NCAA softball coaches troubled by recruits committing at younger ages
Coaches say problem requires NCAA’s intervention
In 2010, Texas coach Connie Clark predicted what would happen in college softball if the rash of early oral commitments continued.
“It’s going to get crazier before it gets much better if the NCAA does not step in,” Clark said.
That was back when many high school players were making their college selection as sophomores. Four years later, the website goldfastpitch.com lists 68 freshmen and seven eighth-graders nation-wide who have already made nonbinding commitments for softball.
“This past summer is the first time our staff has ever recruited at a 14-and-under nationals,” Texas A&M coach Jo Evans said. “A lot of coaching staffs and conferences have been doing that for years. If there is a blue-chip athlete out there, if you’re not on them by their freshman year, you’re probably out of the loop.”
Mansfield Timberview pitcher Mariah Denson, who was named the District 7-5A MVP as a freshman last season, committed to Oklahoma State as an eighth-grader. Four current Dallas-area freshmen — McKinney North catcher/infielder Zoë Goodman (North Carolina), Frisco pitcher Maddie MacGrandle (Texas A&M), Mansfield Lake Ridge outfielder/infielder Brittany Jackson (Kansas) and Birdville pitcher Callie Burris (Texas Tech) — have already committed.
“I think it is early, but it’s the reality of where we’re at,” said Burris’ father, Curt. “The way recruiting is, if you want to play big Division I, you’re going to get recruited your freshman, sophomore year. Typically after that passes, they’ve already tied up a lot of kids.”
“I don’t know how to slow it down,” Texas Tech coach Shanon Hays wrote in an email. “When a school sees a kid they feel can help their program, they will try to nail that kid down so another can’t.”
With that in mind, are colleges putting pressure on athletes to quickly accept or decline early offers — even though there are no guarantees the coach won’t leave or the school won’t have a decline on the field?
“At Texas A&M we tell them, here is our offer, take a year, two years, take your time,” Evans said. “We don’t put deadlines on them, but I know that’s not the case everywhere.”
Goodman and MacGrandle said they weren’t pressured to make a fast decision and they committed because their “dream school” made them an offer. Jackson visited three schools before committing and said she loved Kansas, but she added “I wanted to commit early, because if I wait, I didn’t think Kansas was still going to be there.”
“I understand why it’s happening, but I am completely and 100 percent against it,” said former Flower Mound High School star Taylor Hoagland, who is in her first year as a softball assistant at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “Yes, they may be great softball players, but they’re 13. They’re still kids. They can’t even drive a car, nonetheless know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It’s not really fair to them.
“I do believe there needs to be some major changes here in the near future or it’s going to get out of hand.”
Not long ago, high school phenoms waited much longer to pick their college.
Hoagland was an All-American at Texas and now plays for the United States national team. But the 2009 Flower Mound graduate committed the summer after her sophomore year.
Kathy Shelton, who earned All-Big 12 honors her last three seasons at Baylor, committed in the fall of 2007 — during her junior year at McKinney North. Heavily recruited Justin Northwest pitcher Brittany Barnhill, the Gatorade state player of the year, committed to Texas in the summer of 2006 — before her senior year.
“When you see kids who are junior, senior year in high school, that’s essentially the kid you’re going to get,” Hoagland said. “But when you’re recruiting 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds, they’ve got so much to go through, it’s like who knows? That’s kind of a gamble you have to take.”
UT’s Clark thinks there has been an increase in players transferring as they commit earlier and there is less time to see if the college and athlete are a good fit.
“I’m for more deregulation and allowing us to be able to build relationships and not have all those hurdles to try and work through,” Clark said. “If that means we can call them when they’re freshmen in high school or we can visit them on or off campus.”
There has been talk in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association about wanting to slow down the recruiting process, but executive director Lacy Lee Baker said in an email that “We’re still a long way from proposing legislation about the recruiting calendar.” However, a rule is expected go into effect in August that would allow softball coaches to start calling recruits sooner, changing from July 1 following the completion of their junior year to Sept. 1 at the beginning of their junior year. It would also permit any form of electronic correspondence.
Right now, recruits younger than that can call a college coach, but the coach can’t call them. Those same younger recruits can talk to a college coach face-to-face if they are on the school’s campus for an unofficial visit or camp.
“The college coaches continue to say they want to slow it down, but the problem is it only takes one college coach not slowing it down to make all the others have to try to move faster too,” said Shelton’s father, Kevin, who manages the Texas Glory select team.
“My personal opinion is the NCAA can’t do anything about it. They could if they wanted to, but they don’t want any part of this because it is so difficult to regulate and to manage. No matter what rules people pass, no matter how they try to restrict it, the one thing that remains constant is if you get on campus, you can talk to the coach. So as long as that can happen, there is no way to keep kids from committing.”