The next level: Local athletes look back at their first year in college

Stefano Brunetto had an impressive season at Cal State San Marcos.
Stefano Brunetto had an impressive season at Cal State San Marcos.
(Greg Siller)

If you have any association with youth sports, no matter how minimal, you’ve undoubtedly heard a player, coach or parent talk about a particular individual as “going to be a professional athlete” someday. No matter the sentiment or talent involved, reality is a much different story

In a 2021 survey, the U.S. National Council of Youth Sports estimated that roughly 60 million American kids, aged 6-18, are participating in youth sports. The number of high school athletes is just under eight million (814,000 in California).

According to the NCAA, the number of student-athletes across its 1,118 Division I, II and III institutions is 466,000 (417 per school). That’s not a “scholarship athlete” figure but a list where more than one third are from Division III schools in which scholarships are not awarded, it includes a substantial number of walk-on players and is also impacted by more than 20,000 elite foreign athletes.

Of those 466,000 collegiate competitors, the NCAA says that just two percent “go pro” in their specialty. Working the math backwards, the chances of those predictions about “kids who are going to be professional athletes” coming to fruition is incredibly slim.

In truth, the 13% who play youth sports and advance even to the high school level have accomplished something pretty extraordinary. Six local athletes who graduated from high school in 2022 and have just finished their first year of college athletics, all in unique locations with unique results, shared their thoughts on year one of college, the recruiting process and some of the things they’ve learned.


Men’s Soccer

Cal State San Marcos (Cathedral Catholic)

A slick, 5-4, 140-lb. forward, Brunetto decided to stay local with up-and-coming Division II Cal State San Marcos and everyone has been happy with the early returns. The Cougars struggled as a team but Brunetto started 15 games and was their points leader with two goals and four assists.

“San Marcos was an easy choice for me,” said Brunetto who grew up in Bay Park. “My biggest thing was to play soccer in California, close to home but not too close. The school is fairly new, class sizes are small, which is something I enjoy, and it was all positive—it felt like home for me.” As for his first year, Brunetto was pleased with his progress.

“I had a really good time, thought I played well,” he said. “From fall to spring, I grew so much in that small period of time. I got accustomed to the college game which is much faster than high school. Through weight training, I grew physically. I also became much better organized and feel like I developed better mental strength dealing with the demands of sports and school.”

The biggest difference between college and high school? “In high school, you can be the best player on your team, play all 90 minutes quite easily,” said Brunetto, a key player on Cathedral Catholic’s 2021 CIF Open Division title team. “In the college game, you’re playing a role and it’s a lot more physically demanding—you hit that 50-60 minute mark and you start feeling it in your legs.

“It’s also more technical, there’s more formational play—you need to play simple and pick the right time to show some flair.”

Veteran coach Ron Pulvers, is as excited to have his young standout as Brunetto is to be part of his team. “Stef has been an absolute gem for our program,” says Pulvers. “He’s a super dedicated student-athlete, has excelled in the classroom and has demonstrated an appetite for scholarly success.

“He’s a high character guy. On the field he really wants to be coached and is fully bought into everything we are trying to achieve. He is incredibly well-liked by both his peers and coaches and I see a very bright future for him.”

On the academic side, Brunetto feels his performance was better in college than high school. “I took only four classes per semester, which challenged me just the right amount,” he said. “The professors made it easy to give my best work for them.”

He also praised the benefits and support CSUSM provides for its student-athletes, including regular access to the training room, the team’s own locker room and the ability to register early for classes. He lives in the new North Commons and was literally the first student to ever occupy his room. There’s also the athletic department staff.

“I think all of the support we have from the staff is one of the best benefits,” said Brunetto. “When I walk around campus, I see staff, know them and they know me. They provide us so many things.”

This summer, Brunetto will be making it a point to be in the gym, eating right and getting enough sleep. “I’m going to be focused on training, building strength and fitness for fall—making my body feel 100% when we report back in August.”


Women’s Tennis

UC Irvine (Canyon Crest Academy)

Asha Gidwani was a regular in the UC Irvine singles lineup as a freshman.
Asha Gidwani was a regular in the UC Irvine singles lineup as a freshman.
(Robert Huskey, UC Irvine Athletics)

After a career at Canyon Crest that included four CIF team championships and an individual section singles crown, Gidwani admits she wasn’t as prepared for collegiate tennis as she would have liked.

“It was fun, but a major rollercoaster,” said Gidwani who played primarily in the No. 3 singles slot for UC Irvine. “I wish I knew how hard, physically and mentally, tennis and school would be.

“When I came in I really thought I was in shape but I had to puke after the first practice—that was a reality check.” For someone who was often able to cruise through matches at CCA, the new level of competition took some getting used to as well.

“Every match, you don’t know who’s going to win or lose and you definitely have to fight for every point,” said Gidwani. “It’s a major jump from high school but you get used to it—just a lot of hard work.

When listening to first-year Anteater Asst. Coach Ben Cook, one realizes Gidwani is likely her own harshest critic. “Stats-wise, Asha did really well, the best of our eight freshman,” said Cook. “She is a player who wants to keep improving and always puts in extra work to build on her game.

“Asha came in looking to be a power player but has different tools that she wasn’t necessarily maximizing. She can definitely hit it hard but also has a lot of touch and she’s learning how to put everything together. That includes learning how to navigate losses, which are going to happen, and come back stronger. She’s got a bright future.”

The 18-year-old Carmel Valley resident got a late start in a “stressful” recruiting process but UCI quickly moved to the top of her list with its combination of tennis, a beautiful campus and a strong program in the major of her choice—criminology.

A self-professed “major introvert” in high school, Gidwani worked through some initial socializing adjustments and has solid “friend groups” both with the team and dorm mates. On or near campus she frequents a variety of coffee shops and bookstores and is a fan of the ample free gear provided to the team by UCI sponsor Adidas.

Tennis has also helped her keep up with her academics, as freshman teammate and fellow criminology major Cydney Yamamoto “have almost all of our classes together, so we keep each other accountable.”

This summer is about getting better for Gidwani. “For me, the key is getting a lot more confident with my forehand, footwork, movement, everything,” she said. “The same for the team. We were basically made up primarily of freshmen last year and we’ll come back knowing how things work and what to expect. We had a pretty good season but always want to be better.”


Men’s Basketball

Boston University (Torrey Pines)

Torrey Pines alum Otto Landrum saw plenty of action at Boston University.
Torrey Pines alum Otto Landrum saw plenty of action at Boston University.
(Matt Woolverton/BU Athletics)

Last seen in San Diego as a first team All-CIFer and Coastal League Player of the Year after averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds a game for a Torrey Pines team that reached the semi-finals of the CIF Open Division tournament, 6-9 Otto Landrum played across the country as a college freshman, logging 10 minutes per game at Boston University.

His season started slowly, he got “super sick” mid-year but then found out how quickly circumstances can change. “I came back from the illness and a bunch of teammates had Covid,” recalled Landrum. “I got a shot and had a big game vs. Lafayette, the coaches got confidence in me and I averaged seven point and seven rebounds over the remainder of the schedule.

“I’m really happy and excited—I think how I played towards the end of the year will help amplify my role as a sophomore.”

As one would expect, there was some adjustment to relocating across the country. “People on the East Coast like to state their opinions and everybody just speaks their mind, so you have to get used to that,” laughs Landrum. “Of course there’s the cold, it’s freezing there but I grew up in a small town in Colorado (Manitou Springs) and I love snow so that was a positive.

“I also learned quickly about the ‘hard living’ that is college sports. I wish I would have known a little more about how difficult it could get mentally—three days of practice, a game, schoolwork, get up for class and then repeat. It’s like an ongoing cycle of ‘oh my God, this is a lot.’ “

The academic reputation of BU, whose slew of notable alums ranges from Martin Luther King to Howard Stern and Norman Vincent Peale, was a big selling point for Landrum who says he’s “learned to read and write a lot in a short amount of time” while gaining some important life skills. He held his own in the rigorous scholastic environment and his outgoing personality has allowed him to fit in quickly on the social front.

“I don’t know what it is socially but I seem to thrive,” he said. “Maybe it’s just being a big, tall red-headed dude with a goofy haircut. I try to be as active as possible supporting other people. People will forget your athletic accomplishments but I want to be someone people look at and say, ‘that is a good guy.’ I think I get that from my parents. My dad is a very big influence for me and he and my mom are great people. I want to be just like them and they are social in everything.”

Landrum says he misses the people in San Diego and found it hard to leave the culture he belonged to at Torrey Pines, but he felt it positioned him well for the next chapter.

“I don’t think I could have been more prepared, Torrey Pines was like going to college in high school,” he said. “As far as basketball, I learned everything at Torrey Pines that I’m being taught at BU. (Head Coach John) Olive is a mastermind.

“Coach (Joe) Jones at BU is pretty intense but I think college coaches have to be a lot sterner. Personally, I appreciate it.”

Among the many benefits Landrum has enjoyed in Boston are the connections made with the other student-athletes, most of who live in the same dorm area, and the team travel. Two of his favorite road games were against eventual NCAA champion Connecticut and Navy.

“We played UConn before they were recognized as one of the best teams in the country and we were like ‘holy cow, these guys are really good.’ Adama Sanogo is probably the best guy I’ll play against in my life. And the Naval Academy in Annapolis might be the prettiest campus I have ever seen.”

Landrum, who hopes to play a few games in the Swish Pro-Am League in San Diego before returning to Boston, July 3, will be taking summer classes and working to improve his shooting and passing ability. “I want to be able to do everything that’s asked,” he said. “I think the coaches will be putting a lot of trust in me as one of the better back to the basket players and I’m looking forward to a great year.”


Women’s Volleyball

Cincinnati/Indiana (La Costa Canyon)

Former LCC ace Avry Tatum will play at Indiana University as a sophomore.
Former LCC ace Avry Tatum will play at Indiana University as a sophomore.
(IU Athletics)

In terms of pursuing the best collegiate option, the idea that the fastest route is not always a straight line may not have been literally true in the case of former La Costa Canyon volleyball star Avry Tatum but the concept definitely applies.

After racking up 756 career kills and earning a stack of post-season honors, Tatum was looking for a big school and took a leap of faith with Cincinnati. She had a strong first year, starting 18 matches and ending up fourth on the team with 215 kills. Although having nothing but good things to say about the UC experience, she felt it wasn’t quite complete.

“I was getting recruited during Covid and it was much different than I expected,” said Tatum. “The coaches were phenomenal but I couldn’t visit or meet the girls on the team and it was a lot of e-mails, practice and game film exchange.

“It turned out to be really good, a great learning experience and I was lucky enough to play a lot, but I found myself going through some mental stuff I had to figure out. The volleyball was fine, the coaches were great, the girls were great but a piece was missing—it’s hard to explain but UC just didn’t feel like home.”

After talking with her mother, Tatum entered the transfer portal, heard from several schools and initiated contact with Indiana, a member of the Big 10, the top women’s volleyball conference in the country. It was also the home of first-year assistant coach Rachel Morris who had been her coach at both LCC and WAVE volleyball club. A campus visit ensued and it was love a first sight.

“I was in awe of the campus, the coaches and girls were so nice and I knew it was going to be my next home,” said the 6-1, Solana Beach resident. “The Big 10 was a huge draw for me, an opportunity to fulfill my dream of playing at the highest level—it’s like playing in a championship game every night.

“The academics are also incredible. I want to be a sports management major and they were able to get me into the program immediately.

“It’s amazing how much care they put into athletics. Volleyball has its own facility where we can practice and get extra reps whenever we want and they have an insane training center with machines that can monitor everything, technology like I’ve never seen before.

“The town of Bloomington is so pretty and it’s cool that everything is within two-to-three miles, very much like where I live in Solana Beach except there’s no beach.”

Tatum, who was paddle boarding with manatees on a family vacation to Cancun when we talked, will head back to the “beach-less” Midwest on June 22 but will be training a locally at the WAVE club facility in San Diego to prepare for the first season at her new home.

Indiana Head Coach Steve Aird likes the potential of his team’s newest member. “Avry had an outstanding prep career and did some solid things in her first collegiate season,” said AIrd. “She has a world class arm, will add more physicality to our group and help provide depth in the middle and opposite slots. I expect her to be a very important part of our program for years to come.”

As for Tatum, her immediate goals are simple. “I really want to just grow as a person and a player, get as much playing time as possible and do as well for IU as I can.”


Men’s Lacrosse

Dartmouth (Santa Fe Christian)

Sam Cooper went cross country to play college lacrosse at Dartmouth.
Sam Cooper went cross country to play college lacrosse at Dartmouth.
(Doug Austin)

Former Santa Fe Christian goalie Sam Cooper started playing lacrosse in second grade, went to the East Coast for a tournament two years later and by the sixth grade was traveling cross country to face the best competition three or four times a year

By virtue of being the youngest on his team when he started, Cooper got thrown into the net and admits he was “scared of the ball” and found it a “painful experience.” The now 6-0, 200-pounder got over all that, chose SFC for high school because he could start as a freshman and developed into arguably the No. 1 goalie in San Diego and one of the best in the West.

When it came to finding a place to play in college, the priority shouldn’t have been surprising. “I was set on going to the East Coast,” said Cooper. “I wasn’t honing in on a specific school but was looking for a college that could offer a great education plus Division I lacrosse.

Coaches from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school in Hanover, NH, started scouting and after seeing Cooper live on film at an all-star tournament in Baltimore, called and identified him as one of their top three goalie recruits.

“Dartmouth wasn’t really on my radar but it was during Covid and the recruiting process was kind of weird,” said Cooper. “I did a virtual campus tour, they stayed in contact and eventually offered me. I accepted within 10 minutes.” The choice wasn’t totally based on the location or the sport.“It’s a great academic environment and the community there, you could tell right away it was very tight,” said the 19-year-old Rancho Santa Fe native. “The average class sizes were small, I remember on one of my visits I saw students talking to professors at lunch on campus and I knew I would meet a lot of people and have good relationships. That’s how it’s played out.

“I love how it’s different from anything I’ve ever experienced before. The weather change, surviving winters. I’m excited to actually be able to be in a place where you have seasons.”

In a very competitive atmosphere and facing the increased intensity on the lacrosse side of things, Cooper flourished in year one. Starting 10 of 11 games, he piled up 102 saves for the 6-6 Big Green.

“Overall, I was really happy with my experience,” said Cooper, who was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week after stopping 10 shots in a season-opening victory over Merrimack. “I got a lot of playing time which is uncommon for a freshman goalie at D1 but the transition from high school to college is so much greater than anyone could imagine, not just physically but mentally.

“You have to be a little crazy to be a lacrosse goalie in the first place and the pace of the college game challenges you to stay mentally strong even when you’re giving up multiple goals before making a save. Every single time you’re on the field, someone could rip a shot that would require the hardest high school save you’ve ever made, even in practice.”

Academically and socially, Cooper has fit in seamlessly on the upper New England campus. An economics major, he felt well-prepared coming out of Santa Fe Christian and enjoyed the tempo of Dartmouth’s quarter system.

“There were some adjustments but I thought I did really well,” said Cooper. “The biggest challenges are working around the demands of the lacrosse schedule and the fact that every kid in all your classes is really smart.”

An avid fisherman at home, catching calico bass and halibut on the coast, he has really been able to dig into that passion at Dartmouth.

“Dartmouth has 5,000 acres of land that students can access and it’s basically a two-hour drive full of rivers and bodies of water that they’ve owned since the 1800’s,” he said. “I’ve joined a group called the Bait and Bullet Club and went on a few trips where we stayed in cabins for a few days, fly fishing with no cell service—you’re just out there and it’s amazing.”

He’ll be returning to a unique situation as a new coaching staff has been installed at Dartmouth. It will be a scenario with which Cooper is all too familiar.

“I had four different head coaches in high school which was a crazy experience,” he said. “Now, with this, there’s a joke kind of going around that every time I go somewhere there’s going to be a new coach.”

In prepping for his sophomore year, Cooper will be doing a lot of training camps, coaching youth players and just shooting with the best players in San Diego, working on skills he learned in his first season.

“One of my coaches said the only way to learn something is to practice it thousands of times,” said Cooper. “When a ball’s coming at you 100 mph, the only thing you can do is fall back on your training.

“I’m excited about the future. We’ve got a great team culture built and I’m confident we’ll stay on an upward trajectory.”



Hawaii (San Dieguito Academy)

SDA grad Ellyanna Cinzori found a perfect fit at Hawaii.
SDA grad Ellyanna Cinzori found a perfect fit at Hawaii.
(Hawaii Athletics)

University of Hawaii was always a prime target when San Dieguito Academy (SDA) softball alum Ellyanna Cinzori was shopping for a college landing spot. But in a setting roiled by the Covid pandemic, it was hard to contact prospective coaches and even harder to get a response.

“I had interest from a lot of East Coast schools but wanted to stay West,” Encinitas resident Cinzori said. “UH was one of my top schools from the beginning—I wanted to be next to the water. I’ve lived near the beach, always surfed and UH stood out. I grew up going on vacations there and loved it.

“When I finally connected and started communicating with the coaches, they offered some scholarship money, I was able to get some academic money and I felt I had to take the opportunity.”

Despite a few periods of adjustment and less immediate success than she might have hoped for on the athletic front, it has turned out to be a favorable decision for the 5-8 first baseman/outfielder.

“I remember when I first got there, knowing absolutely no one and I felt kind of like I was stranded on a island, maybe like I would have at any other college, but Hawaii actually is an island,” said Cinzori. “After a couple of weeks, I got to know my teammates, got more comfortable and now it’s just a great place to be.

“The weather’s fantastic, the food is amazing and the people are so friendly. I wanted to go somewhere where the girls really got along and not just playing softball. The was the most important thing to me and I’ve found a true family environment at UH.”

On a roster of 28, Cinzori’s goal for the first year was to make the 20-player travel squad, which she did. Actual playing time was harder to come by but she understands it sometimes a process.

“I’ve never been on a team, high school or club, in any sport where I didn’t have to earn my spot and I don’t expect to be given anything here,” said Cinzori. “I know I’ve improved and I’m excited about my future. I’m hoping to get more playing time and have a bigger role.”

Academically, she made the Dean’s List in both fall and spring and cited the athletic program’s creation of balance between academics and athletics, the team’s five-hour per week study hall requirement and consistent monitoring by the coaching staff as key factors in her success. A marketing major with a minor in psychology, Cinzori is planning to do a marketing internship in the UH Athletic Dept. in the fall and has her sights set on eventually attending graduate school.

When asked about benefits student-athletes enjoy, she came up with a pair of atypical examples. “There are no professional sports teams in Hawaii and the UH teams sort of fill that void,” said Cinzori. “Our fans are very supportive and right from the start, the girls emphasized that once you were playing you’re not only representing the university but the whole state. I love that aspect.

“Of course we get a lot of gear but one thing that is special is that we get our own, color-customized gloves. They have two sides and mine has two nicknames my parents and grandparents gave me. Some players have a bible verse or the flag of their home state or country. That’s another cool part of our program that I love—Hawaii has so many international athletes and it’s great to get to know about other peoples’ cultures.”

After taking a couple of weeks off at the end of the school year, Cinzori’s summer includes training twice-a-week with her hitting coach, getting into the gym, surfing and summer school.

She’ll be traveling to Mexico for a two-week Spanish immersion class in Cuernavaca. “Spanish is a language I learned in high school, I want to be good at it and I’m actually going to be living with a family,” she said. “I really love the idea of understanding different cultures and people. Hawaii has been so good in that regard.”