US college doors open up for New Zealand aces

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Canterbury tennis player James Meredith pauses when asked if accepting a sports scholarship to a United States college is like hitting the jackpot.

"Well, I can see why you could put it like that," Meredith says. "For the likes of me, I worked so hard to get to that point, playing tennis for most of my life.

"I got to travel all over America and was lucky to play in Hawaii. You're not there to travel - you're there to play tennis - but it is still unreal to go to all those different states and universities and have those experiences."

Recommending a sports scholarship is fine but getting one is another matter. If you're not much chop as an athlete you can stop wasting everyone's time.

But if you're good, doors that were previously closed may swing wide open.

Scholarships are offered by Division 1 and 2 schools and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) serves as the governing body for affiliated university athletic departments in the US.

Fully or partially funded scholarships for tennis, swimming, basketball, football, athletics, golf, volleyball and more are available to Kiwis through a plethora of colleges and few parents would be reluctant to kick a kid out of the nest when they assess the potential savings.

High Performance Sport New Zealand advises the average tuition, room and board for foreign students in US public universities is US$32,329 (NZ$39,018) per year.

Meredith, now 23, graduated from Boise State University in Idaho in May. After studying for four years he completed a communications degree with an emphasis on public relations and advertising.

As a Christchurch Boys' High School student he won numerous age-group titles and was a member of the New Zealand Junior Davis Cup team. After getting his ranking down to around 60 in International Tennis Federation tournaments and the Junior Australian Open, several colleges reached out.

"I took what was right for me and I have no regrets about going to Boise at all. It may not have had the best tennis team of those that made offers to me but we still had a good team and ended up beating some of those top-ranked schools."

In Meredith's freshman year Boise were ranked 16th in the nation following their NCAA tournaments, qualifying for the Sweet 16 tournament.

Internal flights were covered by the university, while trips back to New Zealand had to be self-funded.

The tennis may be amateur but it was very competitive. "There are guys on tour now who went to college in the States, like James Blake and John Isner."

Since returning to Christchurch, Meredith has been helping brother Matt with coaching and offering private lessons at the Cashmere tennis club.

He is also contemplating a move to Germany to play for a club and link with several of his team-mates from college.

Studying, training and made for a full itinerary at Boise. A normal day for Meredith was to take morning classes for about three hours, followed by 2 hours of tennis training. That was topped up with an hour of fitness and gym training. Some athletes also take night classes.

Meredith's advice to anyone considering a scholarship is to go for it.

"You get an education while pursuing a sport you love and have dedicated your life towards. There are so many scholarships out there for different levels of tennis and so many sports."

It is crucial for athletes to have a good relationship with their coach. If that partnership deteriorates there is potential for trouble because ultimately that person could scrap the scholarship.

For Meredith one of the biggest surprises was the hype around the college football team.

The tradition of tailgating, when fans gather to socialise and fire up their barbecues before games, is just the beginning of a big day of partying.

"I was lucky enough to go to Georgia to watch one of our football teams play and there were 80,000 fans."

Given the massive interest in their fixtures, the college footballers are the stars on campus but Meredith didn't notice any lording it over their fellow students.

"We had a few guys that went to the NFL [National Football League] but they are still just college athletes. Some may be the next millionaires on campus but the ones I met just want to be treated like normal human beings."

One of Canterbury's most famous exports to an American university was former All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen, who attended Greensboro and Stanford.

Nelsen, who now coaches Toronto FC in Major League Soccer, embarked on a pro career that eventually resulted in him raking in big coin with English premiership clubs Blackburn, Tottenham and Queen's Park Rangers. Like Nelsen, Aaron Clapham, who hails from Christchurch and has represented the All Whites, attended two colleges over four years.

Clapham, who is now 26 and plays for the Canterbury Dragons in the New Zealand Football Championship, was aligned with St Francis University in Pennsylvania for two years before joining University of Louisville in 2007 because they had a bigger emphasis on sports.

The value of scholarships depended on what college you attended, Clapham said. He wasn't surprised that HSPNZ is stating scholarships are worth about US$32,000.

"The first school I attended was private and was very expensive. The tuition would have been around that mark. My second school was a large public school, government-funded, so it was a little bit cheaper but you are still talking around tens of thousands for tuition each year.

"If you can get a scholarship it is obviously worth a significant amount of money.

"At the time I didn't really realise it but looking back on it now it was truly an incredible life experience."

While some 18-year-olds could get homesick, Clapham believed joining a new sports team ensured there was a "safety net", because he was thrust into an environment stacked with new friends who loved playing soccer.

Clapham encouraged anyone looking at scholarships to choose their college carefully.

They should also make sure the institution offered the degree they were interested in.

Making regular contact by phone or email with the new coach should also be a priority before signing up.

"You need to do your research and get to know that coach really well because that is going to be a big part of your life."

Fairfax Media