Off the beaten path

Scottsdale CC offers opportunity to local student-athletes

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As drivers heading eastbound on Chaparral Road cross under the Arizona Loop 101 overpass, the scene begins to shift.

The sprawling growth of Scottsdale yields to the wide-stretching fields of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. But before drivers leave the metropolitan scene completely, Scottsdale Community College greets them.

SCC has stood for almost 50 years as a two-year education point for local students from across the Valley, but mainly in the Scottsdale, Fountain Hills and SRPMIC. Education, however, isn’t its only forte.

Athletics have been a mainstay at the school since its opening. Having athletics provides local student-athletes a chance to reach their goals in and out of sports in ways not possible through other means.

“The mission of our athletic department is to provide opportunity, whether that be ones in academic standing or athletic ability,” SCC Athletic Director Michael McNally said via email.

“SCC offers a first class education and we are able to complement that with first class coaching. We hope the combination of these two will enhance our student athletes’ options to continue their pursuits at a four-year institution.”

That experience, however, is much different than the traditional four-year college route, but it is one that some high school and SCC coaches say can bring significant benefits.

Furthermore, SCC has won 15 national championships over its lifetime with 10 of those coming in men sports and five coming in women sports. The most recent was the 2019 women’s volleyball team winning its first national title since 1985.

SCC athletics competes with largely local rosters. Of the 150 total SCC athletes on roster for 2019-20, 115 are from Arizona with 108 hailing from Maricopa or Pinal counties. Further breakdowns include 38 from Phoenix, 15 from Mesa, 10 from Scottsdale and five from Tempe.

Despite the availability and closeness of the school, SCC athletics still face challenges.

One of which is budgets, as football fell victim to Maricopa County Community College District’s cuts in 2018. In response, the rest of Arizona’s junior college programs shuttered, citing financial and long travel concerns. This followed Arizona Legislature’s and Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to cut state funding completely to MCCCD and Pima Community College Districts in 2015.

Another challenge is the stigma of student-athletes seeing community colleges as a lesser option, seeing any option short of a Division I school as a failure.

Still, SCC coaches make the efforts to field competitive teams and help local athletes reach their potentials. SCC men’s basketball coach Mark Bunker said that potential, at least for his team, expands past athletics.

“We’re trying to build something over here at Scottsdale that we’re going to be one of the only programs in the country that is nationally ranked on the court and nationally ranked off the court,” he said.

“If student-athletes are trying to come here because it’s going to be easy deal or ‘Oh, I’m not really into academics. I’m just going to play ball.’ Those aren’t the type of guys we’re bringing in. We’re trying to bring in guys who are more well-rounded.”

Community ties

Mr. Bunker is a local product who played high school basketball at Chaparral High School. When it came time to play collegiately, he chose Scottsdale Community College.

“Just having the opportunity and having it local, somewhere that was familiar to me, was such a huge impact on me,” he said. “It started my basketball career, it started my educational career and one thing led to another and it conceived my coaching career and gave me a good living for my family. So yeah, it’s made a huge impact on me.”

These experiences help him connect with athletes because he can tell them he knows what they are going through and he knows the environment they’re in because he’s been there at the same school.

From a competition standpoint, Chaparral baseball coach Troy Gerlach, a junior college alumnus himself, says athletes who choose junior college get a chance to play early while knocking out education requirements at lower tuition.

Athletically, Mr. Gerlach said SCC sits in one of the most competitive baseball conferences in the country. All Arizona junior colleges are in the same region, meaning the winner of the conference and region heads to the national tournament.

“The opportunity to go play at a very high-caliber college baseball is right there,” he said. “I mean it’s at their fingertips and it’s at a fraction of the cost to go to a four-year school. Even if you’re a scholarship player but you sit there for two years until you can play you’re paying how much money to take the same type of classes --- the gen-eds.”

In finding players, Mr. Bunker said SCC tries to stay local. National Junior College Athletic Association requires Division II schools, which includes SCC, to only offer scholarships that include tuition, books, fees and up to $250 for course-required supples. There are sport-by-sport scholarship limits.

Furthermore, MCCCD requires its schools to only offer scholarships to Arizona students. Mr. Bunker said the idea behind this is to keep community college funds local. With this stipulation, Mr. Bunker said it’s imperative to build relationships with local coaches from schools and clubs since the majority of SCC’s recruiting has to be local.

Having that relationship can help find athletes Mr. Bunker calls under-the-radar guys or players who need further refining. It’s important, he said, to show support not only when a school or club might have a player but also when there might not be one available.

He accomplishes this by attending as many local games and practices as he can to constantly scout players. These efforts, Mr. Bunker said, can yield players who are in the shadow of a team’s top player or are part of middling teams.

“Those are the kids that are harder to find in some cases,” he said. “In a lot of cases, the only way to find them is through those relationships through reaching out and keeping those lines of communications open with the local coaches.”

Junior colleges help student-athletes grow both athletically and academically with the goal in mind of helping them on to a four-year school. Athletically, if a four-year school recruits a student-athlete from a two-year school, Mr. Bunker says the goal isn’t for that player to sit on the bench.

“They’re coming in to fill a hole, fill a need, fill a gap, usually fill a starting position for that four-year school,” he said. “They come right in and continue that impact, that big impact, especially on playing time and things like that. That would be a selling point for high school students or students looking play at junior college.”

The JuCo stigma

Despite the bevy of benefits, there is a stigma surrounding junior college athletics. Some of that stigma includes others seeing junior college athletes as having baggage such as academic issues or some other issue for not playing at a four-year school.

Some players see committing to play at a two-year school as settling for a lesser option, Mr. Gerlach said. Others see the junior college setting as a place to not focus on grades and only sports, Mr. Bunker said.

However the stigma manifests itself, Mr. Gerlach said it’s a challenge in overcoming it, especially with his high school student-athletes.

“Part of it is the community our school’s in and the community the kids grow up in,” he said.

“They think a community college is below them but when you look at it and you look at reality, yeah everyone wants to play Division I baseball. Well, do you want to play Division I baseball at North Dakota State where the warmest you play in is 35 degrees? Yeah, I’m a Division I baseball player but how fun is it to play when it’s 35 degrees? Go to the JuCo, play for two years, then it opens up the whole country for schools.”

Mr. Bunker said combating the misinformation or miscommunications of junior college athletics can be challenging. He says he tells potential student-athletes just because the school is smaller, doesn’t mean it’s lesser.

He emphasized the quality of classes are similar to that of a four-year school and class credit usually transfer with student-athletes. He also pointed to smaller class sizes for more intimate learning settings.

Mr. Gerlach said another complaint he hears regularly is his student-athletes wanting a college life.

“You also have that opportunity here because you are so close to Arizona State,” he said. “Yeah, you can live at home and go to Scottsdale Community College but still go down with your buddies to Tempe and go to the football games and still have that college life but play college baseball at the same time.”

Scottsdale Community College continues to aspire to be a “premier educational and cultural center.” Its vision has it meeting that purpose for the community “by providing innovative and creative opportunities to learn, grow and achieve.”

The mantra doesn’t only apply to the classroom, although many SCC coaches will say academics are just as important as athletics. SCC seeks to continue to grow local student-athletes and doing so in a way that is different than the traditional two-year schools.

“The Phoenix area and the state of Arizona have a ton of talent,” Mr. Bunker said. “It really does --- I think it’s really an untapped resource, but when it’s the 12 junior colleges in the state of Arizona and the other 400-plus junior colleges across the country that can also come in and pull from Arizona, it’s definitely a cutthroat business sometimes.”

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