by Catharine Aradi

One of the most common questions I get asked is this one. “If Division I college coaches can't talk to players (by email or phone) until they start their junior year and can't talk to them in person off campus until after the junior year, why are so many 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 2017. NCAA Div. I college coaches may not have written or email contact with prospects nor may they phone 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.

Athletes may not take official (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---this is usually the way it happens.  The college coach sees the player in action somewhere---at a tournament or camp, for example.  This player might also reach out to the coach via letter or phone. This athlete might play on a top Gold or top 16/U team as a freshman or sophomore, and she’s almost certainly performing successfully at the level of older players. She may have matured physically well ahead of her classmates making it easier for her to stand out.

An interested college coach might let the player's travel ball coach know that he or she would like to hear from this player. The player responds by calling the coach, having a conversation about the program, and discusses setting up an unofficial visit to the campus.   (Obviously, if the player is a junior, the coach could write, email or phone her directly.) 

Remember, NCAA rules permit you to visit a college whenever you want as long as your 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 you should know that it’s not uncommon for a player to give a verbal commitment without any guarantee of a specific scholarship amount.   It is also not unheard of for a college to offer spots/scholarships to two prospects for the same position! This is essentially “hedging their bets”-e.g., the coach wants to be sure one of these players who is committing three or four years in advance actually shows up on campus.  (This may be fine for the college, but perhaps not so much for the players!)

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 14 or 15 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 three or four years from now, so it’s asking a lot to expect them to know what will be best for them in terms of a highly competitive and very challenging college softball 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 14 or 15 may well be told they're going to miss all the good opportunities if they don't.  Some young athletes will make the wrong choice simply because they were afraid they would lose out if they didn't.  And some parents get so wound up by the fantasy 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 one 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. 

Another key aspect of this issue that you may want to pay attention to is the type of colleges looking for early commitments.  For the most part, they are Div. I schools (and often high visibility programs.) 
Because of this, you may want to plan to conduct what I call a two-tiered college search.  If you’d like to find out if you are a legitimate prospect for a Top 25 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. You need to send a video link and schedule along with your academic aspirations. If by the middle of your junior year, you find you’re not being heavily recruited by D-I coaches, you’ll need to expand your target zone to include lots of Div. II, NAIA, and Div. III programs. *** See note at end. ***

Remember, 75% of all college players will play for Div. II, III, or NAIA schools.  If you discover 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!

***Note*** In May 2017, the NCAA released a new Division I “Recruiting Calendar”. The purpose of this revision is to reduce the number of interactions between Div. I coaches and players. It will decrease camp contacts/evaluations, and it will almost certainly decrease Div. I coach attendance at many travel tournaments.  Whether or not it has any effect on the insanity that is early recruiting at the Div. I level remains to be seen!  Personally, I doubt that it will.

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