By Kyle Koso
AURORA, Colo. -- With the NCAA stepping in to calm the churn of drama and stress that dominated the recruiting of athletes barely in their teens, it's a different world these days for youth softball.
Now, players have to be upcoming juniors in high school before formal recruiting conversations take place, and that suddenly leaves more time and mental energy to be spent on simply getting better at the sport itself. That creates even more value in 2019 for Triple Crown's 14u Elite College Camp Monday, held on eight fields Monday at the Aurora Sports Park.
The moment, ahead of the Colorado 4th of July tournaments, was anchored by the head coaches and primary staff from high-profile programs such as Arizona State, BYU, Florida State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Texas A&M. And while the environment around players from ages 12-15 has changed, much is the same, as players look for an edge and college coaches look to expand the number of athletes who can deliver on a bright stage.
"It's important for us to help continue the game grow when we have the opportunity. Even for three hours or whatever, we're happy to work with athletes from all over the country," said Oregon head coach Melyssa Lombardi. "Things have been able to slow down; players had to make decisions (about college) before they ever made a high school team. To be able to watch them develop and grow, without so much pressure, will go a long way for them.
"Fundamentally, these players have it -- that's why they are all in Colorado. I want to see the effort, if they compete. I'm here to coach them up; I treat them like I do my athletes at Oregon."
Taking her place in the Oregon session was Katelyn Heuser, 15, from Castro Valley, Calif., and a member of the West Bay Warriors. A pitcher and first baseman already blessed with height and a power arm, Heuser knows there's plenty more work to do if a spot on a top-notch program is a goal.
"I like the coaching staffs; they are very open to new drills and showing you what college softball is like. There's a level of intensity I enjoy, and I've always just loved camps," Heuser said. "Four hours out here just feels like one, because everything is exciting and new. The mental side of softball is very important, and I feel like I'm calm out there, which has really helped me a lot. When I get out there, I feel comfortable and natural.
"The (recruiting change) is good, it takes a lot of pressure off the girls. You can focus on your skills and just playing, rather than worry right now about what college to go to."
Trisha Ford and her Arizona State staff made sure each camper got what they signed up for in a high-tempo workout that even ran a bit long. Just as it was with the Oregon camp, players stood in line to say thanks to the ASU coaches and share that last bit of connection before moving on to the chores of a busy tournament week.
"Ever since I was little, I loved playing the game. New York is far from here, so when I had the chance to come out where all these camps are, I said, why not?," said Anna Cleary, 15, an Albany, NY native who plays for the Shock based in Schenectady. "It's so great; I might never get this opportunity again. I had a teammate here, and that helped, because she helped boost my confidence if I did anything wrong. Everyone here is very welcoming, and even in these (scrimmages), they will cheer you on.
"I'd love to go D-I; if I keep contacting colleges, that will help. But I just want to keep getting better and better and see where that gets me."
Ford was shouting praise at the final few batters in the scrimmage, making sure the athletes knew a trained eye was watching every move.
"It's nice to play the game, enjoy it, and allow them to be 14 years old, without them trying to figure out where they will be in five or six years," Ford said. "This is the best part of our job, to just come out and coach. You want to see how they will perform under pressure; the more they do, the better they'll get at it.
"The main priority is to see if they are playing hard, are vocal and coachable. If I'm suggesting something and they don't want to try it right away ... well, you're not going to get any better."