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NCAA Division 3 and NAIA athletic programs really do matter

Warren's Derek Masleads break dukring game against PeoriManuel Pontiac holiday tournament last December. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media

Warren's Derek Mason leads the break dukring a game against Peoria Manuel in the Pontiac holiday tournament last December. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 18, 2013 2:31AM

Let the record show that very few things this month have brought a smile to the face of someone whose Twitter account (@jeffbonato) profile is pretty much truthful when it says, “When James Naismith was nailing the peach basket to the side of the barn, I was holding the ladder for him.”

Basically, April has been rain and cold and damp and gloomy and windy and colder. And it’s also tax month.

But, on the positive side, April also is the month when high school senior student-athletes sign on the dotted line to confirm where they’ll be playing the sport of their choice at the collegiate level.

And that event always turns the frown on this wrinkly face upside down.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let the record show that the guy who wrote these words saw all three of his offspring play sports in college at the NCAA Division III level, and is a huge, huge believer in the Division III and NAIA levels of play.

Here’s why.

One of the most important things for an athlete to be able to do is to call it quits on his/her own terms. Everybody’s high school athletic career is going to end at some point, and unless you’re a basketball player at Simeon in Chicago, it’s likely going to end with a loss. But when the final curtain drops on the prep career, many student-athletes aren’t ready to see it end.

And for those, playing NCAA Division III or NAIA or even juco ball is the perfect option.

Some high school athletes know they’re done when the receive their diploma. Megan Meline, a multi-sport athlete and great softball player at Vernon Hills High School, made it clear that when she graduated, she was done playing. And that’s good for her.

But for others, they aren’t ready to stop playing just because the calendar says your senior season is over. It’s so good that they have options out there for them. Let them play until they realize themselves that they are done.

And they will realize it, whether it be because they are more interested in spending the time on other things at college or because the level of competition is just too high.

But the beautiful thing is, they will be able to hang up the spikes or glove or jersey on their own terms. And that really is important. Better to realize yourself that it’s over than to be told by someone else that it’s over simply because the calendar says so.

In any case, throughout the county, dozens and dozens of seniors will be committing to play at the NCAA Division 3 or NAIA levels this week and next.

For the rest of this story, you’re going to learn about one of them ... a Warren High School senior and member of the Blue Devils’ basketball team named Derek Mason.

There’s a back-story here. Derek enrolled as a freshman at Warren exactly one year AFTER a Fab Five-type group of players came into the school together.

What that meant is that he was always chasing greatness on the basketball court, and never able to catch it.

His sophomore year at Warren, the varsity team finished second (to Simeon, who else?) in the state tournament, and did it with a roster filled with juniors.

His junior year at Warren, the star players were all seniors and reached the Elite Eight of the state playoffs before losing what was a winnable game to Rockford Auburn.

Then, before his senior year at Warren, the school administration held the exit door open for coaching legend Chuck Ramsey. Enter Ryan Webber, who will be the next great hoops coach in Lake County, but was basically starting from scratch with a new system and with a group of about 10 nice players who had logged virtually no meaningful varsity minutes the previous year.

Derek Mason was one of those 10. A guard by position, he was part of the rotation, but like every player on the Warren team, he didn’t have the experience of playing at the varsity level before. As a result, his senior season was more of a learning season for him rather than a playing season.

A start instead of an end.

Which is where NCAA Division 3 basketball comes into play.

Next year, Derek will be playing hoops for Heidelberg University in Ohio — nickname is the Student Princes (go ahead and tease him about that all you want) — which is one of those great academic institutions that also affords student-athletes a chance to compete in the sport of their choice.

Derek chose Heidelberg for some important reasons:

■ It will give him a chance to “finish” his basketball career the way he wants to finish it.

■ His dad is a retired Naval Chief of 25 years and Derek is considering a major in criminal justice. Heidelberg has a strong major in that field, and one of the profs there is a former CIA agent.

■ The school has promised him that academically he would have all the support and tools he needs to make sure he succeeds.

For his part, his high school coach is a big believer in Derek and is happy he’ll be playing at the next level.

“He was one of our hardest workers this past season,” said coach Webber. “He really competed hard at the defensive end and brought a lot of toughness to us. He was also an extremely smart player for us. He learned our system very well and knew what guys were supposed to do and where they were supposed to be.

“One of Derek’s biggest strengths beyond his defense was his play in the open court. He finished very well at the rim and also was a great passer in the open. Derek was very solid for us and made good decisions. He was a big part of our team and will be missed next season.

“I wish him the very best at the next level.”

This week, those sentiments are being echoed by high school coaches throughout the area, as they say goodbye and good luck to their departing seniors.

The athletic future for these Division 3 and NAIA players is an uncertain one. Some will be stars and most won’t. But all of them will have the chance to “retire,” so to speak, on their terms.

If you’re scoring at home, there are 1,719 universities, colleges, and jucos playing sports — a stat courtesy of Of that total, only 341 play NCAA Division 1 athletics, and more than 600 play either NCAA Division 3 or NAIA.

Thank goodness for those 600-plus. They matter to the kids.

Now, about that “Student Prince” nickname ...

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