by Catharine Aradi

This article is a follow up to another article entitled, "But I Didn't Know That Was the Rule!"  (It examined recruiting rules that parents tend to ignore or be unaware of.)  That article also ran on StudentSportsSoftball.com, and I received a fair number of emails from readers, all of whom asked the same question: “If college coaches can't talk to players until after their junior year, how are so many juniors, sophomores, and even freshmen, making verbal commitments to teams?”

I'll address the rule portion of this question, and then do a bit of editorializing about the issue itself.  Here is how the rules read as of February 2014. NCAA Div. I college coaches may not have written or email contact with prospects until they start their junior year in high school. Div. I coaches may not have face to face, off-campus contacts/meetings with players or their families until July 1 following the player’s junior year.  NCAA Div. II coaches may begin all contact-written, email, face to face, and phone-beginning June 15 following the player’s sophomore year in high school.

At the NCAA’s 2014 convention, D-I delegates approved a measure that will allow D-I coaches to phone prospects once they’ve started their junior year. This measure is subject to override, however, until April 2014, so check the NCAA’s web site after that to confirm its implementation. Assuming it stays on the books, this guideline will take effect in August of 2014. 

Athletes may not take official or paid for visits to D-I colleges until they’ve started their senior year.  D-II official visits may be taken any time after June 15 following the sophomore year.  Players and their families can, of course, visit college campuses at their own expense at any time.  Once there, they can meet with coaches, tour the campus, watch the team practice, and so on.  

When a player gives a verbal commitment to a D-I school before starting her senior year--e.g., before she can even take an official visit--here’s generally how it comes about.  The college coach sees the player in action somewhere-at a tournament or camp, for example.  This player might have reached out to the coach via letter or phone, or it might be a random discovery. This athlete is likely playing on a top ASA Gold or top 16/U team as a freshman or sophomore, and she’s almost certainly performing successfully at the level of the older players. She also may have matured physically ahead of her classmates making it easier for her to stand out.

The college coach would then likely let the player's travel coach know that he or she is interested in hearing from this player.  (Obviously, if the player is a junior, the coach could write or email her directly-and as of next fall-the coach could simply phone her.)  The player would respond by calling the coach, having a conversation about the program, and discussing whether to set up an unofficial visit to the campus.  

Remember, NCAA rules permit you to visit a college whenever you want as long as the family pays all the costs of the visit.  D-I coaches tend to be a bit vague on how they work out the details of an early commitment once the player is on campus, but it’s not uncommon for a player to give a verbal commitment without any guarantee of a specific scholarship amount.  

Now for the editorializing part. I am not alone in wishing the NCAA would ban early commitments, or failing that drastic move, at least set up some sort of oversight process.  I happen to believe it's next to impossible for most 15 or 16 year olds to understand the commitment required to play college softball, particularly at a top D-I program.  Most young adults aren't sure what they want to do this coming weekend, let alone two or three years from now, so it’s asking a lot to expect them to know what will be best for them in terms of a college experience. 

Believe it or not, many college coaches agree with me. This early recruiting trend only serves to widen the gap between coaches at schools with deep pockets and coaches at schools with limited softball funding.  It also puts unnecessary pressure on families.  Those players who are smart enough to know they're not ready to make this decision at 15 may well be told they're going to miss all the good opportunities.  Some young athletes will make the wrong choices (for them) simply because they were afraid they would lose out if they didn't.  And some parents are so impressed by the prospect of a scholarship that they (in effect) say, “To heck with sound parental judgment.  Show me the money!”

It is critical that parents and players understand an important fact about the early recruiting process.  While freshman and sophomore commitments may get a lot of coverage online and at softball venues, the reality is that this group of students is in the minority. In any given graduating class, only about 10-15 percent of all the players who will eventually go on to compete in college will commit before the middle of their junior year.  So when you read about these commitments, don’t panic.  There will still be plenty of college coaches looking for good players when you are finishing your junior year in high school. 

One aspect of this issue that you may want to pay attention to, however, is the type of colleges looking for early commitments.  For the most part, they are Div. I schools and are often higher visibility programs.  Because of that, you may need to conduct a two-tiered college search.  If you want to find out if you are a legitimate prospect for a Top 20 D-I program, you need to write (not email, but write) these colleges as early as the end of your freshman year/beginning of your sophomore year and follow up at the start of your junior year. If you find you’re not being heavily recruited by D-I coaches, you’ll need to expand your target zone as a junior to include lots of Div. II, NAIA, and Div. III programs.

Remember, 75% of all college players will play for Div. II, III, or NAIA schools.  If you find out that Arizona or Alabama are done recruiting graduates in your class, send your video to coaches who may still be actively looking. You can significantly increase your chances of being recruited by focusing on those schools that would be excited to hear from you rather than pursuing those teams that already have their commitments.

This is just my opinion, and I know some folks will disagree.  But I know how the numbers crunch. There will always be way more players than there are spots open on college teams, and if you really want to compete at the next level, you’ll have to be willing to look at all types of programs in order to find the one that’s right for you!

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