by Catharine Aradi

With each passing recruiting year, I see proof of softball's growth at the youth level. More high school and travel teams are becoming competitive, and there's a definite increase in the number of student-athletes who are dreaming of playing softball in college. Softball talent, just like softball teams--college and youth ball--tends to fall into a pyramid shape; and I don't expect this to change. Just as there will always be more average players than there will be Lisa Fernandez or Jessica Mendoza types, there will always be fewer college teams at the top and a lot more in the middle and at the bottom of this pyramid. But the overall level of college team competitiveness is rising every year. This is due to better coaching, better equipment and technology, better experience and a bigger and better pool of talent to draw from.

Players who eight or ten years ago might have walked onto many Div. I teams and been guaranteed a spot are now scrambling to get themselves recruited. I regularly see families on the brink of despair because their athlete didn't have a school offering her money or even a starting spot. Granted, many of these families had been sitting around "waiting" for it to happen--e.g., they assumed coaches would find their player and recruit her just because she was a strong athlete. But there were also players struggling to find spots who had written colleges, had sent out videos, and had tried to let coaches know they wanted to play in college.

The process of finding a college is much like finding a job, and the tighter the job market, the more you have to work. I know the process as I outline it in my book works. Proactive marketing, contacting coaches, sending out video links, and never stopping does produce results. But I also have to warn parents that because of the pyramid structure of college softball, there will be far fewer spots open at top schools and far more players wanting to go to those schools. And the bigger the talent pool, the more coaches can pick and choose which kids they want to recruit.

It has become more important than ever to identify your athlete's "target zone" early in the recruiting process. In the old days, players could write five or ten schools, and if those schools weren't interested, they could then write another five or ten, gradually working their way down the list until they found schools where they would be "impact" players. (The key to being recruited as a player is to find the school where you will make a difference.) Unfortunately, too many families take way too long to do this now. Where players think they can play and would like to play may not be where they are most likely to make a strong contribution to the program and therefore be a "hot prospect."

I try not to discourage players by telling them they are unlikely to be recruited by Arizona State or Washington or Oklahoma. It's fine to contact your "dream" schools. Just do it early in your college search, and at the same time also write thirty or forty other schools covering a broad spectrum from small and mid-level Div. I schools to good Div. III programs. In my experience, it's a lot easier to hear that a top Div. I team doesn't want to recruit you, if at the same time, you are hearing that a smaller D-I or good D-II/NAIA school has a spot just for you. Yet, many kids (or their parents) would rather risk giving up softball than approach schools that aren't "big name" programs.

As you're sitting around waiting for a coach to call think of these numbers. Every fall, roughly 5000 to 6000 young women will enter four-year colleges as new recruits destined for the softball team. Of this total number, 75% will go to play for Div. II, Div. III and NAIA college teams, and 90% will be going to schools that are located east of the state of Colorado! Of this total number, only about 50% will get any softball-based aid. (Players may get other kinds of financial aid, but a lot of students will not be signing a National Letter of Intent.) And, finally, of the above total number only about 100 to 150 athletes will go to Top 25 Div. I teams. (This means four or five players a year will go to an Arizona or a Michigan.)

Too many parents waste time insisting that their player is in the elite "blue chip" pool of recruits, when in reality she's in the much, much larger pool of "very good" athletes. Because of this, these families take too long to realize that their player may have to accept a Div. II scholarship or an NAIA talent award or a Div. III financial aid package if she really wants to play softball in college.

I would certainly never recommend that a player go to a college she hates just to play softball. This is always a mistake. But I do urge athletes to expand their horizons and consider colleges they might not have heard about or colleges that are farther away from home than they originally wanted. College coaches do want the best talent they can get. But almost all coaches will take a long hard look at the player who most wants to play and who really wants to be part of their program. So the more open an athlete is and the more willing she is to take a look at lots of different types of colleges and college teams, the greater are her chances of being some coach's dream recruit. The recruiting game is like the game of musical chairs. There are way too many players competing for too few seats. If the music starts to slow down, you had better grab the first open chair. If you don't you may find you are out of the game all together!