Gary Nagle has a simple answer when asked to name his favorite sport.
“My favorite sport,” the Middle Township High School senior says, “is the one I’m playing.”
Nagle made more than 70 tackles for the Panthers’ football team last fall. He won more than 100 career matches and was a district champion as a wrestler in wintertime. Last week, Nagle, a track and field athlete each spring, broke a 46-year-old school record in the pole vault.
But Nagle’s biggest accomplishment might just be that he’s a three-sport athlete. Multisport athletes aren’t as common on the high school sports scene as they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Three-sport athletes just feel the need to stay active.
“I never want to sit at home,” said Wildwood junior Maddie McCracken, who participates in basketball, soccer and track and field for the Warriors.
One of the most debated topics in youth sports is whether athletes should specialize in one sport. All youth sports have evolved into being year-round activities.
Soccer, baseball and softball players train at indoor facilities during the winter. Basketball players competed on the summer AAU circuit.
The first-round selections in last month’s NFL draft added fuel to the debate. Of the 32 players chosen, 29 had played two sports in high school, and 14 were three-sport athletes.
Barnegat baseball coach Dan McCoy is a proponent of multi-sport athletes. His son Mark, a 2012 Barnegat graduate, played football, basketball and baseball for the Bengals. He went on to pitch in the Kansas City Royals organization.
“I’ve seen the single-sport athlete just play baseball, baseball, baseball or you name the sport,” McCoy said. “I think a kid should have the opportunity to be a kid, and that means playing multiple sports.”
Focusing on just one sport can be harmful to an athlete’s health.
A 2014 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed 57 percent of all Tommy John surgeries are performed on baseball pitchers between the ages of 15 and 19.
“The reason why (there are) so many injuries is because they keep doing the same things over and over and over again,” McCoy said. “They’re overusing that same muscle group.”
The elder McCoy played baseball for legendary Rutgers University coach Fred Hill during the 1990s. McCoy introduced his son to Hill just before Mark began high school. Hill asked McCoy if he planned to let his son play football.
“I wasn’t sure which way he was going to go with this,” McCoy said, “but I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘Don’t ever let him quit that. I love the multisport kid because it teaches them how to compete.’ I’ve carried that mantra.”
McCoy said he sees parents making a child specialize in one sport because they want that child to be good enough to earn an athletic scholarship to college.
But few high school athletes play in college.
Only 3.4 percent of high school boys basketball players play in college, according to a 2017 NCAA study. Only 5.4 percent of girls soccer players play in college, according to the study.
“They’re chasing a scholarship,” McCoy said. “You have a better chance of getting money for college as a good student than you do of getting an athletic scholarship.”
But to be competitive, young athletes almost have to play sports during the offseason. Nearly, every top high school basketball player plays some form of AAU in the summer.
“AAU and travel baseball is a necessary evil nowadays,” McCoy said. “But I think there has to be balance. You have to be loyal to something. Something has to be a priority. If it’s basketball season, basketball is the priority.”
It would be understandable if McCracken decided just to play basketball. She averaged 23.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game last season. McCracken has 1,359 career points.
Yet she is running track for the Warriors this spring while also playing for the prestigious Philadelphia Belles AAU basketball team.
Soccer and track and field help her physically and mentally in basketball.
“If you’re doing the same workout all the time, you won’t improve,” McCracken said. “If you’re not going to get tired in soccer, you’re not going to get tired in basketball. In track, you have to push through (to the finish line). That’s the same thing in every sport.”
Today, with video and websites that allow athletes to post their highlights for all to see, it’s easier than ever for high school students to catch the attention of college recruiters, no matter how many sports they play.
“If you’re good enough,” McCoy said, “the people who you want to impress are going to find you.”
Nagle will wrestle and pole vault at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania.
Maybe the best reason for athletes to play multiple sports is time. High school and college sports careers don’t last forever.
“I only have four more years of college until I’m not going to get the opportunity to play again,” Nagle said. “I’m not going to waste these years missing out on something I could have done.”