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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Frank Reed has been at this collegiate softball coaching business a long time, nearly 30 years total between Chattanooga State and UTC. So he's witnessed growth and change like few in his sport.
He's seen grand venues such as the Mocs' Jim Frost Stadium be built. And wonderful complexes emerge such as our town's The Summit of Softball, which along with Warner Park (including Frost Stadium), is hosting more than 120 teams competing for USA Softball's 14-under fastpitch national championship.
He's also seen ESPN televise the NCAA Division I softball tournament across numerous platforms. He's even seen pro leagues form.
And of late, Reed has begun to seriously recruit the 14-under crowd who'll fill our fine fields this week, which is something he never dreamed he'd be doing a decade ago.
"Probably not at all," he answered Monday evening when asked how much he paid attention to 14-under tournaments a decade ago. "You were focused on the 18-under tournaments back then, trying to get a commitment or at least a commitment to visit your school that fall.
"Now you've got to get in there when they're 13 or 14, because if you don't someone else is going to get a commitment from them before you ever see them play. We've already got commits from the 2020 class and we're looking hard at our needs for the 2021 class, which is what a lot of these girls here this week are in."
What's next for these college coaches? Scoping out Nerfball games at day cares?
It's not just softball, of course. Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have offered football scholarships to 6-foot-4, 286-pound eighth-grader Jaheim Oatis of Columbia, Miss., Oatis recently announced on Twitter. A year ago the Crimson Tide offered a football scholarship to Florida eighth-grade linebacker Jesus Machado.
"I think it's incredible that they'll ask eighth- and ninth-graders for a commitment," said softball District 10 Junior Olympic commissioner Kim Swafford, who was a basketball star at Central High School at the dawn of the 1980s. "I know I couldn't have made that choice at that age."
But she also knows we're a long way from that age regarding girls' or women's fastpitch softball.
"I got here (The Summit) at 8 this morning for the pool games," Swafford said. "There were already three college coaches watching one game. There were clearly some good players in that game."
One of the best of those players is Tulsa Shootout left-handed pitcher Kenzie Chacon, currently rated No. 1 at her position in the 2021 class, thanks at least partly to a 60-mph fastball and 57-mph curveball.
"She's already taken unofficial visits to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tulsa," said Heath Thomason, who's dated Chacon's mother, Jennifer Geiger, for the past 10 years. "Most of these girls don't have any idea what college is about or what they might major in. We had one (major college) coach tell us, 'I'm not used to talking to girls this age. I don't know what to talk about with a girl this age.' But this is her dream. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be doing this."
Former UTC coach and current Tennessee co-coach Karen Weekly will arrive Wednesday for the USA 14-under tourney after travel issues delayed her flight from California, where she was watching another youth tournament.
"Everybody's a player (in these early commitments) -- the kids, the parents, the colleges," Weekly, who recently got a commitment from Marion County rising freshman Sara Muir, said by phone Monday night. "As long as one school does it, we're all going to do it."
But what do they do when these early commitments don't improve during the rest of their high school careers? Does the school honor these verbal agreements, knowing there is no NCAA rule requiring such integrity?
What, too, of the player who commits to a mid-major such as UTC, then finds herself later wooed by a Power Five program such as Tennessee, Florida or UCLA?
"You worry about it," Reed said. "But it's only happened to us one time, a girl leaving us. And on our end, once I shake that parent's hand, that's it. She has an offer. If you're going to talk to your players about commitment, integrity and honesty, you've got to live by those principles yourself."
Weekly knows it's far from a perfect system.
"You get a commit from a girl in the ninth grade, she may not continue to develop as she gets older," Weekly said. "Or she might quit working as hard as she needs to. Maybe she gets hurt. They're not all going to become the player you think they'll become when they're 14."
Because of that, the UT coach and others introduced legislation to the NCAA to change the recruiting guidelines.
"But it didn't pass," she said. "I think because there's no rule governing verbal commitments now, the presidents didn't see a need to change it."
For the parents, it's clearly a mixed bag. Their daughters can be pressured to pick a college before they get a learner's permit. On the other hand, the quicker you can get at least a semi-guarantee of some percentage of a full scholarship -- most softball scholarships are 40 to 70 percent of a full ride -- moms and dads can sleep easier at night.
"They all have aspirations to play in college," said Kendal Helms, whose daughter Zoe plays first base for the Chattanooga Fury.
Noted one Tulsa Shootout parent regarding the trickle-down impact of having a star like Chacon: "She brings a lot of coaches to games who might not see our kids otherwise."
This week at The Summit and Warner Park, more than 1,200 girls will be evaluated whom almost no college coach would have watched 10 years ago, be that a good or bad thing.
To that end, UTC's Reed said of youth softball's near future: "It's going to get crazier before it gets better."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]
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