Highlands’ Crise is WPIAL’s latest multi-sport star to face big decision

Saturday, April 20, 2019 | 10:36 PM

Johnny Crise already carried a pair of Division I scholarship offers in basketball, coaches noting the Highlands standout’s athleticism and potential while playing on the AAU circuit.

This spring, interest perked up in Crise’s “other” sport: The 6-foot-7 junior, who shined at wide receiver for the Golden Rams, began taking visits to Division I campuses and received his first two offers this month from Football Championship Subdivision schools Fordham and Bryant.

An already-interesting recruitment suddenly gained more intrigue for Crise, who now first must choose a sport before choosing a school.

“I’m open to anything at the next level,” said Crise, who has offers from Robert Morris and SC Upstate in basketball. “Whatever can get me the best education would take a big weight off my shoulders and my mom and dad. All these college coaches are asking me if I’m going to play basketball or football, and I kind of have the same answer: whatever feels like the right fit.”

It’s a choice that faces a handful of top athletes in the WPIAL who star in multiple sports. And it’s a tricky one to navigate.

The Division I offers began rolling in for North Allegheny senior Rachel Martindale when she was in eighth grade: Duquesne for basketball, Robert Morris for softball.

“It wasn’t tough, it was nice,” Martindale said. “But it’s weird to start that process so early because I was 13 when I got my first offer. You don’t know what you want to do at that point.”

The early interest excited Martindale, but it gave her a difficult decision because she loved both sports. She played baseball until seventh grade before fully committing to softball and picked up basketball at a young age as well. Eventually, Martindale committed to Pitt’s softball team after her freshman year of high school before changing her decision as a junior to play basketball at Akron.

Some other WPIAL top talents can relate. McKeesport basketball/football star Deamontae Diggs picked up football offers from Akron, Buffalo and Youngstown State. South Park’s Maura Huwalt, an Auburn track and field commit, had a Division I basketball offer from Farleigh Dickinson.

The high school stars might not face the multimillion-dollar decision of Kyler Murray, who signed with the Oakland Athletics after they selected him in the first round of the 2018 MLB First-Year Player Draft, then returned his $4.6 million signing bonus after winning the Heisman Trophy in football at Oklahoma and becoming the favorite to be the No. 1 pick in this week’s NFL Draft.

That doesn’t make the choice any easier.

“For me, it was kind of hard because I equally loved football and basketball,” said Devin Wilson, who starred in both sports at Montour before signing with Virginia Tech’s basketball program and helping lead the Hokies to the NCAA Tournament in 2017-18, his final season.

“So it was kind of hard having to choose one, and to be honest, I didn’t end up choosing a sport until halfway through my senior year of basketball. So I was a late bloomer. But it was definitely fun being able to play both sports.”

Some athlete’s choices can be obvious, Wilson said, pointing to former Clairton star Tyler Boyd, who was a good basketball player but a bigger football standout; Boyd starred at Pitt and now is in his fourth season with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Terrelle Pryor verbally committed to Pitt’s basketball team as a sophomore in 2006 and was ranked as one of the top recruits in the country in that sport. However, he also was ranked as the top football recruit in the country and ultimately went to Ohio State for football, started at quarterback for three seasons and is a seven-year NFL veteran.

Like Crise, Wilson’s choice was difficult because his body type fit both basketball and football. He said he debated it until deep in his senior year before ultimately choosing basketball. He also joined the football program at Virginia Tech in his later years at the school.

“In the long run I think one thing I would have changed about it is I think a lot of schools from basketball shied away from me because they knew I was a Western Pennsylvania kid and most of us go play football,” Wilson said. “So I think that was something that hurt me in basketball recruiting, but in the long run I got to a school that I loved dearly and had a great career there.”

Former Beaver Falls star Lance Jeter switched sports mid-college, starting as a football player at Cincinnati before finishing as a basketball player at Nebraska. Since graduating, he has carved out a successful professional basketball career.

Martindale said she changed her commitment from softball to basketball late in the summer before her junior season at North Allegheny. She played AAU softball all summer long, then got one opportunity to play in an AAU basketball tournament late in the summer.

“After I played in that, I was like, oh my gosh, I miss this so much, and I realized then that’s what I wanted to do the next four years after high school,” said Martindale, who ultimately informed Pitt of her wishes and said the coaches there were understanding. “They handled it great, and I love them for that. They made it a lot easier because I think a coach can kind of make that really difficult if they’re going to be difficult with it. But I think they understood that I’m switching sports, I’m not switching schools.”

While Martindale made her decision, Crise is facing his now, going on football visits while also playing baseball for Highlands and AAU basketball. He took trips earlier this spring to Buffalo, Fordham, Lafayette and Pitt.

“I’ve been playing both sports, so when that final decision has to come down it’s going to be a tough one,” Crise said.

Wilson said he would advise players in situations like his or Crise’s to keep playing as many sports as they can through high school instead of deciding to specialize in one.

Martindale, who still plays and loves softball but believes she made the right choice with basketball, said she would tell multi-sport athletes to think deeply about what they want most before making a decision.

“I just would say look ahead four years,” she said. “Where do you see yourself? What are you doing? When you dream about what you want to do, what’s that? What are you playing, what sport are you doing, where are you going to school, what state?

“I think you have to think about what you really want to do and go after it because I finally figured that out. Some people know it earlier, some people take longer, but I think it just hits and you know in your heart what you want to do.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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