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Basketball players making decisions earlier

Christina Foggie remembers it as if it had happened yesterday - receiving her first basketball recruiting letter as a ninth grader at Lenape.

Four of South Jersey’s top prospects who made early college decisions are Lenape’s Christina Foggie (Vanderbilt), Washington Township’s Matt Lopez (La Salle), Eastern’s Gevevieve Okoro (Richmond), and Camden Catholic’s Anthony D’Orazio (Lehigh). (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)
Four of South Jersey’s top prospects who made early college decisions are Lenape’s Christina Foggie (Vanderbilt), Washington Township’s Matt Lopez (La Salle), Eastern’s Gevevieve Okoro (Richmond), and Camden Catholic’s Anthony D’Orazio (Lehigh). (David M Warren/Staff Photographer)Read more

Christina Foggie remembers it as if it had happened yesterday - receiving her first basketball recruiting letter as a ninth grader at Lenape.

Duke University had done some early homework, and it turned out that many other schools had as well. Even at a young age, Foggie projected to be a Division I player, a 5-foot-9 guard with a killer crossover move, smooth jumper, and a determined tenacity when taking the ball to the hoop. As a junior, she averaged 23.9 points and was a slam-dunk selection for The Inquirer's first-team all-South Jersey squad.

So the recruitment started early and her college decision was made well before the deadline to sign a letter of intent.

Foggie was among a growing group of recruits - from South Jersey and nationwide - who ended the recruiting process before it had time to heat up.

In January of her junior year, she made an oral commitment to accept a scholarship from Vanderbilt.

According to NCAA rules, a high school basketball recruit cannot sign an official letter of intent until the second Wednesday of November in his or her senior year.

One reason high school athletes are making earlier commitments is the intense pressure and scrutiny associated with recruiting.

Everybody wants to know where a high-profile recruit is going, and the subject can be on an athlete's mind 24/7.

Still, Foggie didn't make her decision early to ward off phone calls, text messages, or e-mails from prospective college coaches.

She made the choice for the simplest of reasons – Vanderbilt felt like the perfect fit, for basketball and for academics.

That was the same reason some other top-flight performers made their decisions early. Eastern's Genevieve Okoro, The Inquirer's South Jersey player of the year as a junior, decided over the summer to attend Richmond.

Camden Catholic combination guard Anthony D'Orazio made Foggie and Okoro look like late decision-makers. He made an oral commitment to Lehigh in October - of his junior season.

Washington Township's center, Matt Lopez, like Okoro, decided in the summer. He chose to stay close to home and attend La Salle.

All four said they enjoyed the recruiting experience, but that didn't mean the process was easy. Choosing a college is among the biggest decisions a teenager will make, creating the same type of pressure as hitting a free throw for a team that is trailing by a point in the waning seconds.

Here's a look at what went into the choices for all four. Not all the situations are the same, but the athletes share a feeling of relief. The next step is cemented. Now they can enjoy their senior seasons, with nothing more on their minds from a basketball perspective than winning a championship.

The early, early commit

D'Orazio enjoyed a strong sophomore season at Camden Catholic, helping the Irish win the South Jersey Non-Public A championship.

A player with true ice water in his veins, the 6-2 D'Orazio never backs away from taking the big shot.

His ability to shoot off the dribble or from a standing position has made him a valuable commodity, and he averaged 15 points and five assists last season.

So when Lehigh made the early offer in the fall of his junior year, D'Orazio felt no reason to extend the recruiting process.

"It's a great school academically, I liked the basketball program, and Lehigh had everything I was looking for," D'Orazio said.

While most people were sure that the commitment would take the pressure off D'Orazio, he said it was quite the opposite.

"After I announced I was going to Lehigh, it made things more intense," he said. "Players started coming after me harder."

That's because opponents wanted to measure themselves against a Division I recruit, figuring that if they fared well, their chances would be enhanced.

Opponents always have played D'Orazio hard, simply because he is such an offensive threat. Yet the pressure intensified.

D'Orazio isn't complaining. He was happy with his choice then and just as satisfied now.

"It's a great feeling to know you will be going to such a great school and will continue to play the game you love," he said.

The Foggie file

As the early letters from colleges indicated, Lenape's Foggie knew that she would have her choice of schools, so she started the process early.

An honor student, she was looking for the best combination of academics and athletics. Vanderbilt plays in the Southeastern Conference, one of the top basketball leagues in the nation with perennial national-title contender Tennessee.

The school in Nashville is known more for its academic standards than its sports success. During the fall, a U.S. News and World Report survey ranked Vanderbilt No. 17 among best national universities.

"I wanted the best of both - to play in the SEC and to go to a great academic school," Foggie said.

Among the other schools she considered were Villanova, St. Joseph's, and James Madison.

Foggie conceded that she surprised her family by choosing Vanderbilt, simply because of the distance.

"My parents were surprised and didn't think I would go that far," she said.

Foggie said that regardless of the distance, the lure of the school was too strong to resist. When Foggie made her official campus visit on Sept. 18, she said, her decision was reinforced.

"It just seems like the best fit for me," she said.

The coach's touch

Washington Township's Lopez has made strides each season. That is not surprising, since centers sometimes take longer to develop.

At 6-10, he has shown improved agility on the court. Last season, he averaged 13 points and eight rebounds as Washington Township advanced to the South Jersey Group 4 final before falling to eventual state champion Lenape.

Lopez is happy he made a commitment to La Salle, because it will be easier for his family to follow his career. But it wasn't the school's proximity that factored into his decision as much as the way the Explorers went about recruiting him.

In many instances, a high school recruit will deal mainly with a college assistant coach during the recruiting process. The head coach often is involved, but the assistant usually does the day-to-day work of staying in touch with the recruit.

What impressed Lopez was that he was recruited mainly by La Salle head coach John Giannini.

Few college coaches know the South Jersey landscape better than Giannini, who learned about the area during his time as head coach at Rowan University.

Giannini's dogged pursuit eventually won over Lopez.

"In many cases, the assistant coach does the recruiting, but Coach Giannini would come to see me play and would be the one calling me," Lopez said. "That made a real impression on me."

Though many recruits have grandiose visions of immediate playing time, Lopez is being realistic.

He has made great progress. However, Lopez realizes that he could use more seasoning. So he has decided, with the blessing of the La Salle staff, to redshirt his first season.

"I think I have a lot of work to do, and instead of playing a few minutes or not at all, I can just work hard that first year and adjust to college," he said.

The thinker

Of the four players, probably no one spent as much time on the recruiting process as Eastern's Okoro. At 6-1, she is a tireless worker who acts as if every potential rebound is hers for the taking. In earning Inquirer player-of-the-year honors, she averaged 20.9 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3 steals and 2.7 blocked shots.

Unofficially, she drew the most triple-teams of any player in South Jersey.

Okoro brings that same work ethic when it comes to academics. A top student, she aspires to be a doctor.

Unlike many whose priorities during the recruiting process are matters such as immediate playing time, Okoro quizzed her suitors about their medical schools.

She also wanted to know what type of academic support existed, especially when the team had to travel for road games.

By her estimation, she unofficially visited about 15 schools. For Okoro, recruiting was an exhausting but necessary process.

"You are a student before you are an athlete, and I wanted to find the school that I felt would give me the best chance to succeed academically," Okoro said.

That school was Richmond. When Okoro finally made her choice, she felt a tremendous sense of relief.

"You would get calls all times of the day, and beginning junior year, schools are allowed to e-mail you, and I never imagined it would take so much time responding to schools," she said.

Smiling, Okoro added: "It was all worth it."

Final thoughts

No one can feel sorry for a teenager who has to go through the rigors of recruiting, and these four aren't seeking any sympathy.

All of them indicated how fortunate they were to have schools calling, offering an education.

Yet that doesn't take away the pressure they face. The decision is usually difficult enough, but everything leading up to that choice makes this a complex and sometimes confusing task.

"I can't tell you how many people tell me that [the pressure of recruiting] is a good problem to have, and people are right," Foggie said. "But they don't realize how much goes into recruiting."

Actually, the players didn't realize how much goes into recruiting until they experienced the process firsthand.