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As college commitment decisions approach, softball players feel squeezed by uncertainty

As college commitment decisions approach, softball players feel squeezed by uncertainty

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On Sept. 1, many high school softball players will be sitting by the phone, waiting for a call that may not come.

It’s the first day college softball coaches are allowed to contact high school juniors and, typically, a day when players start receiving scholarship offers.

But this year, with the impact of COVID-19, the class of 2022 could be disappointed.

“It has me on the edge,” Alex DiNardo, a 2022 player for the Virginia Unity club team, said.

“I wonder if I’ll ever even be committed.”

On May 27, the NCAA enacted a dead period for all Division I recruiting — halting the most important season for player evaluation in softball.

It has since been extended through the end of August.

Typically, college coaches spend the summer canvassing the country, attending tournaments and camps with all the top club programs.

Virginia Tech coach Pete D’Amour was the recruiting coordinator at the University of Missouri for 10 years and remembers one summer when he took more than 60 flights.

JMU coach Loren LaPort and her staff usually split the travel, making sure the Dukes are represented at all the top tournaments and getting face-to-face time with as many recruits as possible.

This year looks significantly different with travel restrictions and social-distancing concerns.

Like many things in the age of COVID-19, softball recruiting is being done from the comfort of the couch. Club teams are still attending tournaments in their area — though few, if any, are traveling nationally — and the games are streamed online through platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Now LaPort and her staff spend the first few days of every week compiling a list of all the games that will be streamed over the weekend and divide them.

She thinks the virtual method has some upsides. For starters, she’s six months pregnant and doesn’t mind staying in air conditioning.

LaPort also sees the benefit of watching multiple games at once. She’s able to pull up one game on her laptop and another on her phone, surveying twice the players she would see in person.

D’Amour likes the ability to fast forward to focus only on the players in whom he’s interested.

The players already know that drill.

“No matter now much we email them to watch us on the computer or on the TV,” DiNardo said, “they’re going to be watching priority kids that they’ve been looking at for a couple of years rather than us.”

The virtual recruiting method has other flaws. Most programs already have a general list of the kids in whom they’re interested, but D’Amour finds it hard to identify players that aren’t yet on their radar.

Poor video quality can make it difficult to see the numbers on their jerseys, rosters aren’t always online and umpires can block the shot.

Thomas Bunn, club coach for the Williamsburg Starz Gold, said his team has purchased all the necessary equipment to stream games themselves. Last weekend, they hosted a tournament in Dorey Park, and for the first couple of days, it worked great.

What Bunn didn’t know was that once you pass a certain amount of data in a given billing cycle, the speed slows significantly, which meant they weren’t able to stream the end of the tournament.

Camera angle has also been an issue. If the angle is too wide, it’s difficult to see who’s playing, but when you zoom in, the outfield gets cut out of the shot.

But, just like with anything else during COVID-19, people are adapting. LaPort said it’s getting better every weekend.

Still, health remains a concern. Jaymie Beers, a rising junior at Whitman High School, was playing in the Maryland State Championship tournament with her club team last weekend when it was shut down on the second day because of coronavirus concerns.

For now, it’s fairly easy to use the online tournaments to assess pitching, catching and batting, but there are other aspects of the game that are much harder to see. D’Amour can rattle off a list: fielding, base-running instincts, athleticism and footwork.

And no matter how good the technology gets, there are some things that you’ll only see in person.

“Anyone can see talent, but you peel the onion back, and the character things are really what set you apart now,” D’Amour said. “How are you going to know what they’re like off the field or what their parents are like or any of that stuff when you haven’t talked to them?”

So much of college softball is how a player holds up under pressure, which isn’t something easily seen on a video screen.

Years ago, D’Amour remembers watching a high school pitcher get flustered in the circle and start crying.

“I can’t see that online,” D’Amour said.

This is usually where camps come in. While college coaches aren’t able to have formal contact with players until September of their junior year, hosting on-campus camps in the summer allows coaches to get to know them sometimes years earlier.

Many of the girls on LaPort’s list for the upcoming recruiting class have been coming to JMU camps for years.

They’ve added a few players here and there, but LaPort said they’ve known whom they’re calling on Sept. 1 “for a while.” It’s standard for top programs to scout players for years before making an official offer.

In some ways, this is more of a long-term problem for a program like JMU. LaPort has already started her lists for the classes of 2023 and 2024, but without camps, she won’t get to interact with them personally for at least another year.

“That’s the hardest part is just building those relationships,” LaPort said.

It’s also crucial to watch players year after year to evaluate their development. It allows coaches to see progress — physical, technical and mental — as well as work ethic.

“A kid who was a stud prospect in November — have they been continuing to work out?” UVA coach Joanna Hardin said. “Have they been continuing to practice? Or have they sat around and done nothing?”

This hiatus for D-I coaches has thrown a wrench into a recruiting calendar already in the midst of a transition.

In 2018, the NCAA announced new restrictions on softball recruiting. Before the regulations, players could be recruited at any age. It wasn’t unusual for players to commit in their freshman year of high school or even as an eighth-grader.

Early commitments in the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes were essentially grandfathered in, but hardly any of the rising juniors had secured an offer before the new rules went into effect.

Along with being the guinea pigs for the new recruiting calendar, it’s now unclear how many scholarships will be available for the class of 2022 because of the pandemic.

On March 30, the NCAA voted to give schools the option to extend an additional year of eligibility to spring-sports athletes. Any athlete who decides to take the extra year will not be counted toward the number of scholarships allowed during the 2021 season.

That could pose a huge problem to current high school players. Collegiate teams will have to return to their original number of scholarships — which is 12 in the case of softball — in the 2022 season.

“[College] players now are signing four-year contracts, so it can’t come from someone who’s existing — already on the team,” Bunn said.

If a current rising junior accepts the extra year of eligibility, that essentially means one fewer scholarship for the recruiting class of 2022.

For Lauryn Richardson, a rising senior at Cosby High School, the budget is a major concern. She’s worried teams won’t have the monetary decisions made before she has to commit.

“The ’22s and ‘23s are going to be impacted a lot,” LaPort said. “For our program, we don’t know who of our juniors are going to want their extra year of eligibility. Our program has to figure out that count.”

LaPort and her staff will give the players the summer and part of the fall to consider it, but they need decisions before they can make offers to the next recruiting class.

At minimum, it will slow the process. The new recruiting calendar allows for six weeks of evaluation in the fall — all Fridays and Saturdays before Thanksgiving — when college coaches can go out and see high school players in live competition.

While there’s still an elite group of recruits to whom Hardin would feel comfortable extending offers right off the bat, she’s going to use those fall evaluation days to make sure she feels confident in her list.

D’Amour said he will make a few offers on Sept. 1.

“Will I be as aggressive as I would have been had I seen them all this summer?” D’Amour said.

“I don’t know yet.”

Even if D’Amour does make an offer, high school players may hesitate to accept. DiNardo said she wouldn’t accept an offer on Sept. 1 — even from a school at the top of her list. She wants to go to more camps and see the schools in person.

With campuses shut down, many players haven’t been able to take visits, and some won’t get the opportunity. Some campuses are starting to allow students back albeit with restrictions.

Aleisha Whipple, a rising senior who plays for Cosby and the Virginia Glory club team, visited a D-III school last weekend. She had a hard time getting a feel for the school with an empty campus.

As a rising senior, she knows the clock is ticking. She’s trying to secure a commitment before college applications are due in the fall.

Whipple is really feeling the pressure.

She missed last fall season because of mono, so with the spring season cut and summer online, coaches haven’t seen her play in person in a year.

There is some worry among college coaches that amid the uncertainty players will feel pressured and take their first offer. They all shared the same advice to those going through the process this year: stay the course, don’t panic and don’t settle.

Richardson says people in her grade are willing to settle. She says she’s trying to be patient, but in a couple months, she may have to take what she can get.

Once they get over this year’s initial hurdle, most coaches believe recruiting will return to normal with a couple of exceptions.

Virtual recruiting won’t replace in-person visits for most schools in the Power Five conferences, but it likely will still be used as one part of a larger recruiting strategy.

Virginia Tech gets about 500 emails from interested high school players every week. If players have good stats, Tech will be able to pull up video and determine whether they warrant an in-person visit.

For programs with smaller budgets, virtual recruiting may become the norm.

“People are going to get better at it because they had to,” Bunn said.

The pandemic may also be accelerating the trend of the past several years of schools recruiting more in-state players.

In the past, softball has been regionally focused, with the best players coming from the South or the West Coast, but recently powerhouse clubs have popped up in every region.

The choice to recruit closer to home is now more practical for college coaches from a budgetary standpoint.

“[Club coaches] develop a relationship with these schools because it’s close to home and we have a lot of players that are appropriate for these schools,” Bunn said.

Now that college coaches can’t see the players in person, talking to their club coaches may be the next best option.

The video tournaments are a good Band-Aid to the short-term problem, but coaches like Hardin are still banking on those fall evaluation days to make big financial decisions.

With COVID-19 cases still on the rise, the question remains, what happens if there’s no softball in the fall or even next spring?

“What are the net effects next year if there’s no school ball again?” Bunn said. “Does that change when you start travel ball? I just don’t know.”

For the high school players, so much is still up in the air. Richardson doesn’t know what her fall season will look like. She doesn’t know if and when she can do campus visits. She doesn’t know what college coaches are thinking or what options she’s going to have.

For now, all she can do is play softball, be patient and try to stay the course.

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