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Parents Bank on Moneyball When it Comes to College Tuition

By Dylan Butler | May 8, 2013 7:01am
 Tottenville senior Cheryl Lopez is one of the top softball players in New York City.
Cheryl Lopez
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NEW YORK CITY — When it came to investing in their daughter's college tuition, Charlie Lopez and his wife Haydee didn't play the stock market.

Instead, the Staten Islanders invested in softball.

Over the course of 10 years, they plunked down between $30,000-$50,000 for pitching and hitting instructors, as well as the various hotel and travel expenses related with high-level softball.

In the Lopezes' case, their investment has paid major dividends. Cheryl Lopez, a 17-year-old senior at Tottenville High School, has already secured a scholarship to play softball at Division I Fairleigh Dickinson University, which charges more than $30,000 a year in tuition.

But her tale is the exception, rather than the rule. For parents looking to encourage their kids to play sports as a means to get into college, the costs can be prohibitive.

“I would not advise this for everybody, because a lot of people don’t realize they’re just throwing their money away,” said Charlie Lopez, who works for a collision company on Long Island.

“You’re looking for an end result. I remember when the coach said you can commit [to play in college], we let out a sigh of relief. It all paid off.”

Cheryl Lopez is known as one of the city’s top softball players. She has a 10-1 record this season with a 1.33 ERA, striking out 101 batters in 58 innings. At the plate, Lopez is batting .359 with four triples and one home run.

She’s been exceptional from the first time she picked up a softball. But as she got older and played at a higher level on the travel circuit, the expenses piled up. Her first team at the Mid-Island Little League cost about $200 to join. Now Charlie and Haydee shell out about $2,500 each season for Cheryl to play travel ball with the Jersey Flames in New Jersey.

And that’s on the reasonable end of things.

Charlie Lopez said one team, the Jersey Intensity, wanted to charge Cheryl upwards of $9,000 for two months of tournament play during the summer and select tournaments in the fall — about 15 total.

The price includes the cost of three uniforms, but equipment and other costs fall to the player.

“We’re not rich by any means,” Charlie Lopez said. “I can’t tell you how many times we said we’ll pay that bill next week.”

High school is the cheapest aspect of softball, according to Charlie. The cost to play at Tottenville, he said, is minimal because the athletic program is funded by the Department of Education.

However, bats, gloves and cleats aren’t included.

“I can’t remember when Cheryl hasn’t had a $300 bat, even if we had to take money away from something else," said her father, who had no trepidation about spending so much because he and his wife love watching Cheryl play. And they know Cheryl loves to compete, as well.

The high-end travel teams sell parents on the showcases, or exposure games, their teams compete in throughout the summer and throughout the country. Since there's often dozens of possible recruits competing in one location, college coaches generally flock to these events.

"We attend showcases," St. John's baseball coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "There are showcases everywhere. It's a business."

In basketball, these showcases are often held during what the NCAA calls "evaluation periods," when Division I college coaches are allowed to watch prospective recruits compete.

"For us, live weekends are obviously very important," Fordham men's basketball coach Tom Pecora said. "It's cost effective, and with everyone going to one event [a weekend], it levels the recruiting playing field."

Although the costs are significant, parental investment isn’t just limited to money.

“Vacations? We didn’t take any vacations until just recently,” said Pat Piteo, the manager of voice operations for Prudential Financial, whose son Chris is a pitcher on the Archbishop Molloy baseball team in Queens. “Vacations were traveling all around playing baseball every summer. The money is important, but it’s the time, the nights, the weekends.”

Piteo’s son Chris, 17, has been playing travel baseball since he was 8. Every weekend, the family would pile into their car and drive to tournaments and showcases all over, from Maryland to Tennessee to Florida and Martha’s Vineyard.

“One of the mistakes I made was leasing a car,” Piteo said. “I had to go over 3,000 miles each year.”

Piteo has been the president of the RGMVM Little League for the past 15 years and said he’s seen registration decline in his older divisions because of the allure of travel baseball.

“There’s a travel team on every corner,” Piteo said. “A lot of parents just see one thing, their kid making it big and getting money out of it. We never looked at it that way. We just thought if he liked it and got something out of it, that’s great.”

As with Cheryl Lopez, Chris Piteo will play Division I ball, committing to pitch at the University of Maine. Both parents say the sacrifices have paid off, but also stress the importance of academics when it comes to the recruiting process.

“The first thing college coaches asked were what is your GPA and what’s your SAT? Most parents don’t think about the academic aspect,” Piteo said.

For the serious baseball player, Blankmeyer suggests parents do their homework and look into competing for a summer team that fits into their potential college plans.

"I recommend playing for a good summer team that plays good competition in the region you would like to attend college," he said. "But playing on any of these teams does not guarantee a scholarship."

Unlike nearly every other sport in New York, where costs increase for higher-level players, for basketball, it's the opposite. The city's elite-level players who play travel or Amateur Athletic Union basketball, often pay nothing to compete in tournaments all over the country in the spring and summer. Some organizations are sponsored by sneaker companies, while others, like New Heights, hold fundraisers and have corporate donors.

The same is true for top high school programs, like Christ the King, Lincoln, Boys & Girls and St. Raymond, which all have sneaker company affiliations.

While costs to play softball and baseball for area high schools generally just consist of purchasing a uniform, that’s not the case with high school hockey, arguably the most expensive sport in New York City.

And it’s a sport that also has the smallest percentage of area players securing college scholarships.

“I never went into this thinking my kid is going to get a scholarship somewhere,” said Joseph Cacchioli, a CFO at Country Life, LLC said. “This was all for the enjoyment of the game.”

His son Steven, a junior, plays varsity soccer and hockey at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, Queens. The cost of soccer is virtually nil. Hockey, on the other hand, runs Cacchioli approximately $1,200 for ice fees for a season that runs from late November through the middle of March and another $1,500 for equipment, including about $250 per hockey stick.

Steven also plays for a relatively inexpensive travel hockey team and that runs him about $1,700 for ice rental over the course of seven months. Like travel teams in other sports, team fees do not include travel. When his team played in the state tournament, it was a four-day trip to Buffalo, which cost about another $1,000.

“As a parent, if you don’t love watching your kid play, what a disaster of a weekend, spending the better part of four days in Buffalo watching him play five games,” Joseph Cacchioli said.

He said he has no dreams of his son playing high-level college hockey or even competing in the NHL one day. But the enjoyment of watching Steven play a sport he loves makes it all worth it.

“When they’re young and you watch them, it’s just pure elation to watch your kid enjoy themselves and do something they really love,” he said, “As they get older, you watch the games more from a competitive standpoint. It is a little different.”

However, many parents play the college-scholarship lottery with the money they invest in expensive travel teams and private instructors.

"If you're a parent and your goal is that your son will play on the best AAU team and play every weekend because you want them to be a Division I athlete, then you're losing sight of what this is all about," Pecora said. "They should enjoy the journey, not get consumed by the whole process."

Plus, Pecora said, a college scholarship shouldn't be the ultimate goal for the high school athlete and their parents.

"So often people get caught up in 'I want to make sure my son gets this scholarship and they put all this time and effort in and if the kid doesn't become a Division I athlete, a Division II athlete, get a partial scholarship or is not a Division III athlete, they're a failure," Pecora said. "There's a ton of kids who don't play a bit of basketball after high school that had a great experience and they talk about it with their friends the rest of their lives."