Local Student-Athletes Verbally Committing To Colleges at Increasingly Younger Ages

Local Student-Athletes Verbally Committing To Colleges at Increasingly Younger Ages

Several county freshmen have already given their word to college coaches

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Fourteen-year-old freshman Blair softball player Courtney Wyche has committed to play for Maryland starting in 2019-2020

Edwin Jorae

Montgomery Blair High School freshman softball player Courtney Wyche was only 12 years old and had just begun pitching when college recruiters began to take notice of her talent—and her strong 6-foot frame.

“That’s when the sparks started to ignite at that point and her [Virginia Glory 12U travel club] coach was saying her name was out there,” Wyche’s mother, Tracey, said. “Her coach was telling me all these different things she would have to do; the next steps, being at the right camps. And I was like, ‘Well, she’s 12.’ ”

A year later, at age 13 last June, after her fastball clocked in at 68 miles per hour while attending a Jerrad Hardin Elite Camp in Sterling, Va., Wyche received her first major NCAA Division I scholarship offer—a full ride to Southeastern Conference power University of Missouri. She had not yet stepped foot in high school.

Soon, Wyche had interest from Michigan State, Wisconsin, University of South Carolina and University of Virginia, among others. In January, the 14-year-old varsity player, who is recovering from a high ankle sprain and has yet to throw her first high school pitch, verbally committed to play softball for the University of Maryland in 2019-20.

As unusual as Wyche’s circumstances seem, it’s becoming commonplace for athletes to know where they’re going to college before they have learned how to solve quadratic equations in Algebra.

“The two biggest decisions kids have to make are [handling] peer pressure and college, which is now happening sooner and sooner,” Landon lacrosse assistant coach J.R. Bordley said. “I would say the process is broken in every aspect. I don’t envy kids these days. So many of these kids have no idea what they’re committing to.”

Bordley said he already knows of two rising freshmen who will likely soon be committed to college. Landon already has five sophomores with verbal commitments—Joseph Epstein, who committed to Johns Hopkins a year ago, John Geppert (Bucknell), Zach Johnson (Michigan), Brett Gallagher (Dartmouth) and Brendon Gallagher (Dartmouth).

 

Landon sophomore John Geppert (top) has already committed to play lacrosse in college for Bucknell. Sophomores Joseph Epstein (bottom left) has committed to play for Johns Hopkins and Zach Johnson (bottom right) has committed to play for Michigan. Photos by Mary Ponomarenko.

Other Montgomery County early recruits include Holton-Arms School lacrosse freshman Stephanie Hong (Harvard), Churchill boys lacrosse sophomores Jack Taylor (Brown) and Reed Moshyedi (Brown) and Holy Cross lacrosse’s Mary Muldoon, who committed to Penn State a month into her sophomore year.

Also committed are Wootton’s freshman John Billingsley (Maryland), Georgetown Prep lacrosse’s freshmen Clay Lanham (University of North Carolina)and Connor Humiston (University of Virginia) and sophomores Andrew Cave (Dartmouth) and Kaleb Fernandez (University of Pennsylvania).

According to the website Top Drawer Soccer, nationally 157 high school sophomores, eight freshmen and an eighth-grader were verbally committed by December to college women’s soccer programs.

There are undoubtedly some advantages to having one’s college plans set by sophomore year of high school. Bordley said once student-athletes commit, they know they have to maintain a certain grade-point average and have clear goals to fulfill.

But those benefits, according to many coaches at both the high school and college level, do not outweigh the myriad of concerns and consequences that arise when it comes to forcing 13- and 14-year-olds to make major life decisions. Among them, Bordley said, is the growing list of students who transfer to another college every summer. Plus, while an early commitment might take weight off student-athletes and allow them to play with more freedom, it could also add a new set of pressures to live up to the inevitable hype surrounding their college plans.

In addition, verbal commitments are not binding. Both parties are free to de-commit until November of the student-athlete’s senior year, when he or she signs a National Letter of Intent.

It’s difficult to tell at age 12 or 13 what an athlete will be like four years down the road, coaches agree. Injuries happen—Blair softball coach Louis Hoelman said there’s pressure on high school coaches to be extra cautious with their prodigies. And a boy who towers over his eighth-grade classmates might be considered small by the time he’s a high school senior.

But in the current climate, an athlete who chooses not to commit when an offer is presented does risk losing out, Holton-Arms School lacrosse coach Janet McCormick said.

Per NCAA regulations, coaches in most sports are not permitted to initiate direct contact with student-athletes prior to their junior year of high school. But that does not preclude them from using an intermediary, such as a high school or club coach. Therefore, no age restrictions apply.

And parents are increasingly acting as sports agents and marketing their kids to college coaches.

Bordley and McCormick said there has been a major push in recent years by college and high school lacrosse coaches alike for NCAA to reform its rules.

These increasing early commitments do not just affect the student-athletes themselves, but can impact teammates and relationships. The early recruiting process hurts the late bloomer, Bordley said.

“Student athletes are under enough stress as it is, with academics, SATs, peer pressure,” Bordley said. “I do worry about those kids who are juniors and seniors and look around at their [younger] teammates who have already committed.” 

Whether or not the current recruitment process meets the approval of coaches, most acknowledge that it’s unlikely to change any time soon. How a student-athlete handles the pressure and expectations that might come along with an early commitment, including dealing with the possible envy of teammates, depends on an individual’s character.

“It depends on the person,” Hoelman said. “Luckily for me it’s not in Courtney’s personality to [think she’s better than anyone else]. She’s super humble and has a great personality.” 

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