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Chris Murphy, Published August 17 2013

Offseason hardly a time of rest for incoming freshmen in college athletics

Fargo - Kira Larson graduated from Fargo North on June 2 and was at the University of Nebraska on June 9 to begin her college volleyball career. So much for a summer swan song to say goodbye to family and friends. That’s the life of an NCAA Division I athlete.

The team is family. The team is friends. The team is life.

“(A summer vacation) is not in existence when you play college sports,” Larson said. “It’s the love for the game. You’re willing to do everything you can to get the end result. People come to these schools to be national champions. They don’t come here to have an experience. There’s no way I’d ever want to change it. The only thing you can look back on and say is if you didn’t do enough.”

There’s a difference between Larson’s D-I volleyball schedule and Mahnomen graduate Garret Hoffner’s D-II wrestling schedule, West Fargo graduate Andrea Klug’s D-III hockey schedule or Fargo South graduate Paxton Lloyd’s NAIA basketball schedule. Different as they may be, it’s impossible to ignore the common denominator in all their schedules: The sacrifice for the love of the game.

Seven days after walking the stage to receive her high school diploma, Larson was enrolled in an online class as part of the “bridge” program at Nebraska. She has class at 9 a.m., works out after, meets with tutors after that and works out after that. Sprinkle in yoga twice a week with the team and other team functions, and that’s Larson’s offseason. It’s her only hope of getting playing time.

“It’s totally up to them whether they want to do the bridge program or not,” Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook said. “To play at this level, you pretty much have to do that. We’ve had seven freshmen start in my 13 years. Kira is going to have to do that just to be able to be in drills and compete for a chance to play. If she doesn’t, she has no chance, so she’s basically going to burn a year of shagging balls in practice. It’s one of the ways that allows incoming freshmen to acclimate to the college life. Basketball does the same thing, football does the same thing. It’s part of being a Division I athlete. The offseason is very, very important.”

The question is whether or not there is any real offseason in Division I athletics. After all, Larson has already literally given her blood to the Cornhuskers as part of body testing and EKGs. Even her speech is controlled.

“They honestly have a rule for anything,” Larson said. “Whether it’s Facebook rules, Instagram or Twitter. There’s so many just social media rules that we aren’t allowed to do. It’s things you would never think of. There’s just a lot about what you can and can’t post on Twitter. Everybody thinks you have freedom of speech, but when you’re a Division I athlete, there’s a lot of things you aren’t allowed to say on Twitter because you can get in a lot of trouble for it.”

This is the price an athlete pays, and the reasoning anyone at any university can rest easy at night is the athletes aren’t the only ones with a bill.

“Very few kids get the opportunities that these kids get,” Cook said. “We’re investing a lot in them. They get their school paid for, they get tutors, they get the best of everything, they charter on trips, they charter on jets, they get great equipment from Adidas and they get to play in front of big crowds. It takes someone different to do that. There is a different mindset than just a normal college kid. That’s why it’s not for anybody.”

And it’s not for every college. Klug and Hoffner were given a workout plan from Division III Concordia and Division II Minnesota State Moorhead, respectively, and sent on their way. Valley City State University, which competes at the NAIA level, also gave Lloyd a workout schedule.

There is no requirement for any of it. Just like Larson, they sacrifice for the idea of glory, but they are not required to do any of it.

“It’s something we can’t force upon them,” MSUM wrestling coach Kris Nelson said. “I can just encourage it and hope that these kids are dedicated enough, and they want to get better, and they want to come in as freshmen and push for that starting position. For a Division I school and a Division II school, it’s a completely different story.”

Nelson gives his wrestlers the first week of college off to learn the area. By that time, Larson has been an enrolled student at Nebraska for nearly four months.

The requirements may be different, but the dedication is still there.

When Hoffner isn’t working as a server at Perkins, he’s running, lifting and wrestling in tournaments during his summer. He runs two days and lifts four days each week. There won’t necessarily be the big Division I crowds or the Adidas equipment or chartered jets or as many zeroes on the scholarship, but there’s still the want to win.

“Wrestling is a huge part of my life, and I’m getting a big scholarship to go out and wrestle for (MSUM), and I take it seriously,” Hoffner said. “I want to be the best I can be and be prepared for it. All the adversity over the years, it’s given me drive to be so much better in everything that I do. There are always people that are better than me, so you can’t slack off, or you’ll be left behind.”

The dedication doesn’t stop at Division III, as Klug goes to the gym five days a week at 10 a.m. to work on her strength and speed to try for a spot as a Cobbers goalie.

“It’s your choice,” Klug said. “If you really love the sport you’re playing, it’s worth it. You can still go and do stuff with your friends, but just not as much. I have a strong enough love for hockey. It’s just not something I’m ready to give up yet.”

The work is still there on the NAIA level as well. When Lloyd isn’t working over the summer, he’s doing basketball drills at least five days a week at noon and lifting after.

“They give you a little packet of basketball routines and drills, but they said if you have your own routine to stick with it,” Lloyd said of his summer requirements. “It doesn’t really bother me at all. I’ve played basketball since I was a little kid. I want to keep playing it and play it throughout college.”

And there’s the silver lining in every college athlete. There is tunnel vision only focused on one thing.

“You want to finish your four years and say, ‘I worked as hard as I could every day. I gave it everything I could every second,’” Larson said. “You can never regret working hard.”

And that one thing isn’t easy.

“Kira says she wants to win a national championship,” Cook said. “Well, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. They are hard to win.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548