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As the weather began to heat up, so, too, did the recruiting process for Norwich Free Academy basketball player Saona Chapman



Photo of Saona and above by Rory Glaeseman


They Said It:

"The questions that (coaches) ask are key. 'Why aren't you committing? What's holding you back?' Those questions are pressure. You can't tell them what you don't like about their school because if you end up going there, they're going to hold that against you."
Saona Chapman

"I go through a book and compile a list. I literally watch thousands of girls play. There are a variety of people trying to do this, but they're bogus. I shouldn't say bogus, but nobody sees as many players as I do. I'm not perfect, but I'm always close."
Mike Flynn Rates the top 100 girls basketball seniors for his Blue Star Index


  Saona-sational  

* Scored 22 points and was named MVP of 1999 Class LL final, a 64-59 win over Norwalk.

* Last season averaged 16 points a game and was named MVP of the ECC tournament.

* All-state selection in 1999-00.

* Two-time Bulletin all-area choice.

"Now, (camps) are so important. All we did was play AAU, basically. I went to a couple top 100 camps, WBCA or whatever. It's real important now to get to those Nike camps and play against other All-Americans to get your name out."
Marci Glenney former NFA and UConn guard who currently plays at Clemson

"I talked to Marci (Glenney) a lot about the whole process. But she didn't go through the whole thing. She always knew she wanted to go to UConn. What I learned from her was to make sure you do the research. Just make sure it's the right decision. We talked about the schools and what she thought of the programs. I don't know how much it helped, but it was nice to talk to someone who's been through it."
Chapman

"(Saona) had wonderful offers in the summer She wanted to be very certain because, in her eyes, it's one of the first major decisions in her entire life. It's tremendously important for her to find the right fit and she didn't want to be pressured. She wanted to come to it under her own terms. And it took her to the last day to do that. Some players decide right away, but she really likes to know every last detail."
Betsy Yonkman - Rutgers assistant coach

"We would go on campus visits with the whole team and most of them would kind of look at their shoes the entire way around the campus. Saona actually could've been a tour guide. She always asked questions to the coaches and she always fully participated in the whole thing, even if it was a school she wasn't particularly interested in. She's really remarkable that way.
Art Knapp - Chapman's AAU coach

"You get recruited by a lot of good schools and they all paint a pretty good picture that their school is the best place for you. You go to these places and come home thinking this is the place, until the next place you go and they tell you their place is even better"
Bill Scarlata - NFA girls basketball coach

"The way that we recruit as a staff we recruit probably about 75 percent of the time through the player and the family. But we're not stupid by any means. If the player is more influenced by the high school coach or the AAU coach, then we would spend a sufficient amount of time with those people that have the direct influence. With Saona, probably 90 percent of the contact was with Saona and her mom and dad."
Yonkman




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By CHRIS CASAVANT
Norwich Bulletin

Editors note: The recruiting process can be very difficult and time-consuming for young student-athletes. Bulletin reporter Chris Casavant had a firsthand look at much of the trials and tribulations encountered by Norwich Free Academy senior basketball star Saona Chapman. This is part two of a three-part series.



Saona Chapman spent the last weekend of March in Philadelphia, a women's basketball hotbed, for two invitational shootouts. She had mailed her spring and summer itinerary to about a dozen college coaches, and with the CIAC Class LL title game - which NFA lost 47-45 to Norwalk on a buzzer-beater -- not too far behind her, the recruiting process was getting serious. The first event took place at Villanova, where 60 players were assigned to teams and they played three games each. This shootout, which also was attended by New London's Jessica Allen, was run by Bill McDonough and his company, Blue Chip. The event was an opportunity for college coaches to scout the players McDonough and his sources - scouting reports and high school and AAU coaches - considered to be the top players on the East Coast. McDonough doesn't charge the players an entry fee and offers perks - like guest speaker Becky Hammon of the WNBA's New York Liberty - but travel is up to the player's family. Most potential Division I players compete in some of these events, which are held throughout the country. "Why do the college coaches love it?" McDonough said. "They can actually compare the 60 and see who are the best. For the kids, it's like a gunfight at the OK Corral. They just want to get in there and see how they do against somebody else. To compete against the best and to be seen by the schools."
   A few years ago it was less important for players to showcase themselves at the shootouts since most of the recruiting was done through AAU and high school. "All the shootouts are helpful," said Hartford coach and former UConn star Jen Rizzotti, who traveled to Philadelphia that weekend. "You get to see how the kids interact with people they haven't played with before. There were not as many when I was being recruited. They've gotten a lot bigger, but basketball has gotten a lot bigger."
   The next day, Chapman was at the Tri-State Sports Complex in nearby Aston, Pa., for an event run by Mike Flynn of the Blue Star index a publication that ranks the top players in the nation. The shootout included 100 players - NFA's Krista Rappahahn and Montville's Meghan Markovitz among them - who played in 28-minute games throughout the day. During an introductory speech, Flynn told all the players they will certainly play Division I ball. "I literally watch thousands of girls play" said Flynn, who ranks the top 100 seniors every fall. Chapman came in at No.52. "She is a sleeper player," he said. "I don't think people have fully appreciated her talent. She has an unselfish game, and if you don't watch her, you might miss her." Chapman played well that weekend, but shootouts are not ideal forums for unselfish point guards to show their talents. Rutgers assistant Betsy Yonkman said point guards are watched more closely with their AAU teams because their leadership is important. The point guards are not expected to lead teams of girls with whom they have never played and who each has an agenda of her own, she said. It can also be unnerving, Chapman said, to have dozens of college coaches charting your every move. "It is (pressure), but for the most part - and I think I speak for most of the girls - having that nervous pressure makes you perform better," she said. "Of course you'll be nervous. People say 'Don't even think about the coaches,' but they're there and you know they're picking apart every single thing you do."

First Visit

A player can make unlimited unofficial visits, which are funded by her family and which can take place at any time. Official visits -- each player is allowed five -- are paid for by the school and start at the beginning of her senior year. Chapman's first unofficial school visit was the first weekend of April. She was in Virginia with her AAU team, the Starters, who won three of four games. She and her father, Clark, toured the scenic University of Richmond campus and met coach Bob Foley, the former Providence coach. Foley promoted his up-tempo style of basketball, which caught Chapman's attention. "I like to ask questions, even though I'm not too familiar with it all yet," she said after the visit. "I ask what the majors are, what fields of study I can go into. I don't really know what I want to do yet, but just to get an idea. And I want to know the style of play, and what the structure of their team is. I found out (Richmond) has a sophomore point guard, so she'll be a senior when I'm a freshman if go there. And I want to see who they're looking to recruit my year." The Spiders play in the weak Colonial Athletic Conference and the team won just 12 games last year, but the visit gave Chapman a basis for comparison. She also agreed with Foley that if Richmond had a scholarship available and she had no other enticing options, she could go there, even though he would not recruit her heavily because his chances of landing her were so slim. While she and UConn had not ruled each other out, that was the only school nearby that she would consider. Asked in early April if it was important to be close to home, she said: "No. I'll go to Hawaii if I have to."
   The Monday after Chapman and her father returned home, April 10, is a day she won't soon forget. She saw a letter in a stack of envelopes, and as she started to open it, Clark, who knew what it was, blurted out, "Don't rip it!" It would be a keepsake. "I opened it and said, 'OK it's the Nike camp,' "she said. "But then as I'm reading it I'm realizing that this is the All-America camp that all the best players go to. I skimmed over it really quick and as I'm reading, it said, 'You're one of 80,' and I'm like, 'Whoa!' I was pretty excited. Well really, really excited." The camp takes place each July in Indianapolis, and it's the most prestigious of its kind. Only the top 80 high school players, according to Nike's panel, are invited, and nearly every Division I college coach attends. In the envelope was a list of players invited to the camp in years past, such players as UConn stars Swin Cash, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. But none of the players were from Connecticut. In the camp's brief history, Chapman was the first from the Nutmeg State to attend.

Saona Chapman pores over more than three years' worth of recruiting letters at her home in Voluntown. photo:Rory GlaesemanFirst Offer

For Chapman, July was filled with basketball, travel, great opportunities and very little rest. Along with Nike Camp from July 15-18, she played tournaments earlier and later in Tennessee and Washington, D.C. In May, the Starters beat the Storm to win the Connecticut AAU state championship, advancing the team to the nationals in Chattanooga, Tenn, scheduled for the beginning of July. Chapman had 14 points and five assists in a 55-51 victory over New London star Jessica Allen's Storm club. At the beginning of June, Chapman and her father headed south for a series of unofficial visits to Georgetown, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina State, a top-25 program that reached the Final Four in 1998. On the visit, N.C. State coach Kay Yow offered Chapman a scholarship.
   "That was kind of the first big deal," Chapman said on June 14. "I never thought that anyone would do that (yet). They saw me play in Philadelphia. They were my favorite, but probably because they were so enthusiastic to have me. "Virginia Tech was my Dad's favorite. Their coach, Bonnie Henrickson she's really good, but I don't know, I didn't seem to really click with her. But you never know. It was a good experience."
   Chapman had also received news involving another prospective school: UConn freshman Morgan Valley's younger sister, a point guard named Ashley, had given her oral commitment to the Huskies. Since UConn was already well stocked with point guards, Chapman knew it would no longer pursue her. "In a way I'm relieved because I don't have to deal with that pressure," Chapman said of playing for her state university. "I always would have loved to go to UConn. I don't know if I would have, but that always was in the back of my mind, so now I don't have to worry about that anymore. So in a way I think it's really good."
   As it turned out, the N.C. State scholarship offer was countered in a hurry. On June 15 Chapman flew to South Bend, Indiana., for a three-day basketball camp at Notre Dame. On the first day she sprained her ankle and although she continued to play, it was swollen the next day Chapman spent the day with coach Muffett McGraw and her family and they hit it off. The following day Chapman played well and McGraw made the offer. "The minute coaches meet her, they fall in love with her," said Art Knapp, her AAU coach. "You couldn't spend five minutes with Saona and not like her." The Starters practiced hard toward the end of June for the upcoming nationals, Chapman still operating with a bad ankle. As her family prepared to drive to Tennessee, Chapman knew that UConn was out and N.C. State and Notre Dame - two excellent programs - were her top choices.

July I: Nationals

Accompanying Chapman to Chattanooga, Tenn., for the nationals were her parents, Clark and Tami, her brother Reynolds and Clark's sister, Shelley Carpenter. They drove in two cars so that from Chattanooga, Chapman, her father and her aunt would cruise to Indianapolis for the Nike Camp while her mother and her brother would head home. Chapman said she thought she played "OK" in the seven games in Chattanooga. Then she pointed to the final game, the second for the Starters that day, and said she didn't play well because of fatigue. Others in attendance had a different perspective.
   "We were looking for a guard that can distribute the ball, that can see the floor well, that can take the shots on location, that can get down and play some good defense and make good decisions," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "And she did all those things. We were really impressed with her" Knapp said Chapman's highlight game came in a loss to a Texas team with two talented guards. Chapman played 38 of 40 minutes against the trapping pressure defense and she finished with double figures in points and assists and without a single turnover.
   "We ran nothing in the way of a press break with help for Saona," Knapp said. "Basically, our press break was to get her the ball. They just made her life miserable. We were down 20, we cut it to two, and we ended up losing a tough game. But I said to Clark at the time -- there were a ton of colleges there -- and I said, 'I can't imagine a point guard playing a better basketball game than your daughter just played.'"
   There was more.
   "The game that got us into the Sweet 16 we played a team from Tennessee, and that game Saona really scored," Knapp said. "She scored about 25 points and we only scored about 40 as a team. Late in the game, we needed a hoop to put it away and we called a clear-out for her and let her go. She does whatever it takes. The girl hates to lose." Coaches would line up to speak with Knapp after games since NCAA rules prohibit access to the players during that time. He said an average of 40 coaches were at their games, primarily because of Chapman, and they asked Knapp what she was looking for in a school. "And of course," he said, "I had no clue. I don't know that there was ever a school she didn't like." What he did know was that Chapman was especially interested in N.C. State and vice versa. Coach Kay Yow and an assistant coach sat near center court for every game.

July II: Nike Camp

Chapman, her father and her aunt drove to Indianapolis for the Nike camp, Chapman's second consecutive event with the best high school players in America. The camp was held at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). By this time, Virginia Tech had entered the mix for Chapman's services. Its coach, Bonnie Henrickson, had seen a highlight film and watched Chapman in Chattanooga. The initial meeting where Chapman said they didn't click -- Henrickson hadn't yet seen her play at that time -- was in the past, and Henrickson told Chapman she was her top point guard. Just about every coach was at IUPUI for the camp, including Yow of N.C. State and McGraw of Notre Dame. While Chapman said she was a bit tired from the constant travel and basketball, she was excited about this challenge. The four-day camp featured leadership seminars, lectures about the NCAA and college prep training. And there were games.
   Many of the participants did whatever they could to be noticed -- fancy dribbling, long-range shooting, difficult passes. Meanwhile, Chapman was playing the off-guard for much of the time because there were three point guards on her team. It's hard to get noticed that way, but the coaches know what to look for. "Saona was playing the two (shooting) guard at Nike Camp, so she was out of sorts," said Yonkman, the Rutgers assistant. "There were too many point guards on her team, and being the giver that Saona is, she volunteered to play the two, even though she knew she probably wouldn't show as well as she would have liked. Coaches can see the ball-hoggers and all sorts of things. Saona needs to get the (other players) involved." Through it all, Clark Chapman and his sister watched intently from the bleachers. He said he was concerned that his daughter would have to commit to a school early, while the scholarship offers were still there, even though the ideal situation would be to make some official visits during the school year. When the camp was over, the trio visited Notre Dame before meeting up with the Starters in Philadelphia. From there, it was on to D.C. for another AAU tournament.

The many stops of a recruit--graphic by Mark BruntonSummer Winds Down

Chapman re-sprained her ankle in D.C. and sat out the last two days of the tournament. It also altered plans to visit George Washington, which wouldn't become a serious contender until much later. After D.C., Chapman was home for less than a day before she boarded a plane for Raleigh, N.C., where she played in a camp at N.C. State at the end of July She said she didn't know at the time, but Yow and her staff believed they'd get a commitment from their prize recruit. Chapman had always felt comfortable with Yow, but there were aspects of the program that just didn't wow her She said she couldn't quite pinpoint it, but she just didn't have "that feeling." Yow told Chapman that if she didn't commit, her scholarship would be offered to another point guard. Chapman wasn't ready to make her decision, so Yow made a pitch to Kendra Bell, an in-state recruit. Bell jumped at the offer and Chapman's list suddenly became shorter. "I wasn't that upset," she said. "I thought I would have been, but I feel like everything happens for a reason."
   Notre Dame was the next school she crossed off her list. Its coach, Muffett McGraw, was recruiting Loree Moore, the top-rated point guard in the country. Chapman could have committed there, but if Moore followed suit, it could have limited Chapman's playing time. She hoped Moore would make a decision soon, but Moore waited before eventually committing to Tennessee during the school year. McGraw told Chapman she was looking for her to be gung-ho about playing for the Fighting Irish, and McGraw could sense Chapman's doubts. So the coach eased up on her pursuit of the NFA star.
   "The past two weeks have been so stressful," Chapman said with a voice hoarse from working at a youth basketball camp. "Everyone talks about this feeling you're supposed to get. I didn't want to commit because I haven't felt it." The recruiting process started again at this point. School was about to begin, and Virginia Tech was her top choice, she said, and she seemed almost unfazed by losing offers to two top-25 programs.
   "I think she always knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was a very marketable commodity," Knapp said. 'And when the big boys like N.C. State and Notre Dame said if you don't decide by such and such you're going to lose the scholarship, she was able to not blink. She knew that if she wasn't ready, she wasn't ready, and there would be others. I give her a lot of credit for that, and that's a testament to her talent."




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