Brandon Bell woke up ready to compete on a Saturday morning last January.

But the Oakcrest High School linebacker and college football prospect left his helmet and shoulder pads in his locker.

Instead, he grabbed his No. 2 pencils and headed to school to take the SAT.

Bell, who just completed his junior year, last week verbally committed to attend Penn State University on a football scholarship.

What the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Bell did that Saturday in January was just as important for him to get a scholarship as the 117 tackles he made last fall. If Bell, like all prospects, didn’t achieve a certain grade-point average and SAT score, he wouldn’t be eligible to play sports on a scholarship.

“I felt a tad bit of pressure, but at the same time I knew I was capable of performing at the level I needed to,” Bell said of trying to reach those academic marks. “It’s like one of those games that’s a long fight. You’re sitting in there going back and forth with the questions and problems. It’s a long, hard battle.”

Bell got the score he needed and is on pace to be academically eligible to play as a freshman in the fall of 2013.

The SAT makes many students nervous. But if athletes miss their required score by even a few points, a scholarship worth as much as $200,000 can slip away.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Holy Spirit boys basketball coach Jamie Gillespie said. “It’s opportunities of a lifetime kids could be missing out on.”

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The NCAA reviews the eligibility of all its prospective Division I athletes. The athletes must maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average in 16 core courses in high school. They must also meet a required score on the SAT test depending on their grade-point average. The lower the GPA, the higher the SAT score must be.

For example, an athlete with a 2.0 GPA must score 1,010 on the SAT to be eligible. An athlete with a 3.0 GPA only needs a 620 on the SAT to be eligible.

Those standards will get tougher in 2015.

Instead of taking the SAT, student can take the ACT test. Just like with the SAT, students must get a certain score on the ACT depending on their GPA to be eligible.

NCAA Division II athletes must maintain at least a 2.0 high school GPA in 14 core classes and score at least an 820 on the SAT to be eligible for a scholarship. Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships.

Crucial numbers

Each year the NCAA reviews the academic credentials of about 180,000 prospective student athletes. About 7 percent (12,600 students) of those students fail to meet the academic standards to receive a scholarship, according to Chris Radford, assistant director of public and media relations for the NCAA.

“It’s the first question the football recruiters ask,” Oakcrest football coach Chuck Smith said. “What’s the two-score (math and verbal) SAT? They (the recruiters) want to see if it’s worth it.”

Local high school coaches are constantly reminding their athletes about their academics.

Holy Spirit boys basketball has produced several Division I and Division II players in the past few years, including Ryan Brooks (Rhode Island), Dennis Horner (North Carolina State), B.J. Bailey (Lehigh) and Jate Cheshul (Bentley).

Gillespie already is talking about SAT scores and GPA with talented Spirit sophomore Junior Saintel. The coach uses spreadsheets to show players the academic progress they need to make. He doesn’t want his players to be in a position where they have to score a 1,200 on the SAT as a senior to be eligible for a scholarship.

“From the day they walk into Holy Spirit, we make our players understand the classes they’re taking their freshman year will ultimately have an impact on the type of opportunities they have,” Gillespie said. “If the kids aren’t educated, they end up putting themselves in a situation they don’t want to be in.”

The Oakcrest football team held mandatory study hall and SAT preparation classes for its players. The team’s booster club raised the money to pay for the tutors.

“Football is one thing, but most of the kids are done playing after four years (of high school),” Smith said. “We’re trying to help give them direction and get them into a school.”

Smith also advises players to take the SAT early in their high school career instead of waiting until they are seniors.

“It’s a bear of a test,” he said. “A lot of kids are chasing a score their senior year.”

Several local athletes also attend SAT preparation courses. Daniel Loggi, the former Atlantic County Superintendent of Schools and the Pleasantville boys basketball coach in the 1960s, tutors several athletes. He remembers Holy Spirit crew athletes coming to his SAT prep classes fresh from rowing on the bay.

Loggi treats the athletes as he does his other students. But while non-athletes are often just looking to improve their score, Loggi said athletes often know exactly what score they need to achieve in the SAT.

“They’re very goal-oriented,” he said.

Athletes, more so than other students, often hang around after class to talk with Loggi.

“I end (the class) two nights before the test,” Loggi said. “They’re so fired up they can’t even sleep. The adrenaline is high.”

Dealing with setbacks

It can be heartbreaking when athletes don’t achieve the score they need.

Brooks missed the SAT score he needed to qualify as a high school senior by 30 to 40 points. Brooks, who attended Holy Spirit as a junior and senior, needed a high score because he had struggled academically as a freshman and sophomore.

“It was so frustrating for me and my mother,” said Brooks, of Mays Landing. “She had her heart set on me going to college. But I still had people in my corner, saying it wasn’t over and that I could still do this.”

After high school, Brooks attended South Kent School, a prep school in South Kent, Conn. He concedes that he didn’t want to go at first, but his time there helped him learn how to live on his own. He raised his GPA and his test score.

That summer, the Rhode Island coaches telephoned him and told him he was in.

“I finally could breathe again,” Brooks said.

He just completed his junior season at Rhode Island.

Other athletes who don’t qualify academically aren’t so fortunate.

Some go to junior college. But their scholarship opportunities are often never again what they could have been as high school seniors.

Still, most local athletes, coaches and teachers think having academic standards for athletes is a good thing.

“There’s a lot of talent all around the country that can go out there and put up numbers on the field,” said Bell, the Penn State-bound Oakcrest linebacker. “But the guys that want to be successful also have to do the work in the classroom.”

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