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Sunday, March 27, 2016: Turning pro is the new trend in track and field

   Leading off today: I couldn't decide whether to write "kids sure do grow up quickly these days" or "kids sure do grow up fast these days" since both statements are quite accurate.

   Announcements recently by two accomplished female high school track and field standouts confirmed as much. Khalifa St. Fort from Florida and Vashti Cunningham from Nevada announced they were giving up whatever high school and college eligibility they had remaining in order to turn pro.

   St. Fort has been a top sprinter for three years at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but left the team last May and skipped the state high school championships to compete unattached while training under former Olympian Ato Boldon. Right out of the box she entered the IAAF World Youth Championships and took a silver medal in the 100 meters.

   St. Fort won the under-20 division's 100 and 200 titles at the Carifta Games trials in Trinidad and Tobago last month while representing Trinidad and Tobago, her mother's homeland. On Wednesday, the former UCLA commit severed her last ties to amateurism when she announced she would turn pro and sign an endorsement deal with Caribbean-based Flow Communications.

   "Her value is in her brand, not just a race," Boldon said.

   St. Fort, who owns PRs of :11.19 and :23.5 in the sprints and won a relays bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships last year, will make her American pro debut this week at the Texas Relays.

   Cunningham, the daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, surprised absolutely no one with the announcement that she is done competing for Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas and will also bypass college. Having won the IAAF World Indoor Championships -- a first for a U.S. scholastic athlete -- high jump last weekend with a leap of 6-feet-5 and having jumped higher than that earlier this season, there was minimal at best upside to continuing to compete on the school circuit.

   Consider: Had Cunningham, 18, renounced her amateur status before winning the IAAF title, she stood to make $40,000. Rest assured that her contract with Nike will pay much more than that. And as a former pro athlete, her father almost certainly will be able to navigate her to additional marketing opportunities.

   It's not absurd to think she will bank her first million dollars before she turns 21.

   In New York we need look no further than Mary Cain. Midway through her junior cross country season at Bronxville, Cain decided to focus on selected national-caliber meets while training with coach Alberto Salazar. That evolved into a decision to sign with Nike and turn pro, which became a template for Washington teen Alexa Ephraimson to also go pro.

   After two seasons of promising performances, Cain began to regress rather dramatically. Though there's plenty of time to return to previous form, she's currently more or less an afterthought on the U.S. distance scene, never mind international competition.

   More recently, it was another female sprinter who made the big move. Just 16 years old at the time, junior Candace Hill of Conyers, Ga., turned pro last October and immediately scored what was reported to be a 10-year shoe deal with Asics worth six figures per year.

   Hill set World Youth records last year in both the 100 and 200 meters. She also ran :10.98 in the 100 to set the national high school record.

   Obviously, track and field isn't the only sport in which high school athletes make the jump to the pro ranks. Major League Baseball drafts hundreds of scholastic stars each June, with many accepting bonus money to sign and pass up college. Before the NBA adopted its one-and-done rule a few years ago, as many as a dozen


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  • high school players a year would submit their names for the draft.

       In addition, a lengthy list of tennis players made it to the pro circuit before their 16th birthdays.

       All of the above leads me to this ...

       Class of '20 commitment: Another barrier fell by the wayside March 17 when a Bay Shore eighth-grader apparently became the first junior high boys lacrosse player to make a commitment to a Division I college program.

       Brennan O'Neill, 13, said he intends to enroll at Penn State after graduating from high school in June 2020. O'Neill recently made the varsity team at Bay Shore and is expected to attend St. Anthony's next fall. The 5-foot-11 attackman plays for the Team 91 Crush club team that captured the World Series of Youth Lacrosse championship in Denver last summer.

       Earlier this year, Florida eighth-grader Caitlyn Wurzburger committed to the Syracuse University women's program.

       Players in past years had made college commitments before the start of ninth grade, but those decisions had come after the conclusion of the athletes' eighth-grade season.

       Of course, the commitment is non-binding until O'Neill can sign a Letter of Intent during his senior year.

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