By RJ Walters / Daily News Sports Editor
As published in the Hillsdale Daily News on April 24, 2009
Mitchell Gabriele is much more polished and perceptive than average 18-year-olds because of the lessons he has learned in sports.
But nothing could have prepared him for what he calls a “bumpy road” on the recruiting trail, one that has forced him to look at his destiny in life as one dictated by forces beyond his control.
With his 12th and final season as a Hornet quickly evaporating, Gabriele figured spring baseball would be a time to enjoy some final malarkey with his high school teammates and possibly make a deep run in the state tourney before heading off to play college ball, but instead he is still sending out tapes and e-mails, trying to figure out why no one is offering him a scholarship.
All part of the game
For a kid who relishes having the ball in his hands with the game on the line it couldn’t be more frustrating, but the things he has taken to heart the past few years have prepared him for this.
For one, he learned through athletics that his über-competitive drive can get the best of him sometimes and considering the consequences before taking action is a wise option.
He has also learned waiting his turn, behind the likes of Tyler Laser and CJ Hinkle among others, was especially fruitful — for when it was his turn to take the reigns he already knew what to expect.
In just a few shorts years Gabriele has experienced being part of a state championship baseball team and he’s also digested the feeling of going 2-for-22 in his final high school basketball game; he’s been thrown out of a high school contest, hit the game-winning 3-pointer, scored dozens of important touchdowns and come up just short enough times to keep him hungry.
Most impressively though, he has learned the commitment it takes to be one of the best athletes in the state at every sport he plays, to the point he was able to reach a goal he set for himself prior to high school — being named an all-state performer in baseball, basketball and football.
But nothing, not volunteering in the community, getting hassled about whose homeruns went farther by his older brother Marco, or the priceless advice he’s received from high school coaches and parents could have prepared him for this question: “Why has no college or university offered him an athletic scholarship, a chance to take his skills to the next level?”
The answer seems to be mysterious, and somewhat baffling — something Gabriele’s closest confidants, teachers and family members just can’t figure out.
Where is the love?
The cupboard is not empty, it is just not stocked the way Gabriele envisioned it.
The Ferris State football program invited him for an official workout, only to call him and tell him they would be glad to have him walk on, but they wouldn’t be offering him “preferred” status.
And on April 19 Gabriele went to an official basketball workout at Grand Valley, one of Division II’s most heralded sports schools, but as his father John Gabriele said, “It sounds like he felt good about the workout, but you never know exactly what they’re expecting and what they are looking for.”
Gabriele said Division III Adrian has offered him a chance to play basketball and football as a Bulldog next fall, which he’s honored by, but he still thinks he’s a D-II talent who has proven worthy of a scholarship at a higher level.
Gabriele, who led the Jackson area in points per game on the hardwood this season, and led the Hornets to another state playoff berth in football in his first and only year as the quarterback, said maybe he is just getting overlooked because he’s from a small school recruiters haven’t heard of.
Or maybe coaches and scouts think he’s too small to play quarterback or not quick enough for college basketball.
Or maybe there is no reasonable explanation at all, as Hornets basketball coach Brad Felix insists.
“I’ve reached out to a number of coaches, in fact I’m calling Albion’s coach tonight,” Felix said several weeks ago. “I’m not trying to push him on them, but probably just calling for the same reason you would, to figure out what’s the deal here.”
Felix said the lack of interest and phone calls regarding Gabriele had him wondering if he somehow had misread the senior’s ability or potential. But after a season in which Gabriele was named County Player of the Year by the HDN, a Jackson Citizen Patriot Dream-Team selection, and an honorable mention all-state representative by the AP, Felix said he is confident he is talking up a consummate talent when he talks to prospective schools.
“Statistically speaking, other than points per game, he put up numbers….(21.3 points,4.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.2 steals per game, to be exact) I don’t know if you can compare them totally to Tyler Laser, but assist wise he’s the best I’ve coached and he was still doing (all that). And he couldn’t be more competitive, he’s a great competitor,” Felix said. “His basketball IQ is the best I’ve had, he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever coached. He’s not the best player I’ve coached, there’s a little bit of a difference, but I’ve even told Mitchell this — he’s the best player I’ve coached as far as he knows what I want him to know.”
Maybe those intangibles are what caught the attention of Grand Valley, but Gabriele thinks it’s odd that the Lakers are the only one giving him a look.
“It’s so unbelievable, because Grand Valley is the top of the GLIAC pretty much every year and they ask me to come for a workout….but it’s kind of weird,” he said. “Because the top in Division II is (interested) and I sent out like 19 or 20 tapes for a whole bunch of Division II and some small Division I (schools) and they’re the only ones who have responded for basketball.”
Gabriele said he also received a small amount of interest from Central Michigan University for football and he sent them some video clips, but he never heard back from them, and expects his 6-foot frame is at least two or three inches from ideal.
He may a bit on the small side, but his numbers aren’t. In the 2008 football campaign he completed better than 60 percent of his passes for more than 1,500 yards and 21 touchdowns, while also running for over 800 yards and 18 scores.
John Gabriele, who played football and baseball at Hillsdale College in his younger years, said this isn’t the script he thought Mitchell’s senior year would follow, but his son has stayed strong.
“I just thought Mitchell’s senior year was going to determine whether he was more suited for football, basketball or baseball,” he said. “But he’s a pretty strong kid as far as mentally, so he bounces around pretty good and he always seems to land on his feet.”
Why not a Charger?
In the next few months Gabriele will land his feet on a college campus he’ll call home, but it won’t be at Hillsdale College.
This has perplexed Felix and Gabriele himself, but upon closer inspection it appears grades, not Gabriele’s completion percentage or assist-to-turnover ratio is the reason he won’t be donning Charger blue, like teammate and close friend Scott Lantis, who has committed to play baseball at the college.
Gabriele said being shunned by the college he grew up near stings, be he is not bitter, and thinks it is a privilege to play at there given their academic and athletic record, not a right.
“It kind of hurts, being the local kid and all and not having the eyes on you from your local college…they don’t see something in me like Ferris did, but it happens,” he said.
Gabriele also said he is proud of many of his fellow county athletes who have suited up for the Chargers in various sports the past few years, but he thinks he is at least as talented as most of them.
“Hey look at me, I’m standing over here,” he said. “It’s hard to get into that school though…but you know it’s a possibility I could transfer to a school that’s bigger like (Hillsdale) if I do go to Adrian, but it’s hard.”
It’s so hard to get into Hillsdale College, whose 2008 freshman class entered with average GPAs of 3.73 and composite ACT scores of 28, that Hillsdale College men’s basketball coach John Tharp said he regularly has to turn potential recruits aside simply because they don’t meet the lofty admissions requirements.
Tharp is prohibited by NCAA rules and regulations to comment specifically on Gabriele’s situation because he is an unsigned recruit, but he did shed some light on what types of academic standards he is expected to uphold.
“Right now we’re really kind of looking at 25 (on) ACTs, it’s kind of our base for recruiting kids at. Kids who maybe have a lower ACT score than that better have a particularly high GPA,” he said. “If it’s a 25 (on the ACT) they may have a little lower GPA, but it’s kind of how we have to do things.”
Gabriele scored a 20 on his ACT and carries a 3.6 GPA.
Tharp added that Jeff Lantis, the college’s head of admissions is “an absolutely wonderful man, who does his job extremely well” and the athletic department has the trust of the admissions office to only bring in students that meet their stringent criteria.
John Gabriele said he is surprised his son’s academic resumé isn’t quite good enough for the college, but the family has decided to just accept Hillsdale’s decision.
“I’m a little disappointed…but we don’t have much control over that and what is, is,” he said. “We’ve just pretty much accepted it. It’s discouraging, but we’ve accepted it.”
Felix said he understands the college has a status quo to uphold, but he still thinks something is fishy based on previous experiences with recruits.
“As far as Hillsdale is concerned, they kind of gave me the grade issue, but he’s got a good GPA and 20 (on the ACT) and I know when we were pushing Tyler (Laser) around that would’ve got him anywhere. So I’m not sure about that reasoning right now,” he said. “All of it seems kind of weird to me. I respect coach Tharp and think he respects me, so I’m not going to say he’s feeding me anything because I don’t think so, but there is something strange about it all.
Gabriele’s athletic partner-in-crime the last three years, Scott Lantis, said it is an interesting situation, but one he is in a tough position to comment on.
As Gabriele said though, if he is set on being a Charger at some point in his college career, transferring is a possibility, much like current Hillsdale College forward Luke Laser did. Laser played under Felix in high school and went to Saginaw Valley State to play hoops before Tharp brought him in as a transfer.
Gabriele has been a regular at Charger basketball games the last few years and he said he’s confident he is a GLIAC-caliber guard, although he admits he has plenty of room to improve as well.
“Of course like anybody who has a lot of improving to do right out of high school I would have the same. Everyone does — if you’re Michael Jordan or you’re Mitchell Gabriele, you have a lot to learn.”
Just letting it all happen
Though this question-filled, pressure-packed saga has worn on Gabriele at times, the enlightening part is it has given him perspective on the challenges ahead.
At this point he knows he wants to go into pre-med and play college athletics at the highest level possible, but little else.
But Felix and Hornets head football coach Marc Lemerand have helped him see this situation through lenses filled with life experiences and faithful hope.
“Like Coach Lem told me when I talked to him about it: ‘Mitchell, like my mom told me one time, everything will happen for a reason, everything will be fine if you just let them happen,” Gabriele said. “So I’m letting them happen and I did get a phone call from Grand Valley, which is letting it happen, and hopefully other doors will open.”
Felix is of the same mindset.
“Really I’m just a little disheartened and hope he gets the chance he deserves,” he said. “But you try and go with the philosophy that everything happens for a reason and hopefully the Lord will shine down on you and if He doesn’t right now then He must have another path or other plans down the road for you.”
As of right now, those other plans could include Gabriele enrolling at Adrian College, something he has started to warm up to the past few months.
He said he would rather play one sport at the Division II level than two at D-III, but he “loved” his visit to Adrian and said he was blown away by the facilities and locker rooms, comparing them to some Division I schools he’s seen.
“I know Adrian is Division III and that’s something I was kind of iffy about doing, but they’re going to let me play basketball and football there, so that’s a big possibility,” he said. “I know every college feels ‘we’re going to build a family here’, but they really do. It was the first program that sent me stuff from kids who have played football and went on to bigger and better things and are like heads of corporations and stuff now. They send me stuff that tries to put it all in perspective and show me the true meaning in life.”
Gabriele said the Bulldogs graduated their starting QB from last season and are willing to give him a chance at the spot if the coaching staff thinks it’s his best position, and that is an endearing prospect for Gabriele because he said he still “wants the ball in his hands”.
At the end of the day all Gabriele really wants is a chance — a chance to prove he is better than the naysayers think and an opportunity to prove he was one bona-fide prospect who slipped too far under the radar somehow.