Divine Bourrage is one of the top high school prospects in the country, juggling the stressful challenges of the ever-changing demands of the usually precarious recruiting landscape as she chases her dream of playing women’s college basketball.
She is not alone. Not by a longshot.
There’s just no skirting the issue: The transfer portal and Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) rules that have engulfed college sports have further complicated the already confusing recruiting process for thousands of high school teenagers and their families no matter how talented the player is.
Zakiyah Johnson and Darianna Alexander — two other top-ranked prep stars in the class of 2025 — also are in the thick of it. Bourrage, who plays at Davenport (Iowa) North High School, does her best to block out the distractions when playing in front of college coaches.
“I try not to worry about it. Sometimes I look at the coaches and see who is paying attention and who’s not,” said Bourrage, who played for Iowa Attack — the same AAU team that University of Iowa All-American Caitlin Clark competed for. “Some are on their phones, I see who is really paying attention.”
Casual basketball fans may think the transfer portal and NIL changes are limited to boys hoops but every high school female player — whether they have dozens of scholarship offers like the aforementioned trio or they’re a player looking for just one school to come calling with an opportunity — are feeling the trickle-down impact of the rules.
“It has been an incredibly different change,” said Big Ten women’s basketball analyst Christy Winters-Scott, a member of the Maryland Hall of Fame who helped the Terps reach the Final Four in 1989 and coached high school and college basketball for more than two decades. “The media, the social media, the NIL, the transfer portal. It’s becoming a necessity for universities.
“For me when I was coaching, we are looking at high school and maybe some junior college kids. That’s the pool we tapped into. Now the hierarchy has changed where it looks like 80% of the schools are going transfer portal first.”
Bourrage, Johnson (Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, Kentucky); Alexander (Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati, Ohio) are wading through offers. But it’s still a numbers game and the transfer portal has reduced the already slim odds of getting a Division I basketball scholarship.
— Three years ago, nearly 400,000 girls played high school basketball and only 1.3% went on to play Division I basketball according to the NCAA.
— On average, there are roughly 1,400 Division I scholarships available each year and there were 1,200 players in the transfer portal this year.
— This past year 25,355 girls from the age of 13-18 played AAU basketball.
Winters-Scott’s family knows as well as anyone how rewarding — and gut wrenching — the recruiting process can be. Her husband played at Miami, her daughter plays at Georgetown and her younger son is a top 100 prospect in high school.
“To see them being recruited through their eyes and to be there listening to things is a reward that I can’t even equate to anything,” Winters-Scott said. “What’s haunting for parents is that you want the best for your kids and sometimes they don’t know what that is.
“You try and help them figure that part out.”
That’s never been harder than it is today.
While Kentucky and Iowa are among the states that allow high school athletes to take advantage of NIL opportunities, Bourrage and Johnson do not. Ohio, the state in which Alexander plays, doesn’t allow high school athletes to partake in NIL. But NIL will be part of their recruiting process at some point.
The Associated Press spent time with the trio over the summer to talk about the recruiting challenges, including at the NCAA’s first women’s College Basketball Academy in Memphis.
Several of the top coaches in the women’s game filled the sidelines at event, watching, evaluating and scrutinizing prospects, and whenever Bourrage, Johnson and Alexander took the court the lineup filling the sideline included LSU’s Kim Mulkey, South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and UCLA’s Cori Close.
That’s a familiar part of the process but players also are smart to pay attention developments when coaches aren’t watching them perform. If School X signs someone from the transfer portal, that is one less available scholarship at that university.
It adds another layer to what was an already mentally draining process.
But college sports is big business and recruiting can be a harsh consequence of doing business. While some top players are fortunate to receive multiple offers, they can only accept one — and those highly paid coaches have to pivot to fill out their rosters to stay competitive.
Schools sometimes move on to other recruits before a prospect makes a decision, and the basketball courtship can come to an abrupt end with no notice.
Johnson, a 6-foot guard from Shelbyville, Kentucky recently narrowed her list of schools to a top 12 that included LSU, South Carolina, UConn, USC, UCLA and Ohio State. Louisville is also on the list.
Cardinals coach Jeff Walz was the first to offer Johnson, who lives near Louisville’s campus.
“I was like 13 or 14 years old and coach Walz was calling me and telling me that he wanted to give me an offer, but I didn’t really understand then. I told my parents and they were really excited about it,” Johnson said. “I knew that I had to work even harder to get to that level.”
And that was before All-ACC guard Hailey Van Lith decided to leave the Louisville program, transferring to reigning national champion LSU.
Most girls playing major college basketball have at least thought of playing in the WNBA, but it’s not usually their first thought in the recruiting process.
Alexander and Bourrage haven’t announced a list just yet, although Alexander expects to have a top 10 soon according to her mom, Maria.
“That’s a big relief to know you can go to school and you’re not in debt,” Maria said. “Most people come out of college and you’re in debt. That’s a plus.”
That’s the goal, though it can be treacherous road to school.
This story is part of the AP’s Inclusive Journalism Initiative with The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll