Please Note: This is an abbreviated version of an extremely detailed question about recruited walk-ons at top Division I programs.
Question: Are "preferred" or "recruited" walk-ons treated the same as scholarshipped athletes?
Answer: This is an issue that comes up frequently because so many players (and their parents) believe they should be playing at a top Division I program. It's very easy to get caught up in the mystique and excitement of a Pac 12 or SEC college team. And there's no doubt, if you do make the team at one of these schools, you'll receive excellent coaching and have a very challenging and rewarding collegiate softball experience that might even include a trip to the WCWS.
However, it's vital that families understand that softball at these programs is a business. Their goal is to win, and the coaches are expected to produce results. It's not recreational softball. These coaches are dedicated and hard working, and they expect no less from their athletes. Competing at this level is tough. The work ethic and commitment the coaches look for in their players is beyond what most college students are prepared to give (usually because they want more balance in their college experience.)
Consequently, top collegiate coaches have certain criteria they tend to use when recruiting and offering scholarships to prospects. (And yes, they do sometimes make mistakes. But that's another story.) My point is that these coaches do things they way they do for a reason, and changing the way they do things isn't likely to be easy.
When an athlete is offered a recruited walk on spot on a team---and in this instance I'm referring to a big D-I programs, not necessarily to other types of teams---the coach will usually explain that the athlete will be given the benefits the other scholarship athletes receive such as tutoring, equipment, early enrollment, and so on, and she will be expected to work just as hard as the scholarship players. But the coach will almost always add that the player is not being guaranteed anything beyond a spot on the team. Playing time, athletic-based financial aid, and so on may be possibilities, but they aren't guaranteed.
And indeed, if you watch top D-I programs over time, you'll see that the percentage of walk-on players who eventually become starters or All Conference players is a very small one. Occasionally, a walk-on at a top team may get playing time or even earn a starting spot by the time she's a junior. But this isn't a common occurrence. More often than not, walk-ons are used as pinch runners, bull pen catchers, and backup players in case someone gets injured.
There's nothing wrong with this. Successful teams in all sports have bench sitters who are considered valuable members of the team. However, for the talented, competitive athlete who has spent most of her career starting---and often being a star---on her high school or travel team, this can be a very difficult role to adjust to. Since for all but a very few athletes, their softball career will peak in college and will end when they graduate, players should think long and hard about whether or not they want to spend their last four years in the game watching other players step between the white lines while they cheer them on.
If you're good enough to make a Pac 12 or SEC team as a walk on, chances are there are lots of other teams that would be only to happy to offer you a starting spot. In the long run, you may find you're much happier in this role!
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