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Ross' juggling act

In an era of specialization, the Placer senior finds time to star in three sports
By: Todd Mordhorst Journal Sports Editor
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Matt Ross is already wondering what he’s going to do with all his spare time next year. Anyone who knows Placer High’s three-sport star can assure you he won’t be sitting around twiddling his thumbs. Ross was the quarterback on Placer’s section runner-up football team. He’s a starting forward on the basketball team and this spring he’ll be the Hillmen’s ace on the baseball diamond when he’s not playing shortstop. The only regret of his athletic career so far is not being able to pursue one more sport. “I’d definitely like to try boxing,” Ross said. “I was thinking about taking lessons at Ringside in Newcastle, but with (basketball) practice I wasn’t able to do it.” That’s about the only thing Ross has failed to do in his tenure at Placer. He maintains a 3.80 grade point average and coaches rave about his leadership and character. In his “spare” time, Ross holds down a part-time job at Ace Hardware in Auburn and maintains a close bond with his family and his girlfriend. “It’s tough sometimes,” Ross said. “My junior and sophomore years I had honors and AP classes and I’d get home from football really late and you’re really tired, but you have to sit there and do chemistry or math.” To specialize or not? Ross was planning on playing just two sports at Placer when he first stepped on campus, but a conversation with athletic director Mark Lee changed things. “I talked him into playing three sports when he was a freshman,” Lee said. “He’s such a good athlete and he has a great work ethic. I ask him how he finds the time to do homework.” “I planned on quitting a sport because everyone was telling me it was hard to focus on three sports,” Ross said. “I was having a tough time deciding — I’m not sure what I wouldn’t have played. Coach Lee kind of talked me into playing all three.” In an era where three-sport athletes are a dying breed, Ross is a throwback. Many high-caliber athletes choose to specialize in one sport. Year-round AAU programs sometimes bolster hopes of earning a college scholarship or better an athlete’s chances at a professional career. Ross said he sometimes thinks about what could have been if he had spent all year playing baseball or turned all his attention to football or basketball. “It’s hard to look back… I don’t know if I would have gotten a scholarship,” he said. “I don’t regret it at all. I had tons of fun playing all three.” Like Ross, Colfax’s Jeff Divine is one of the top athletes in his school. He played three sports last year as a junior and had a tremendous football season before hitting the basketball court. But he’s not planning on suiting up for the Falcons’ track team this spring. “This spring I’m going to focus on training (on my own) — lifting and doing sprint workouts,” Divine said. “I’m just trying to get stronger for football (in college).” Divine said he considered focusing on football full time, but he’s happy he stuck with basketball. “Football’s my sport, but basketball was a pretty close second,” said Divine, who’s considering playing football at Humboldt State next year. “I did track to stay in shape and try to get faster. I thought about specializing, but I didn’t want to miss out on basketball. Doing another sport keeps you in shape. Other guys that aren’t playing a sport might slack off.” Some smaller schools struggle to field competitive teams, especially when their best athletes focus solely on one sport. “Some kids just want time off,” Lee said. “And you never really know why they may not play a certain sport. It varies depending on the kid.” Staying sharp Ross said the one drawback to playing three sports at the varsity level is the lack of time to get better in the offseason. “It’s weird switching back and forth,” Ross said. “Once you’re into basketball season you get used to it, but there’s major differences between the sports. It’s hard to work and improve your skills because you just don’t have that much time. It’s hard to improve your game dramatically.” Through hard work and sometimes sheer will, Ross has managed to excel, no matter the athletic venue. Last spring, he helped the Hillmen reach the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinals on the diamond with several brilliant performances on the mound. Last fall, he was a key to Placer’s remarkable run to the section title game, earning all-Pioneer Valley League honors. On the basketball court, the Hillmen have struggled to a 7-12 record this season, but no one questions Ross’ effort. In Placer’s biggest win of the season so far — an upset of Del Oro at the Kendall Arnett Tournament — Ross scored the winning basket and finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Ross’ athleticism is exceptional, which helps him make up for his lack of off-season training. But Lee said the intangible elements he brings to his respective teams are just as valuable. “There’s certain kids that you coach that really touch your heart,” Lee said. “And Matt’s definitely one of them. We’ll really miss him next year.” A sunny future Ross plans to attend San Diego State next fall, where he will try out for coach Tony Gwynn’s baseball team. He hopes to earn a walk-on slot as a pitcher. “Football and basketball are probably my favorites, but baseball’s probably my best sport,” Ross said when pressed. His academic plan is to major in business administration. Down the road, he hopes to land a job in the front office with the San Diego Chargers or the Padres. Hillmen fans can take solace in knowing there’s a Ross protégé on the Placer campus. Junior Josh Klem will be back next year to star as a tight end on the football team, a forward on the basketball team and a pitcher/shortstop on the baseball squad. “He’s a stud at all three,” Ross said of Klem. Ross’ advice to other athletes tackling multiple sports? “I’d just say stick with it,” he said. “There’s lots of ups and downs. There’s been times when I’ve thought maybe I should drop one, but I really don’t have any regrets.”