John Kuntz - The Plain Dealer

It's nearly crunch time, and the high school selection process is as mysterious as ever to St. Thomas More's Fallons and Stuarts

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OCTOBER 1, 2008

Most days, Mike Fallon wishes there weren't any recruiting rules at all. If high school football coaches weren't forbidden from contacting his son Ryan, there'd be less guessing with all of this, the Fallons would know which school really wants Ryan to play quarterback for its team, and where he fits in best both academically and athletically.

As it is, when his wife, Kathy, called up St. Edward recently to make an appointment for Ryan to meet with the football coach, the person on the other end of the phone told her, "Oh! We've been waiting for you to call!"

"It would be nice to know which school really wants him," Mike says, shaking his head.

Which is not to say that recruiting doesn't exist. Recruiting in Ohio high schools is about whispers and suggestions, a quiet network of encouragement. Because coaches are forbidden from contacting athletes first and are forbidden from talking to them at all outside of their school's campus, oftentimes plugged-in alums of the high school will relay the school's interest in a player.

Mike Fallon has had St. Ignatius alumni come up to him at the bank, casually mentioning they've heard his son is a pretty good football player and they're sure coach Chuck Kyle would like Ryan on his team. Everyone in the Cleveland Fire Department where he works seems to have a kid either at Ignatius or St. Edward, and they're not shy about sharing opinions on where the savvy 13-year-old quarterback would fit in best.

Ryan's grandfather even offered to sell his house to pay for St. Ignatius if he'd just go to that school.

"In the beginning, he thought we all wanted him to go to St. Ignatius," Kathy Fallon says. "I said, 'Honey, it's your decision.' He was worried about letting someone down."

With the decision left up to him, Ryan feels more confused than ever. Over the summer, he attended football camp at Padua High School, meeting varsity football coach Tony Shuman, and seeing how the program worked. It felt right.

His gym teacher at St. Leo the Great is an assistant coach at Trinity High School, and a hoard of St. Thomas More products banded together a few years ago and all entered that school at the same time. That would be comfortable for Ryan, too.

Then there's St. Ignatius, the school with perhaps 10 state football championships and the solid academics that would challenge his straight-A report card. It's hard not to be impressed by the school and the football.

And, of course, there's St. Edward, the other football powerhouse in Cleveland. Ryan knows that if he plays at Ignatius or Ed's, he'll be noticed by college coaches. And he wants to play in the NFL someday. When you're 13 years old and the starting quarterback on your eighth-grade team, isn't that supposed to be the dream?

So he's keeping his options open. He's taking entrance exams at Padua, Ignatius, Ed's and Trinity -- but the last one is really just for practice in taking the others. Every area Catholic high school has its own admissions test that helps in judging how the student will fare at the school and determine placement in classes.

Then there are the "Shadow Days," where he spends the day following around a current student at each high school. Those days might be the most useful gauge in helping figure out where he'll be most comfortable, because he attends actual classes, eats lunch with actual students and finally is able to meet actual football coaches.

Kathy Fallon wishes there were a master handbook that detailed everything she should do to prepare her child for selecting a high school. Ryan is the oldest of her three sons, and the family is learning as it goes through this process. She has folders containing information from each of the schools, but still feels as if there are too many things she doesn't know about each school.

"They should let parents shadow, too," she says wistfully.

That would only help to provide a glimpse of what the school is like. Ryan seems to be evaluating each school based on its football program, so when he shadows at St. Ignatius and is matched with a student who is on the chess team, not the football team, he's disappointed. He doesn't get to meet head coach Chuck Kyle, doesn't get to meet other football players and experience the camaraderie he might if he were a student and an athlete there. It's still a great school, but the overall experience is unsatisfying.

For Ryan, meeting the coaches will be even more important now that he's no longer on the field guiding St. Thomas More as the quarterback. His right hand, his throwing hand, is in a cast now thanks to a break suffered in a practice after the Wolverines' biggest game of the regular season.

STM is still undefeated, winning two more games to finish the regular season 6-0 while adjusting to the different quarterbacking style of Brandon Simpson. Brandon is twiggy and long -- at 6 feet, the tallest player on the team, by far -- and almost strictly a thrower. Ryan, in contrast, could pass and was always a threat to scamper through a hole if he spotted an opening. Head coach Michael Slama has had to adjust his playcalling to account for the change.

Ryan still shows up for every practice and every game, usually standing sullenly on the sidelines with his blue cast resting protectively at waist level.

There's a small chance Ryan could get the cast off in time for the playoffs, depending on how well he heals in the next few weeks. In the meantime, he's focusing on choosing his future high school. 

OCTOBER 7, 2008

It's Ryan's shadow day at Padua. Clutching a well-worn Harry Potter book, Ryan arrives at the high school where he's already attended a football camp and where he has played so many of his St. Thomas More football games. He wears a button-down shirt, tie and khakis that help him to blend in with all the other students adhering to the dress code.

Ryan is supposed to follow someone on the football team who is the son of a friend of his parents, but because of a scheduling conflict, he ends up following Luke Duganiero the first few hours. Luke is also a football player, a sophomore who can tell Ryan what the freshman experience will be like.

Ryan only has to last through one period -- a church history class -- before finding a way to make his visit about football. When he and Luke make it to second hour, there's a substitute teacher in math. Luke asks if he can take Ryan on a quick tour of the school . . . and they end up at the gymnasium where the freshman football coach, Jake Lantz, oversees a class.

As Ryan and Luke begin tossing a football back and forth, taking care not to hurt his injured right hand, Lantz begins his soft-sell of Padua.

"Every player we get from St. Thomas More is tough, man," Lantz said. "Tough."

He asks which schools Ryan is interested in, and the player rattles off his list. Padua is the only co-ed school among his top choices.

"Check out the all-boys environment," Lantz says. "Some dudes like that. Some dudes need chicks. Just remember, you're a student-athlete, so you're a student first. Make your decision based on the school, not the football program."

The coach and the player chat some more about Ryan's season (going well until he broke his hand), about his team (undefeated), about whether he has a girlfriend (yes).

And then, in a serendipitous moment, Padua varsity head football coach Tony Shuman happens to poke his head into the gym. He looks around, searching for something, and his gaze settles on Lantz.

"Coach, have you met Ryan?" Lantz asks Shuman.

Finally, the coach and the player can officially meet, officially talk about football and officially discuss how Ryan would fit in with the Padua football team.

"Come check us out," Shuman tells Ryan. "Come to a game some weekend."

Ryan grins and he nods. It's good to feel wanted.

OCTOBER 20, 2008

Ian Stuart already knows all about Padua from his older sister Margo, who is a junior at the school, so he doesn't have to shadow anyone there. He did follow a student at St. Ignatius a few weeks ago, but he comes away with only two overwhelming feelings: That the cafeteria is the best he's seen anywhere -- "It's like a mall!" he says -- and that it just doesn't feel like the right fit for him.

He hasn't shadowed at St. Edward, mostly because he's so sure he won't end up there. He's a little worried about the tough academics there, and whether he can balance the classroom demands with the demands on the football field.

By late fall, Ian is leaning toward Padua and pretty confident in his decision. He feels comfortable there, it's not too far away, and the football program is pretty good. It's not as good as the one at St. Edward, and not as good as St. Ignatius, but he's not basing his decision entirely on sports.

"Sometimes people go to a school because they like the sports and end up dreading going to school," Ian says. "I don't want that to happen."

Besides, Ian's mother, Valerie, knows that she can get a tuition discount if both her children go to Padua. Now that Valerie has divorced and must fund her children's education on her own, she has to pay careful attention to finances. Each of Ian's three older siblings worked during high school to help pay for their educations, and eldest sister Shana even funded her own education at St. Joseph Academy with her after-school and summer job. But with football and wrestling practices scheduled for immediately after classes, Ian is the only one in the Stuart family who isn't working.

Ian's athletic abilities make him different from her other children. Valerie is willing to do whatever it takes to allow him to pursue his dreams, and because she's been both his mother and father for his entire life, she thinks it will be good for him to have a strong male influence.

Valerie is not entirely sure about all the details she needs to keep a watchful eye on, though, in the high school application process for a student-athlete. Ian has signed up to take all the entrance exams, and he's talked with friends who are at the schools he's interested in. What else is there to do?

OCTOBER 26, 2008

Ryan knows he should be evaluating the entire high school experience, but football is practically all he and Ian think about -- especially now, when St. Thomas More is in the playoffs and trying to repeat as CYO city champions.

Ryan, however, has been inconsolable since breaking his hand with two games remaining in the regular season. A check-up with the doctor earlier in the week revealed that the break was too near the growth plate in his hand for the cast to be removed in time for him to return for the playoffs.

So, he stands sulkily on the sidelines as St. Thomas More plays its first playoff game against St. Francis of Assisi/St. Clare at Strongsville High School. Without Ryan's leadership on offense, the team struggles. Passes don't connect, holes don't open up as easily as they did, and for the first time all season, the Wolverines fall behind, 8-0.

At halftime, head coach Mike Slama fumes. Assistant coach Norm Stickney growls about the lack of focus on defense.

And the pep talks work. With a couple of long touchdown runs, St. Thomas More squeaks out a 14-8 win.

"I didn't want to say anything earlier, but in 15 years, I've never lost in the first round of the playoffs," Slama tells the team afterward.

NOVEMBER 2, 2008

The close win is enough to give the team confidence headed into its next playoff contest against St. Gregory the Great a week later at Fairview High School.

That is, until St. Gregory scores just 3:39 into the game. And again about four minutes later, taking a 15-0 lead. STM relies more than ever on its running game to move the ball on offense. All St. Gregory has to do is focus on stopping that, and the STM offense is stifled.

Slama and Stickney try to rally the team with another passionate halftime speech.

"I am not giving up," Slama bellows. "Let's get this thing going! We're not giving up!"

This time, however, nothing STM tries works. Slama tries a new quarterback, new receivers, new plays -- all with the same result. No progress, no STM dominance.

In the end, St. Gregory walks off with a 21-0 victory ... and St. Thomas More players slump in the corner of the field, their dream of repeating as CYO champs suddenly over.

As Slama addresses the team, some players look toward the crisp, autumn sky in an attempt to stop the tears from falling, others bury their heads in their hands, weeping freely.

"Good teams don't always win," Slama begins. "Sometimes it's not always about winning."

Standing to the side, Ryan bites his lip, staring down at the cast on his right forearm. Drops of tears begin falling, and he wipes his cheeks.

Slama lets each STM assistant coach address the team before he speaks again. And this time, his voice shakes, too. He takes a deep breath, and a sob escapes.

"It takes a lot to make Coach cry," he chokes, his voice breaking. "There's no shame in crying. . . . I love each and every one of you."

Ian Stuart, his eyes rimmed in red, finds his mom in the stands and walks off with her, arm-in-arm.

Ryan walks up to Slama, sniffling and wiping at his eyes. Slama grabs Ryan around the neck and leans in so close that their foreheads touch.

"You've got a lot of football left," Slama says.

But where?