Two of Maryland's most dominant high school athletes bumped into each other near their Severna Park High School lockers last month and chatted about the college recruiting process.
One was rising senior Kaila Jenkins, an All-Met softball pitcher who compiled Anne Arundel County's best ERA and batting average for the 2005 season. The other was Mike Gvozden, a rising senior All-Met lacrosse goalie who had just verbally committed to Johns Hopkins, one of a dozen schools that offered him a scholarship.
"So I guess you're like me," Gvozden told Jenkins. "I guess you can probably decide where you want to go to school. You can probably go anywhere."
"Actually," Jenkins said, "I'm just hoping to go somewhere."
Although she won a state championship, hit better than .500 and set Anne Arundel County season records for ERA and strikeouts, Jenkins's college path has taken an odd twist: She's the one doing the recruiting.
Jenkins regularly e-mails about 50 college coaches. She reads how-to books on catching college coaches' attention. She is spending her summer traveling across the United States to tournaments attended by recruiters. If her search goes well, she'll be awarded a rare prize for a Maryland player in a West Coast-dominated sport: a Division I softball scholarship.
"There might not be a harder scholarship to get for somebody from Maryland than a softball scholarship," Severna Park Coach Jeff Shepherd said. "Colleges almost exclusively recruit players from Texas, Arizona and California. If you're not over there, you're not on their map."
Jenkins, though, has the credentials to buck that trend. As a pitcher, she has a 48-9 career record with 659 strikeouts. She hit .552 last season with 33 RBI, and she drove in the game-winning run seven times. Equally important to her recruiting are two other numbers: an 1150 on the old SAT and a 3.3 GPA.
Armed with those qualifications, Jenkins has shopped herself to college coaches for more than two years. With her parents, she attended two seminars on college recruiting, and the Jenkins family took the message of those seminars -- be persistent -- and made it their motto.
Jenkins's itinerary this summer with her 18-and-under Riviera Beach Spirit club team included tournaments in Colorado, New York, California, Virginia and Georgia. Before each tournament, Jenkins e-mailed 50 to 70 college coaches and invited them to watch her play. Often, a dozen of those coaches showed up.
"At the tournament in Colorado, there were between 20 and 30 college coaches standing behind the backstop," said Rochelle Jenkins, Kaila's mother. "Most of those were Division I coaches. I was nervous just watching, but Kaila never gets fazed. She never cracks. It's almost like she doesn't understand where she is."
Said Brett Lounge, Jenkins's pitching coach with the Spirit: "She actually enjoys the attention. She has a big ego, and you like that. She enjoys the show of being in front of all those people."
Coaches like that attitude, too. Jenkins said she's most interested in Maryland, James Madison, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Michigan and North Carolina, but several other schools have shown interest. Virginia Tech called Lounge to ask about Jenkins last week; UCLA and Florida State coaches sent her handwritten letters.
Jenkins hopes to commit to a college by the end of December, which is considered late by softball standards. NCAA softball teams are allowed 12 scholarships, and teams often carry 20 players on the roster, so scholarship slots fill up quickly. Also, starting this year, softball coaches were able to contact players beginning March 1 instead of July 1, leading to earlier commitments.
"It's tempting to be in a rush, but it's too big of a decision to force it," Jenkins said. "I just want to have the decision made before the high school season starts. That's my big goal. I'm realistic about my situation. I just want to go to a school where I'm going to be happy. I don't have to play for the best program in the world."
Jenkins's high school track record suggests she could play for the top programs. If she wins 16 games next season, she will set the Maryland record for career wins by a public school softball pitcher. Shepherd said she might be the best player in Maryland high school history.
But Jenkins learned early that success in Maryland is sometimes misleading. When she started traveling for softball, at about age 12, she said, she felt like a mediocre player.
"They play a different game on the West Coast," Jenkins said. "Out there you can play outside all year long, and the players are just way better. I might be great here, but there are a lot of players around the country that are as good or better."
That became clear during the three games she pitched at the Colorado Fireworks Tournament in early July, where she recorded just four strikeouts. During her high school season, she averaged 13 strikeouts.
"Right now, there's a talent gap in the two coasts," said U.S. Olympic Coach Mike Candrea. "That might start to change, but right now it's pretty clear. If you're from the East, you've got an uphill battle."
It's a fight Jenkins plans to win. In between generating exposure and sending out e-mail, she is retooling her two most important pitches. Her riseball occasionally spins sideways instead of backwards, a habit Lounge is helping her break. Her changeup is her weakest pitch, so she's trying new finger grips.
"Sometimes you have to remember that getting a scholarship is still about the pitching," Jenkins said. "There are so many other things involved that make it exhausting. But if I can just get my name out there to the college coaches, eventually somebody is going to have to notice."