
Boys bond over basketball
Further north, Columbia High School sits on the corner of Route 441 and County Road 252. It’s in the type of town where Chevy trucks are only outnumbered by ranches and cows. It’s the type of school to have two donkeys and a handful of sheep grazing next to the auditorium.
In the gym, a basketball pounded against the beige wood as teenagers ran around the court. Sneakers squeaked. When one of the 10 players shot a three-pointer, the sidelines, composed of four resting athletes, erupted.
Steve Faulkner, the 49-year-old head coach for Columbia’s basketball team, stood on the sidelines. His deep voice echoed against the benches and nestled into the corner of the room where the violet-purple paint chipped off the wall. His occasional shout of a play call cut through the noise.
It was the only time the boys were silent.
As the group huddled together, Faulkner described his decision for a lighter practice. The day before, the boys edged out a win against Buchholz High School, one of the better teams in their district.
“Make good decisions,” he said and dismissed the teenagers.
Four seniors lingered behind after the team put away the rack of basketballs and the purple, yellow and white practice jerseys.
Kamarion Bryant, the 17-year-old point guard who doubled as a shooting guard, deadpanned a joke about being the cousin of Kobe Bryant. The rest of the boys split into different directions, laughing and shoving each other.
The quick comments and small smiles underscored the connection the four have. All of them attributed the closeness to the Lock In, an overnight team bonding exercise meant to develop trust in the team and each other.
“We stay the night here, and we all bond,” Bryant said. “No phones.”
“We’re just spending time with the team,” Bobby Wilson, the 18-year-old guard said. “Getting to know each other, building chemistry for the upcoming season.”
While Noah Wilson, the 17-year-old forward, described his dunk and Bryant described his 30-point game, Bobby Wilson said his favorite moment was each time he stepped on a court.
“It feels good,” Bobby Wilson said. “You got your adrenaline rushing. You feel like you could do anything.”
Three of the four either said they know what career path they want to follow or have a vague idea of a degree. But there’s a lingering dream of getting a call back from a scout or a university looking to add them to their roster. They stumbled and paused, trying to find an answer to what their life would be like after their final basketball game.
“Hard,” Justice Kelly, the 18-year-old center said. “I got to start paying the bills.”
A first baseman forges a new path
Under an overcast sky, Tony Myers, the 17-year-old first baseman for Santa Fe High School, lingered near the batting cage alongside three teammates. They talked quietly while a ball thumped against the plastic sheet and netting that covered the back.
Across from the four, head coach Travis Yeckring, 34, paced.
“Hey,” he said to the boy in the cage. “Let that thing release nice and free. You’re trying to decelerate. Let it feel natural.”
Eleven teenagers lined the outfield, waiting for a ball to reach them.
The boys rotated turns, and Myers stepped up to the plate. A metallic clang rang out as his bat hit the baseball. In right field, a boy in a black shirt extended his arm and caught it.
Myers readjusted his fingers on the bat and popped up the next one.
The two coaches in cranberry-red shirts sat on white plastic chairs near the dugout. They grumbled about the ball dropping onto the outfield near two other players.
Finally, Myers locked onto a pitch and hit a line drive in between second and first base.
“Atta boy!” Yeckring and the two coaches clapped their hands and nodded as the ball skidded to a stop in centerfield.
The end of baseball for Myers signals a new path. He’s lived in Alachua his entire life, but he is leaving the state next fall for Tifton, Georgia. He plans to study livestock practices at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
“I know it’s not very far from home,” Myers said. “But being away in a new town is a little scary. New teachers and a full new school. Being on your own is scary, but I’m not too worried about it. I’m excited for the next phase of life.”
He glanced at the field and the semitrucks that traveled up Route 441.
“It’s a lot to take in because you’re realizing it’s the last time you’re ever going to be on a field,” he said. “I got nothing to lose. It’s not like I’m going to be playing baseball after this. This is it, so I might as well give it all I got.”