From his dorm room in Mount Carmel, Illinois Luke Odden told me, “I watched every season of Last Chance U before I got here [Wabash Valley] , and I would say there are a lot of similarities. Especially with the East Mississippi one! I mean they are in a town in the middle of nowhere. It’s just the same exact concept. We’re just playing baseball instead of football.” He said something else but the choppy connection made it hard to hear. That was how the entire interview panned out. We have segments of good conversation, which would then be interrupted by bad internet connection. I wondered how someone who has lived in Colorado, Texas, and Arizona ended up in a place he dubbed “the middle of nowhere”. The answer was simple…baseball. More specifically JUCO baseball.
For those who do not know, Junior College or JUCO, is an institution that can provide student-athletes a place to continue their education, while participating competitively in a sport that they may want to pursue at a four year university in the future. Junior colleges provide a two year stepping stone for a student or athlete to prepare themselves academically and physically for a more conventional university experience. In certain instances, they may also offer certain standalone vocational degrees should students want to pursue a trade after their certification and training has been completed.
There are many reasons why athletes choose the JUCO route. Some student-athletes who attend are non-qualifiers – or do not meet the initial NCAA DI/DII academic eligibility requirements after graduating high school and others may not meet the NAIA requirements for initial eligibility. So they want to raise them before moving on to a 4-year institution.
Some don’t have the financial ability to pay for a 4-year school. According to a CNBC article published in 2019, it can cost an average of $3,660 per year to attend a junior college, which is significantly lower than the $25,362 annual average cost of four year schools.
In Luke’s case, which is usually the case for many athletes coming out of high school, you just didn’t get that many offers or didn’t get an offer from your dream school.
Regardless of the reason and no matter the preconceived negative connotation that it comes with, taking the JUCO route is a viable option. Especially if you are looking to further advance their knowledge of the sport, further train to get their bodies in peak performance or get used to strength and conditioning routines for collegiate programs. Something Luke has taken full advantage of.
“We had a few kids go D1 (in high school). Most of them haven’t played at all. They either got redshirted or just didn’t play. I was given an opportunity that I don’t think I would’ve gotten elsewhere, Odden continued, “To actually develop and play, not just get better on the side, but to see myself in game at this level, and develop into a college player instead of being thrown straight into the fire.”
This is a harsh reality that some athletes are not prepared for. Getting offers and committing to play at a D1-D3 level is only a part of it. Whether you actually step on the field or not is an entirely different story. Some athletes are content with just being comfortable, and saying they’re on the roster at a “big name school” just to say it. However for those who go the JUCO route, content is a world they are not familiar with.
“Nobody is here to stay here. Everybody’s trying to get out and it can get really competitive. Especially in the fall when everybody first got there. It was all about getting reps and fighting for starting positions. Everyone was pushing each other. Like you see someone working more and you think I got to step it up.”
When Odden eventually makes the next step in his collegiate career he definitely believes that he’ll be playing with a chip on his shoulder. Some JUCO schools may not have the elite facilities and equipment that bigger schools have. However no matter what school you go to, everyone is always going to be fighting for spots and more competition is something that he told me he was looking forward to.
To conclude our interview, I asked Luke what advice he would give kids who are undecided about taking the JUCO route. He said, “Where I come from, it felt like going JUCO meant “oh you’re just not good enough” or “oh that kinda sucks”. You have to keep away from that mentality. You’re saving two years worth of money, and you get to have opportunities that you might not get if you make that jump straight to a big school. There’s a lot of pros to this route that not a lot of people look at. It’s just kinda frowned upon. So if a person was in my shoes I would 100% recommend it.”