Second in an occasional series on how area high school athletes are spending their summers with hopes of continuing their sports careers in college.
Her riseball has never had more lift, and her change-up stifles hitters game after game. Yet Megan Elliott is getting hit hard this summer.
The Calvert All-Met player of the year has shown remarkable poise, maturity and dominance in nearly every tough situation in her three high school seasons. But July 1, she met a challenge unlike any other -- the college recruiting season.
Make no mistake: Elliott, who holds multiple state pitching records, is talented enough to play at the top level of college softball. Getting there, however, is not as simple as it appears.
Softball recruiting differs greatly from that of basketball or football. NCAA rules allow only 12 scholarships per team, which typically have 15 to 20 players, and coaches do not have large budgets to scout players nationwide. Also, a change in the recruiting calendar that allows earlier contact between players and coaches has affected Elliott.
"It's a lot. You get confused," Elliott said of the recruiting season, which kicked into high gear July 1, when coaches and players were allowed regular weekly contact. "You can't make a decision right away, but that's what they want you to do.
"I'm being evaluated every day of my life. It's everything on and off the field."
In years past, the first contact between college coaches and recruits could come July 1. Beginning this year, coaches are allowed one phone call per recruit in March and one visit per recruit off the college campus in April.
"That was the biggest change that went on this year," said University of South Florida Coach Ken Eriksen, who is the pitching coach for the U.S. national team. "That caught a lot of coaches by surprise."
Tommy Orndorff, who coaches Elliott on the Virginia Shamrocks travel team, has sent dozens of players to college programs since 1973. Orndorff said college coaches have told him that the changes in the recruiting calendar have encouraged players to give oral commitments sooner even though they cannot sign a binding national letter-of-intent until November.
"There seems to be a fad now where kids are verballing earlier," Orndorff said. "I always thought the [campus] visit was the most important, so you could see the team and how you fit into it. Right now, there's so much pressure to commit."
Eriksen agreed that more players are committing early.
"There's no question about it," Eriksen said. "The first one in makes the first impression, and those last the longest."
Elliott doesn't want to be rushed into one of the biggest decisions of her life. But she learned the hard way that that is not an option if she wants to play at a top program.
Florida State was the second school to offer Elliott a scholarship, when the coaching staff visited her at Calvert in April. On Wednesday, Elliott received an e-mail saying the Seminoles had filled their recruiting need for a pitcher and rescinded their offer.
Last year, Elliott's Shamrocks teammate Courtney Bures, the 2004 All-Met player of the year at Stonewall Jackson, was contemplating an offer from Alabama that would have covered 90 percent of a full scholarship. A month after it was tendered, the Crimson Tide reduced the offer to 22 percent after deciding to divide the scholarship money among three other players.
"The recruiting in softball has become brutal," Eriksen said, "to the point of being dishonest."
Bures ended up accepting an offer from Mississippi State just after being named first-team All-America by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.
"We've definitely seen that this is a business," said Mike Elliott, Megan's father. "What's offered today might not be offered tomorrow. If she doesn't want to make a decision quickly, a lot of these [offers] are going to go by the wayside, and I don't want to see that happen to her.
"The handwriting is on the wall. You cannot sit back and wait until November and pick out some school. I think a lot of it is overwhelming."
Like most top-tier softball players, Elliott has dreamed of playing at a school in the Pac-10 Conference, generally regarded as the nation's best and home to UCLA and Arizona, which have won 17 of the 24 Division I championships since 1982.
But because college softball coaches don't have budgets large enough to fly around the country to recruit, the rosters of schools in such softball hotbeds as California, Texas and Arizona are almost entirely filled with local players.
"Why fly across the country to check out Megan Elliott when they've got someone just as good in their home state?" said Orndorff, who figures that Elliott is among the top 15 or 20 pitchers in the nation in the class of 2006. "They'll have a tough time explaining that" expense.
Orndorff said most of the Pac-10 schools have either filled their recruiting needs for pitchers through early commitments or have underclassmen on their rosters. Only one school in the conference, California, has made an offer to Elliott, and, not surprisingly, she spoke with Golden Bears Coach Diane Ninemire on July 1 while at a tournament with the Shamrocks in Boulder, Colo.
Elliott said she is considering four other schools -- Alabama, Notre Dame, South Florida and defending NCAA champion Michigan -- among the nearly 20 that have either shown strong interest or offered her a scholarship.
She would love to visit those schools -- preferably during the spring softball season -- but she knows that probably won't happen. She and her father said she probably will decide on a college soon after the Shamrocks conclude their summer season at the ASA Gold Nationals tournament Aug. 8-14 in Salinas, Calif.
Elliott said she will be relieved when the summer ends. Even though she is the center of attention in every high school game, she is amazed by the scrutiny she is under this summer by recruiters.
"They don't really evaluate what you do in high school season," she said. "It's what you do right in front of them.
"It's a lot of pressure."