Recruiting: Finding value in last prep season

HERE'S A "WHAT IF" that should get the message boards humming. What if Class of 2007 quarterbacks Marshall Lobbestael, Kellen Kiilsgaard, Jason Munns and Jake Gelakoska played as juniors the way they did as seniors? While there's no ignoring Munn's frame, Gelakoska's agility or Kiilsgaard's athleticism, the prognosis here is that Lobbestael today would be the one with four stars next to his name.

The question -- and answer -- to this hypothetical "what if" speak to a modern-day recruiting fact: The junior year reigns supreme no matter how the senior season unfolds.

Kiilsgaard, from Auburn, is a super athlete who was trapped in a running offense, so it's hard to gauge his future throwing the ball. Munns, from Kennewick, had an outstanding junior year, and a so-so senior campaign. In fact, given the hype around him, his 2006 might even qualify as a bust. Gelakoska's final prep campaign at Jackson High in Mill Creek also didn't match the previous year's work.

Lobbestael, on the other hand, had a magical 2006, leading Oak Harbor to a 13-1 record and the 4A state championship. He earned statewide Class 4A MVP honors from the Seattle Times and Associated Press.

Yet Lobbestael didn't emerge on the cyberspace recruiting radar until mid-season and even then didn't make his way into the mainstream media limelight until the state playoffs were underway.

Since early summer, Munns, Gelakoska and Kiilsgaard all have been listed among the top 25 prep quarterback prospects in the land.

Lobbestael was so overlooked that last September, when the Seattle Times did a story about "The Year of the Quarterback" in the state of Washington, he wasn't even mentioned.

Give the Times' Craig Smith credit, though. Months later, he ran a piece not only noting the omission but also comparing Lobbestael's year statistically to the "Big Four" from back in September -- Munns, Gelakoska, Kiilsgaard and Boise State-bound Kellen Moore of Prosser.

The first and only time Lobbestael was looked at by a recruiting analyst was apparently his final high school game, the state championship -- some eight months after the Munns, Gelakoska and Kiilsgaard bandwagons had left the station.

How each will fare in college is a forecast that only time will tell.

All are planning to stay in the West -- Lobbestael at Washington State, Gelakoska at Oregon State, Munns at BYU and Kiilsgaard at Stanford.

This quarterbacking quartet is a microcosm of the fact the heavy reliance on a prospect's junior season means true nuggets can be found as the senior season progresses.

Case in point from a year ago: Tahoma lineman Kevin Kooyman. A great athlete, but barely weighing 200 pounds his junior season, he wasn't considered a Pac-10 prospect by most of the "gurus." But he had a stellar senior season and managed to put on a few pounds. Washington State nabbed him late -- and he tuned out to be good enough, as a true freshman, to see considerable action at defensive end for the Cougars.

THE JUNIOR SEASON began taking on disproportionate importance more than a decade ago when Penn State's Joe Paterno launched the era of the "early offer." The thinking was sound. Get in early on top athletes and lock 'em up.

It's gotten so pronounced that schools toss out scholarship offers in March that used to be given in October. If you wait until October now, chances are good you'll be at the back of the line -- or greeting a kid who already has committed verbally to someone. Texas has taken the practice to amazing heights. Mack Brown had 90 percent of his upcoming class wrapped up back in August.

But back to Lobbestael, who finished 2006 with 2,776 passing yards, 34 TDs and 14 interceptions on 58 percent accuracy.

Oak Harbor isn't a recruiting mecca and the state of Washington mostly plays a distant second fiddle to California when it comes to West Coast recruiting.

Moreover, because of the early offer philosophy, many schools had already gotten a verbal at QB by the time Lobbestael began to flourish.

So Lobbestael flew under the recruiting radar, despite the fact his prep coach, Dave Ward, says that from the time Lobbestael started as a sophomore he knew he was coaching a Pac-10-caliber quarterback.

"Marshall is the best quarterback, the best leader, the best passer, the best player I've ever coached," says Ward, himself a college standout, at Spokane's Whitworth College, in the 1970s.

WE'RE FIVE WEEKS AWAY from signing day and the state has five Division IA-bound prep QBs. Four of them are rated four-star athletes and one is a two-star.

Moore, the state's Player of the Year, piled up prolific numbers at Prosser and was rated a two-star prospect -- and the No. 76 QB prospect nationally -- all fall. He had offers from just two schools, Boise State and Eastern Washington. His rating was just upgraded from two stars to four -- and he now sits with the lofty ranking of the No. 25 prospect in the nation -- following Boise State's big win over Oklahoma.

Munns entertained offers from WSU, Brigham Young, Utah and Arizona State before verbaling to BYU in June. He then suffered through a lackluster 5-5 season.

Gelakoska attracted only one college scholarship offer, from OSU, which he accepted in June. Kiilsgaard is an uber-athlete who attracted numerous offers, but most schools earmarked him for safety.

And Lobbestael?

He is unranked, and deemed a two-star prospect. Would that be the case if he came onto the cyber and mainstream media radars as a junior? And why does his senior season, when he passed his team to wins over the best teams in the state, count for so little?

The fact is, his rating is based solely on one game, the state championship, when an analyst was on hand. He played well in the win, but not spectacularly. Which raises a great question: What if the analyst had instead attended Oak Harbor's semi-final game the week before against vaunted Gonzaga Prep? Would Lobbestael now be rated four stars? All accounts out of Spokane after that game were that Lobbestael looked like a cross between Ryne Sandberg circa 1978 and Bill Etter circa 1967.

Sandberg played quarterback at Spokane's North Central and signed a national letter of intent with WSU before opting for pro baseball instead. Etter starred at Lewis & Clark and went on to set records at Notre Dame.

ALL FOUR OF THE more highly rated QBs out of the state of Washington this year are solid prospects. Still, the perception of them -- except perhaps for Moore -- has been fashioned entirely out of their junior seasons.

The casual college fan, the one who follows recruiting only around letter of intent day, will read in all the major dailies how good various prospects and classes are. The source of those rankings, of course, is not the newspapers, but the recruiting services. Scout and Rivals each rely on analysts who have never coached a game of football in their lives and who rely almost exclusively on one season -- the junior season -- to make their determinations.

With Marshall Lobbestael -- unranked as a quarterback prospect and one who came seemingly out of nowhere for most -- any evaluation would be mostly crafted upon his senior year. And the only people who have done that, who have given him anything more than a brief and cursory look, are the coaches at Washington State.

How it all translates to their college careers is unknown, but it would be more than a little interesting to revisit the class of '07 in four or five years and find out.

College coaches, though, seem a little more objective about it than the national rating systems. Take a look at the databases of the top 50 national prep prospects at each position -- a listing dictated almost entirely before they've taken a senior snap -- and you'll be struck by how many have just one or two major college scholarship offers.

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