Coaches take aim at heartache and hardship of early recruiting
Dashing out of her house on a Friday last December, Molly Sanders couldn't think; she could only run. To her high school's lacrosse field. To the mall. To Starbucks, where she cried for three hours. To her friend's house.
The 16-year-old ignored calls and texts from her parents, her sister, her friends, her coaches. She didn't want to talk about why she left home. Why she ditched a recruiting showcase scheduled for that weekend. Why she wanted to abandon lacrosse, the sport she had always loved.
"It kind of felt like I was trapped in a box and everything was pushing in on me," said Sanders, whose name has been changed to protect her anonymity.
Sanders dreamed of playing Division I lacrosse and had received some recruiting interest as a freshman, but pressure consumed her when no offers came in. Many of her teammates had verbally committed. Uncommitted at the start of her sophomore year, Sanders felt more than behind; she felt doomed.
You're not good enough, her mother told her. You need to try harder! Sanders had trained overtime and extra time, until she had nothing left to give. She cried in her room at least once a week. She second-guessed her answers on tests in school, and her "A's" soon dropped to "C's."
"It made me feel, in a sense, worthless," she said.
Returning home after three days, Sanders hardly spoke to anyone. She lost her parents' trust. She lost her hunger for lacrosse. She lost herself. She dreaded practice and was hounded by nerves, but played on to avoid disappointing her family.
A week later, she performed well at a camp held by a Division I school on the West Coast and verbally committed to that school two months later. The high school sophomore is starting to enjoy the game again, but she still has wounds.
"I think in a way it has scarred me," she said. "I've learned a lot from it and I think I've gotten a little bit more confident, but it made me feel so horrible at the time that I'll never forget that. ... I just don't want a lot of other girls to go through what I went through."
'An arms race of human capital'
Karin Brower Corbett, the Penn women's lacrosse coach, remembers a lacrosse coaches meeting five years ago. Several high school juniors had committed, an unusual trend. "It'll never go down to sophomores," her colleagues mused.
Yet sophomore commits soon turned into freshman commits. Freshman commits turned into eighth-grade commits. Some colleges are even evaluating seventh-graders. With lacrosse, softball, volleyball, basketball and more, early recruiting has become more than a trend; it is a tradition.
"It's about five schools driving this bus," Corbett said of women's lacrosse, "and we all felt like we had to jump on board or we're left behind."
Most teenagers are only permitted to give verbal commitments, which are not recognized by the NCAA. Recruits can't sign a national letter of intent until their senior year.
Recently, eighth-graders Caitlyn Wurzburger (Syracuse lacrosse) and Stormy Kotzelnick (Washington softball) verballed, as did freshmen Nyah Green (Louisville basketball) and Georgia Murphy (Oregon volleyball). Jaden Newman, an 11-year-old basketball phenom, is said to have received an "offer" from the University of Miami in 2014, when she was 9.
"It becomes an arms race," said Sherri Coale, Oklahoma women's basketball coach. "It's just an arms race of human capital."
Leigh Ernst Friestedt, founder and president of Equity IX, who is working on the documentary "Early Recruit: The 'Committed' Student-Athlete," is concerned about the costs of early recruiting in lacrosse. Prospects and their families shell out thousands in travel fees to attend showcases to be recruited, and to take unofficial visits to colleges.
Lacrosse, an "equivalency" sport offering partial scholarships, has a team limit of 12 scholarships to be divided among an average roster of 30 athletes. "It creates a competitive dynamic to the recruiting process that absolutely incentivizes student-athletes to commit earlier, because if they wait, that money will be gone," Friestedt said.
Perhaps of even greater concern, though, are injuries and academic performance.
"These kids are verbally committing before they even take an SAT or an ACT," said Natalie Poole, University of Memphis softball coach. "It's very risky on the parts of the institutions, as well as the student-athletes."
On behalf of the Division I women's lacrosse coaches and as chairs of the Division I NCAA Legislation Committee, Corbett and Kerstin Kimel, Duke women's lacrosse coach, submitted a proposal to the NCAA to slow early recruitment.
The proposal, which has received 85 percent support from Division I women's lacrosse coaches and more than 70 percent from men's lacrosse coaches, prohibits recruiting contact prior to Sept. 1 of a prospect's junior year, including incoming or outgoing phone calls, in-person meetings, on or off campus, and recruiting conversations at college camps.
"I think the idea that we're asking 14-year-olds or 15-year-olds to make a lifetime decision, when they're looking at it through the lens of a 14- or 15-year-old, is not necessarily healthy or ultimately going to yield a great decision on either part," Kimel said. "Ultimately, we worry about kids not making the right decision, and coaches not making the right decision."
On May 16, the NCAA's Student-Athlete Experience Committee will be reviewing the proposal, as well as recommendations made by a sport-specific sub-committee within the NCAA.
There is resistance.
"I think what the hurdle is, is that there is a sense that we don't want to add to the rulebook, these rules that are hard to enforce," said Bob Scalise, Harvard athletic director and chair of the NCAA's Student-Athlete Experience Committee. "It's a little bit of, 'What would it be like if this were in place? How would we enforce it? Is it enforceable or is it not enforceable? What kind of work would be required? What kind of data would we need to gather to enforce it?'"
'Nobody wants to be left out'
Giulia Koutsoyanopulos retrieves 200 softballs scattered around the Sports Training Complex in Anaheim, California. The eighth-grader could have blasted 200 more had her coach not intervened.
The first baseman and outfielder wants to be the best, especially in school. When she received a 98 on a test that week in March, she was disappointed; a classmate scored 100.
The 14-year-old, who aspires to be an English professor and Olympian, insists her parents blare Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" on the way to Carl Hankey Middle School every morning.
Last fall, she verballed to her dream school, the University of Arizona, at 13. She dons No. 27 for former Wildcats pitcher Jennie Finch. "It could have been now, it could have been later, I still would have said yes," Koutsoyanopulos said.
Her mother, Giuliana, said some are more ready to commit early than others. Her son, who plays Division II baseball, could not have committed early, she said. Her daughter, though, with her amazing work ethic, was ready.
"There are some hurtful things that people write sometimes, that 'My daughter doesn't know what she wants for dinner, and this one verballed to a college,'" Giuliana said. "My daughter probably doesn't know what she wants for dinner, but that doesn't make her not mature enough to know that 'I want to study law; I want to study English.'"
Freshman outfielder Amanda Lorenz, who is batting .401 for No. 1 Florida softball, verbally committed after visiting the university at 14. The stadium lights sparkled. "This is it," she said, tearing up in the outfield. "This is the place I want to be."
Neighbors were shocked -- Lorenz had yet to bat for Moorpark High School (California). She doesn't regret committing early and is on pace to record Florida's highest batting clip for a rookie.
"I'm just loving every second of it," Lorenz said. "[My parents] ask me, 'What are you doing?' I go, 'I'm going home.' They say, 'No, Amanda, that's not home. Your home is in Moorpark. You're just in college.' I go, 'No, no, no. This is home.'"
Some early commits, content with their decisions, indeed flourish.
The girl who has long dreamt of attending a certain college, perhaps a parent's alma mater. The girl who can jump out of the gym. The girl like three-time softball All-American Sierra Romero, who committed to Michigan before her sophomore year of high school, and now owns the NCAA grand slam record. The girls like Amber and Kadie Rolfzen, who helped Nebraska volleyball win the 2015 national championship, each committing before playing a high school set.
But these girls may be the exception rather than the norm.
Others may not have as clear a vision several years in advance. Big school, small school? Near home, far away? Bustling city, quiet town? Engineering, anthropology?
Many are still maturing physically and emotionally. "A lot of these kids are young and they haven't developed. They might weigh 90 pounds. ... The difference between a freshman, sophomore and junior and senior to me is huge," said St. Stephen's & St. Agnes High (Alexandria, Virginia) lacrosse coach Kathy Jenkins, who has helped hundreds play collegiately during her 40-year tenure.
Some commit early out of fear. Last summer, Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook recruited five setters who had just finished ninth grade. When Cook offered one, the other four, he said, committed elsewhere within a week. "They all panicked," Cook said. "They were worried like, 'If she commits, then I'm going to lose out on Penn State,' and then, 'If she commits, I'm going to lose out on Florida.'
"Nobody wants to be left out. They all probably made great decisions -- I hope everybody did -- but there's a snowball effect that happens and a panic that it creates."
'I sacrificed the well-being of my body'
Giddings Harrison, a senior high school lacrosse player in Virginia, suffered bilateral labral tears in her hips the summer before her sophomore year. Resisting surgery and bearing knife-like pain digging into her hip, she played in showcases in hopes of verballing, as many around her had.
Weekly breakdowns. Two cortisone shots. Her doctor refused to grant her a third, reasoning she wouldn't be able to walk by 40.
Division I washed away; two hip surgeries followed.
Though healthy and excited to play for D-III Washington and Lee, she has regrets. "That's one thing about the early recruiting that I really hated, is that I sacrificed the well-being of my body to be recruited," Harrison said.
"I based my self worth off of if I was committed or if this college was looking at me, and that's not at all what a sophomore needs. As a high schooler, you should be focusing on your grades and your social life and making sure that your athletics are going well and that you're working hard."
That's the recipe Sabrina Ionescu chose. She never dreamt of playing college basketball, even as college coaches flocked to her as a high school freshman. "I just practiced and played hard, and whatever was going to happen, was going to happen," said Ionescu, whose phone died four times the first day NCAA coaches were allowed to directly contact her as a junior.
After collecting McDonald's All-American MVP honors for a 25-point, 10-rebound outburst in March, Ionescu was asked: Why haven't you committed yet?
"If I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me that, I'd probably be rich and retired somewhere," said Ionescu, the No. 4 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2016 class. "The longer you wait and the longer you get to know the coaches and their team, the better it is. Why not wait?"
'Sometimes you feel so hypocritical as a coach'
It was April 1991. Amy Bokker slipped on a pink dress for her high school's senior prom. Her date's mother applied foundation over her biceps and triceps; bruises from her lacrosse game earlier that day began to surface.
"Are we going to decide on a college tonight?" her own mother asked.
Bokker, now Stanford's women's lacrosse coach, didn't feel any pressure to decide. She had enjoyed five official visits and was weighing her options. "In my generation, that's probably not unique. That's probably more the norm," said Bokker, who chose William & Mary.
Many players-turned-coaches like Bokker can hardly comprehend the pace of early recruiting, even as they sprint to meet the demands of their jobs.
Travis Hudson, Western Kentucky's women's volleyball coach for the past 21 years, opposed recruiting young when the practice accelerated five years ago. So he didn't. But when many players had committed by the time his staff initiated contact, he caved.
He requires prospects to visit campus and develop a relationship with coaches first, and is proud to have had just one transfer. But his complicity gnaws at him.
"Sometimes you feel so hypocritical as a coach, when you're saying you don't think it's healthy to recruit kids at that age, but then you're actively in that process," Hudson said.
Club coaches, funneling contact between college coach and prospect, often receive mixed messages. "I have not spoken to one college coach that will not say, 'It's just too young. They're recruiting too young, but we have a camp -- do you have any 2020s that can come to our camp?' " said Mike Stith, president of the Orange County Batbusters. "They're swimming in a pool of sharks and they're going to have to compete."
Sometimes coaches are pressured by prospects and their families to offer early; not doing so may convey disinterest. And with showcases for younger classes every weekend, coaches often have less time to spend with their current teams.
"This has always been a huge part of our job, but now it's become 24/7," said Michigan's Carol Hutchins, the winningest coach in Division I softball history. "I'm busier in the fall than I am in the spring."
Top-ranked schools have their choice of elite athletes, whose physical prowess and polished talent elevate them from their peers. Those athletes don't necessarily need to commit early.
"If you're a top young player and you get to choose from [schools ranked] 20 to 1, which university you want to go to, how is that a lose for you? That's a great thing for you," said USC volleyball coach Mick Haley. "Where it breaks down is from 20 to 200."
The next tier of schools offers younger in hopes of stealing a slice of the pie before it is gobbled up their top-flight counterparts.
"If I see somebody that's really, really good, that one kid that levitates off the field, I've got to offer her right then. I can't think about it," said Vann Stuedeman, softball coach at Mississippi State, competing in the SEC against the best of the best.
"I have to offer her right then before anyone else sees her, meaning the top 10 or 20. Then you're praying and working extra hard that they don't take her from you."
'What would be best for the athletes?'
Last fall, Scalise wrote a letter to the Harvard community: "A Call for Sanity in College Athletics Recruiting." He called for the NCAA to "acknowledge the elephant in the room" and "find a workable solution to this alarming trend" of early recruiting.
Verbals, Scalise said, were intended to take an athlete off the market; the athlete knows where she is going and the coach knows who is coming and when.
But do they really know? What if an athlete doesn't qualify academically? What if an athlete de-commits? What if a coach leaves? What if an athlete is injured?
Is it still a commitment?
"When it works, everyone's happy. But when it doesn't work, it is a disaster," said Scalise, who, along with many college coaches interviewed, suggested a correlation between early recruiting and rising transfer rates. (The NCAA does not have data to confirm this supposition).
Kimel and Corbett, who seek acceptance of a bright line rule: no recruiting contact at all before Sept. 1 of junior year, may gather support from conferences and submit the proposal for the next NCAA legislative cycle should this proposal not pass.
"We are trying to leave no stone unturned," Kimel said. "Ideally, we want this through, we want it through now."
Another summer approaches. Another young class of athletes is evaluated. Scouting pamphlets and clipboards crowd bleachers. Pens bounce up and down, and coaches whisper the names of the next so-and-so's, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders who hold their title hopes. Young athletes and their families hope they will be called, cost be damned.
"It should just be looked at to say, 'What is the best thing not for our teams and colleges, but what's best for these students?'" said Maria Young, mother of a sophomore lacrosse player in North Carolina who's entrenched in the recruiting process.
"Think about them for a little bit. How is this really helpful to do it the way we are doing it now?" Young said. "And I don't know the answer to the question, but could it be beneficial to go ahead and wait? What would be best for the athletes?"