PRAIRIE GROVE – There were countless pieces of mail, thousands of miles traveled and 19 NCAA Division I schools to which Valerie Tarazi made unofficial visits over the past two years.
To say the Tarazi family was diligent in its quest for the precise fit for their swimming superstar is a vast understatement.
The process culminated Sunday in the basement of the Tarazis’ home, with six swimming caps sitting on a table. Valerie, a senior at Prairie Ridge who swims for the Crystal Lake High School co-op swimming team, announced her college decision in front of about 40 family members and friends.
Tarazi spoke glowingly of her six finalists, then reached to her far left and said, “I choose Auburn.” With that, Tarazi grinned ear-to-ear and made the “AU” symbol with her hands.
Only a few people knew what Tarazi was going to announce, some of whom were Auburn’s coaches watching on a live stream. Tarazi, with six state medals (including a state championship and two runner-up finishes) on her résumé, picked the Tigers over Hawaii, LSU, UCLA, USC and Arizona.
“Auburn is an SEC (Southeastern Conference) school, they have a bunch of money to throw at (the swimming program) and the coaching staff is amazing,” Tarazi said. “(Head coach) Brett Hawke has done a lot, (assistant) coach Lauren (Hancock), we’ve spent countless hours on the phone. (Associate head coach) Sergio (Lopez) was an Olympic silver medalist. This was a very hard decision for me. Of all the girls and all the schools, it was a very even playing field, and I wanted to swim for a school that was one of the best in the country, and all of these are.”
Auburn finished 18th in the NCAA championships last season. With Tarazi, the Tigers will get a versatile swimmer whose best event is the breaststroke, an event she won in the IHSA state meet as a sophomore and finished as runner-up last year. She also excels in the 200-yard individual medley.
As she announced her decision, George Keenan, Tarazi’s club swimming coach since age 8, pulled out an orange Auburn cap and put it on. Keenan also had a Hawaii shirt under the navy blue shirt he was wearing.
“I could write a book on recruiting,” said Marty Tarazi, Valerie’s father and often her travel companion on unofficial visits as far as Rutgers, Florida and UCLA.
Marty said more than 240 schools contacted Valerie about swimming, 140 of those at the D-I level. Eventually, the top 50 D-I programs all contacted her at some point, with her eventually paring that list to the 19 schools they visited.
“Thank goodness this whole process is over,” Marty said. “We have white boards all over the house with stickers of schools, bins of stuff from colleges.”
Valerie thanked all her supporters – family, friends, the trainers at Davis Speed Center and her coaches. She gave special thanks to her parents, Marty and Jana, for driving her to early-morning practices and all their help.
She thanked her coaches, pointing out Keenan in particular. Keenan coached Tarazi with the Mundelein Mustangs club.
“When I was 8 years old, I hated him,” Tarazi said. “There was no one worse. But over the years our relationship grew very strong. He saw something in me and absolutely refused to give up. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.”
Tarazi swam at national competitions in summers and qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, competitions where college coaches had opportunities to see her swim in person.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to swim in college. It’s always been my dream,” Tarazi said. “This recruiting process has been very stressful, which many of you know about. After long months of talking to coach after coach and hours on the phone, I narrowed it down to these six schools.”