By the first week of July, Megan Elliott, the All-Met Softball Player of the Year from Calvert High School, had her choice of scholarship offers from some of the top programs in the country. By the end of the week, at least one offer had been withdrawn.
Elliott is regarded as one of the top 15 or 20 pitchers nationally in the class of 2006. Yet, five days after the July 1 start of regular contact between college coaches and recruits, Elliott received an e-mail from Florida State -- one of more than a dozen schools to have offered her a scholarship at that point -- pulling the offer. The Seminoles said they had received a commitment from another pitcher.
"You can't make a decision right away," Elliott said, "but that's what they want you to do."
Elliott faced pressure because of an NCAA recruiting rules change in all sports except basketball and football starting with the class of 2006. The new regulations permit coaches contact during the recruit's junior year -- one phone call per recruit in the month of March, and one visit to the recruit's high school campus in April, which was when Florida State extended a scholarship offer to Elliott. Previously, college coaches could not begin contacting recruits until July 1 following the recruit's junior year.
Earlier contact from coaches resulted in earlier offers -- and figured to give recruits more time to mull their options. Instead, the plan has backfired, recruits and coaches say.
Several recruits said the new schedule has put them under pressure to commit earlier, sometimes without seeing the school or requiring them to visit at their own expense. Recruits are not allowed to take official visits to schools -- all-expense trips paid for by the university -- until the first day of classes of their senior year of high school.
"It's pretty nerve-racking," said Kristin Stannard, a soccer player on the U.S. under-17 national team who will begin her senior year later this month at Clover Hill High near Richmond. "You're deciding the rest of your life in a week."
Last February, while on a trip with the team, Stannard visited Stanford. Three months later, Stanford sent her an e-mail on a Sunday, stating its offer. Stannard had to give an answer by that Friday, otherwise, she said, her scholarship would go to one of three other girls. "I don't like the rule," said Maryland men's soccer coach Sasho Cirovski, who has received five commitments from the class of 2006. "It's another source of frustration, where coaches are never consulted. It's a no-win situation for anybody.
"It's accelerated the recruiting cycle. Kids are making earlier recruiting decisions than ever."
The NCAA seems to have realized its mistake, however. According to Brad Hostetter, the NCAA's director of membership services, a proposal is already on the agenda for the Division I Management Council meeting in January to eliminate the March and April contact, and revert to the old calendar. The earliest such a measure could be adopted would be at the April 2006 Division I Board of Directors meeting, meaning the class of 2007 would also be affected by this rule.
"It appears coaches feel pressure to get that early contact and it takes them off campus at a critical time," Hostetter said. "It's also putting pressure on juniors to make decisions early. Maybe this wasn't the best idea."
But for the class of 2006, it still means recruits will be under pressure to commit the rest of the summer.
Lake Braddock All-Met Matt Weiler committed to play soccer at Kentucky last month only after paying his own way for unofficial visits to William & Mary, Kentucky and Northwestern in a two-week span.
"I have a lot of friends across the country who have already committed," Weiler said, "because a lot of offers are going to be gone if you don't take those unofficial visits."
Hayfield three-time All-Met soccer player Samantha Drees, who told coaches at Arizona, Boston University, Maryland and Pepperdine that she would not make a decision until after taking her official visits, said: "They want to make kids spend their own money so [coaches] don't have to spend theirs. They expect us just to pull money out of our pockets and come up there a week later" after talking to them on the phone.
While securing recruits long in advance would appear to put coaches at ease, they said it raises a red flag for the long term. Coaches fear the consequences of rushed, uninformed college decisions.
"It increases the likelihood of transfers," said Notre Dame softball coach Deanna Gumpf, who added that she has already received three commitments this summer, and is nearly done recruiting the class of 2006. "Transfers are your worst nightmare, because you never see them coming and you can't recruit in time to replace them."
Now, coaches have another reason to fear transfers. The formula for the Academic Progress Rate, the NCAA's new measuring tool intended to promote academic reform, penalizes athletic programs for each student who transfers.
"Now the APR punishes you for transfers," Cirovski said. "You may be doing a great job, but if a kid comes in and says, 'I want to be closer to home,' or 't's too expensive,' you get punished for it."
The rule allowing earlier contact started with basketball recruiting.
"The earlier you could get access to prospects, the more you could give sound advice, and [have prospects] make sound recruiting decisions your senior year," said Hostetter.
Basketball recruits used to have these contacts period, but this year the April visit to the recruit's high school was repealed. Coaches can begin making monthly phone calls following the recruit's sophomore year, but the lack of face-to-face contact is a recruiting hindrance, according to Maryland men's basketball assistant Rob Moxley.
"The reason why I liked it [the April visit] was you get to do it at the high school and the people who are there are people involved with the kid," Moxley said. "They know him. I thought it was good.
"Instead of going through someone else, you get to see them face to face, which is a good thing."
Softball and other spring sports are hurt the most because the additional contact period comes in the middle of their season. A coach is forced to decide -- leave his or her players during the season to woo a recruit who may never sign, or risk starting the summer recruiting season behind the 8-ball.
"It's a horrible time of the year to make time for contact," Gumpf said. "I don't think we should have ever gone there. It was a mistake"
"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. This recruiting process is getting out of hand."