Opportunity breeds athletic success in Marion CountyBy JOSHUA CAMPBELL,
When you really sit down and think about all of the athletic talent that comes out of the little town of Columbia and Marion County as a whole, it really is astounding.
We started a “NextLevel” section in our sports section in 2018 that keeps track of some of the athletes who have gone on to play past high school, and it has allowed me to really put into perspective how truly crazy the numbers are. During football season I kept track of 13 collegiate players and one NFL starter, Logan Cooke, and followed their progress week in and week out.
This spring we introduced the baseball and softball equivalent, and there are 12 collegiate baseball and softball players along with two professional baseball players, Anthony Alford and Ti’Quan Forbes, who hail from Marion County.
It isn’t limited to the most popular sports either. Marion County currently has three tennis players competing in college, one archer, one cheerleader and a rodeo performer.
While there weren’t basketball players at the next level when this was published, there are several on the way. East Marion center John Rawls has more than 10 options to choose from. Columbia Academy’s Morgan Jones has signed with Southern Miss. CA’s Lauren Rowley and Gabby Sullivan should also get the opportunity, and Columbia’s TJ Monroe has a couple offers on the table as well. Then there are two sophomores at East Marion, Vashon Sims and Caleb Rawls, who are undoubtedly college-level talents in the making.
Then there are a couple of baseball players who have already signed to play collegiately — West Marion’s Shelby Terrell and CA’s Slade Wilks — and Columbia’s Kentrel Bullock and Jamison Kelly both have football offers on the table.
If you’re keeping track, that’s 45 athletes who have enough ability to play beyond high school. On average there are about 1,084 high school students in the county at a given time, and that four-year number is also a realistic comparison for the timeline on the vast majority of the collegiate and pro athletes. That’s 1 out of every 24 students in Marion County that go on to play at the next level, while the national average is 1 in 54, according to the NCAA.
So why is Marion County such a hotbed for talent? It’s really hard to figure out. Some could say the youth programs here play a role, but nearly every community big enough has youth athletics. Where I think the difference lies is at the high school level. Most communities the size of Marion County have one large high school or two medium sized schools.
Here, there are four legitimate options between Columbia High School, East Marion High School, West Marion High School and Columbia Academy. That provides prep athletes with more opportunity not only to play at the varsity level but get valuable experience as underclassmen.
Where I grew up in Louisiana, it was a rare occurrence for any freshmen to even be called up to varsity and even then they didn’t play. Very few sophomores got the chance to play varsity as well. But here it’s commonplace for underclassmen to gain experience at a young age, and they are able to learn on the job while getting more one-on-one coaching with smaller roster sizes. It provides athletes with great opportunities to showcase their skills to colleges for multiple years as opposed to just one or two. That, along with the abundance of natural talent, makes all the difference.
Joshua Campbell is sports editor of The Columbian-Progress. Reach him via email at email@example.com or call (601) 736-2611.