What life is like for high school athletes who make it to the

next level.

It is the universal whimsy.

For every kid who picks up a bat, a ball, a stick, a racket, or the myriad other tools of the sports trade, there is at least one moment of fantasy; one thought – idle or otherwise – of “making it;” of breaking through into the next level, and playing in the college – or even professional – game.

For most, it remains nothing more than a dream. But for a select few, that initial spark grows and matures into a flame of determination – a burning, driving hunger that will only be satisfied by challenging the top players around. For the majority of these players, despite their drive, limited talent can only carry them so far. But what about those lucky individuals who make the cut, and are blessed with both the ability and the ambition to push the envelope? What are their lives like when they elevate their game?

“High school is much more low key,” said Rachele Burns, who was a standout at Gorham High School in both basketball and soccer before being sidelined with a series of devastating ACL injuries. Now Burns, who was red-shirted as a freshman for the Black Bears at UMaine, is finally getting a taste of the intensity of Division 1 basketball.

“College basketball is fast-paced in the up and down game,” she said, “so you have to be very quick, and be in the right shape. You have to go to practice and give 110 percent there every day. It’s nothing like high school; where some days you just kind of walk through practices – the tempo is much higher, and the game requires a much higher level of physicality, so you have to be strong.”

‘I WOULD SAY IT’S A REALLY BIG JUMP’

How much more difficult things are really depends on the player, the sport, the school, and – perhaps most importantly – the conference. Biddeford standout defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who helped the Tigers win a pair of state titles in 2008 and 2009, has just entered his second year skating for Boston College. Dumoulin, who spent his senior year of high school playing for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs, was a part of the Eagles’ NCAA Division I championship team earlier this year.

“I would say it’s a really big jump between high school and juniors and college,” Dumoulin said. “Guys at this level are 22 and 23. When you look at the NHL nowadays, almost half the guys played college hockey. We have a good feeder system for the NHL in college, and there are quality players in this league around the country.”

Julia Townsend, who played field hockey at Thornton Academy, and is now on the team at University of New England, also stated that there was a clear difference between the skill level required for high school and college.

“At the college level, everything is at a quicker pace,” she said. “You have to be more decisive with what you are going to do with the ball in a shorter time than you typically have during a high school game. There is a much smaller margin for error on the field because everybody playing out there is working just as hard and is just as skilled. It is very competitive.”

TIME MANAGEMENT IS KEY

For most players new to the college level, balancing practice, games and academics is the most challenging aspect of the transition. Many fail to even establish the proper equilibrium, but those who succeed find themselves giving up almost every waking moment to one obligation or another.

“Balancing a full season of hockey from September to April is very hard on some people,” Dumoulin said. “You have to work at managing your time, although BC is really good about helping you do it. It was a lot more of a challenge for me last year as freshman getting acclimated to the routine. It’s been much easier this year.”

Tyler Kelly, who played basketball for Thornton Academy, said that he had struck the proper balance while working at forward for the Monks of St. Joseph’s College.

“Any down time I may have, I look to either start or finish any assignments that were given,” Kelly said. “I usually try to finish work before practices and games, which will give me time to relax at the end of the night.”

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” said Connor Sullivan, a Scarborough High School standout who now plays hoops at the University of Southern Maine, “because I basically have class all morning, and I have to schedule classes around practice, which takes all afternoon. It has been a difficult transition. As a mechanical engineering major, I really have to work hard in every one of my classes. It requires a lot of discipline.”

Burns works her academics whenever she can – including during road trips. Mostly, however, she tries to stay ahead of the game by accomplishing tasks days, or even weeks in advance.

“Before we travel, we try to do homework, and if we have a test, we arrange to take it before or after the trip is over,” Burns said. “The key is definitely good time management, and I learned early-on during my freshman year that the best way to attack school work was to get things done early, so I don’t have to worry about them during seven-hour bus rides. When I do that, I can just relax during the trips and listen to music.”

Speaking of bus rides; it’s something that these students are doing a lot of. Fans might imagine that these teams are jetting all over the place, but in reality most road trips are just that: a long, crowded highway ride.

Even Dumoulin, playing for BC – a program that occasionally flies long distance – states that longer trips are few and far between.

“One thing about Boston College is that our bus rides are never really that far,” he said. “Back in high school we were bussing to places like Lewiston, Scarborough and Gorham. We’ve gone to some places like Notre Dame and, of course, Denver, but most of the places we go are within driving distance. Like just today (Nov. 11) we’re busing to Vermont.”

“I’m not sure it is comparable,” added Townsend. “The longest bus ride I had in high school was about 45 minutes. The shortest bus ride here is about that length. In college, during the regular season, the longest ride was around 4.5 hours one way, and we recently traveled to New Jersey for the NCAA tournament on a nearly eight-hour bus ride. Having TVs on the bus really helps the ride along, but I really enjoy the things we have gotten to see that you wouldn’t normally see during the bus rides in high school.”

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

Preparing for the games and their associated road trips requires practice time – and often a lot more of it than these players ever saw in high school. Additionally, there are changes with the way that coaches teach the game.

“I would say that coaches approach practices a little differently than in high school, just because it’s a much higher level of competition,” Sullivan said. “The practices are a lot tougher, and we do a lot of conditioning. It’s definitely more difficult than high school.”

Dumoulin argued that one of the biggest changes is the simple fact that the coaching staff in college work full-time in their profession, and are thus available whenever they are needed.

“Just the amount of ice time available is different,” Dumoulin said. “And our coaches are always out there on the ice, and skating with us afterwards. They show us film before games, break down tape, and are just more hands-on. The primary difference is that there are always around, and how focused they are on the job of coaching, and trying to get us to play better.”

“Preparation in college is a lot different than it is in high school,” Kelly added. “The players are more talented and versatile, so before every game we will usually have a walkthrough, and break down opposing players and plays the other team might run. I like it so much better, before even though you never know exactly what a player will do in the game, you have an understanding of what they prefer to do, and that makes the game become easier.”

Sullivan pointed out that it isn’t just coaches who are teaching at this level. Upperclassmen, too, play a much bigger role in helping newer players to mature.

“There is definitely a lot of constructive criticism,” he said. “But it is always constructive. As a younger player you might start a drill and do it wrong, and people will point out what you’re doing incorrectly. Everyone is supportive, though. They want to help you out.”

GETTING HOME IS TOUGH

But one of the biggest aspects of college sports is simply how it eats up time. Many graduates look back on their years in college as a time of relatively carefree fun, when – aside from a part time job, or the occasional night of studying – time was casually spent in multiple diversions. For college athletes, this time to spare simply does not exist, and it changes their entire university experience.

“I have yet to go home this year,” Dumoulin said. Despite living only an hour and a half from Biddeford, he makes it home “maybe five times a year. I get back for one night on Thanksgiving, and then we are off for two weeks during Christmas break, although I have to come back early. During the second half of the season we are so busy focusing on hockey and getting ready for the tournament that I can’t take off, and then there is summer school.”

Burns stated that she believes that it was a blessing that she got to attend school in-state, as she gets to go home more frequently than many athletes who rarely get off campus.

“When it comes to going home, our lives are absolutely not equivalent to those of the average student,” Burns said. “Kids I know from high school can go home on pretty much any weekend they want to. Me and the other people on the team from Maine are actually fortunate, because when we have the chance to go home – like during October break and Christmas – we can. A lot of players from New York and Florida don’t get home even that often.”

But there are other, even more difficult realities that many college athletes have to deal with. Burns, who first tore her ACL back in her junior year of high school, has twice reinjured her leg since then, enduring a series of surgeries and painful rehab efforts in the wake of each injury. After going down a final time during the Blue and White game her freshman year, Burns was redshirted for the rest of 2009, and is only now getting back out onto the hardwood.

“The third time you injure your ACL – statistically not many people come back from an injury like that,” she said. “It really depends on how much work you put in during rehab. But I have always dreamed of playing Division 1 basketball, and my teammates and coaches are all great. I have never wanted to be anywhere else. I would have given anything my freshman year to be out there helping the team, but I learned a lot on the sidelines.”

The rewards for players who stick it out, however, are rich. Aside from the obvious opportunity to make it into professional sports that college affords, the victories are that much sweeter because they are against opponents who are at the top of their game.

Dumoulin, who has known little else other than winning throughout his career, said that he’s never felt anything akin to a national championship victory.

“It was the most unreal thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “And it just makes me want to win it more; to have that feeling again. To be able to celebrate that moment both with my team and my parents was unbelievable. My parents have dedicated so much to the sport of hockey, and I want to win another for them and show them my love, and thank them getting me into this. That’s why I push myself so hard every day – to experience the feeling of winning it again.”

Biddeford’s Brian Dumoulin won a NCAA hockey championship with the Boston College Eagles last season.
Photo courtesy of Boston College