Senior year of high school is usually a time when students allow themselves to relax, with the stress of college applications behind them. For the growing number of athletes opting to enroll early in college, their last year of high school looks very different.
Early enrollment is the process in which high school athletes complete all their high school credits by December and enroll as a first-year in college for the spring semester. Many athletes at UNC are now opting to enroll early to get a head start on classes and adjust to college life before their first season.
This January, UNC’s football program welcomed eight early enrollees: edge rusher Beau Atkinson, linebacker Sebastian Cheeks, offensive tackle Trevyon Green, jack Malaki Hamrick, quarterback Conner Harrell, running back George Pettaway, offensive tackle Zach Rice and defensive lineman Travis Shaw.
UNC football is well accustomed to early enrollees, with a program in place so that athletes participate in separate practices during January and February, before joining the rest of the team for spring ball starting in March. These practices focus on strength and conditioning, starting with the basics.
“Coming to college made me realize the stuff I was doing in high school could have hurt me, not properly squatting right, not having the right feet angles, not having my breathing down,” Shaw, who enrolled early from Grimsley High School in Greensboro, N.C., said.
Of course, playing Division I college football is quite the jump from high school, no matter how competitive the high school program is. Rice remembered his first day of practice at UNC, where everything was much more fast-paced. Despite being considered the No. 1 ranked offensive tackle in the class of 2022, Rice said he and every other first-year got a wake-up call playing against UNC's veterans.
"Spring camp, that really helped," Rice said. "I feel like we've been here for a year or so now. They definitely earned our respect in spring ball."
Despite its initial popularity largely based in football, the trend of early enrollment has expanded to other sports at UNC as well.
“I think that that was definitely one of the best decisions of my life, was to come up here early, and I couldn't have been happier,” UNC volleyball player Ava Swain said. "It was a great transition for me."
While Swain is the only volleyball early enrollee this season, head coach Joe Sagula said that numerous volleyball players made the same decision over the past few years.
First-years who join the team in August only have two weeks to practice before the season begins, so there is a very small window for UNC's volleyball coaches to impact technique. By coming in the spring, Swain benefited from the offseason practices dedicated to individual skill work, strength and conditioning.
"For Ava, it was very helpful for her to be prepared for the level of play of what to expect in the fall," Sagula said.
Early enrolling isn’t exclusive to fall sport athletes, though. UNC basketball player Will Shaver missed his senior season of high school basketball to come to Chapel Hill early and join the team in January.
"It gives him a head start on all the freshman," head coach Hubert Davis said in a press conference on June 15. "He's been a part of practice, obviously he was with us during our run. So he has a clear picture of how hard we have to work."
Unlike early enrollees for fall sports, when Shaver came to UNC for the spring semester, Davis said his team was in a "sprint" in the middle of the season.
For the first few months, Shaver questioned his decision.
“I was like why did I do that,” he said in an interview with The Tar Heel Show in June. “Now the past month and a half, two months, I'm like, 'That's why.' I’m starting to see my body change, everything change. I’m becoming more mature on the basketball court and as a person, and I’m really understanding what it takes to be successful here.”
Even though Shaver gained valuable experience redshirting the past semester, Davis said he would not continue the practice of early enrolling in the future.
The early enrollees, who have been on campus for almost seven months now, say they have become adjusted to the level of competition and the intense class schedule that comes as a package deal at UNC.
“If you can, everybody should early enroll,” Pettaway said. “I don’t really think there are any negative effects, especially if you have a purpose and you know why you're here and what you want to do.”
Shelby Swanson contributed reporting to this story.