Softball players get college offers as early as middle school

Tampa Catholic freshman Alexa Russo says offers to play ball at Central Florida and South Florida “motivated me to work a lot harder than ever before.”
Tampa Catholic freshman Alexa Russo says offers to play ball at Central Florida and South Florida “motivated me to work a lot harder than ever before.”
Published April 28, 2016

Four years ago, Canterbury School of Florida's Danielle Romanello committed to play softball at the University of Florida, the school she had always dreamed of attending.

Her college plans raised some eyebrows, not for which high-powered program she picked, but how early she did it.

Romanello was in eighth grade.

At the time, she was one of the youngest softball players to commit to a college. Because of that, her father, Dan Romanello, was hesitant to publicly announce the decision.

"We wanted to do our best to protect Danielle because we knew there would be a lot of negative comments from people for her making that type of decision at such a young age and us letting her," he said. "It was not that common back then. The climate in the sport was completely different."

Now, it has become the norm for big-time softball players to commit to a college, particularly those in major conferences, by the time they are high school freshmen.

• Palm Harbor University High freshman Mia Buffano committed to the Gators when she was in eighth grade.

• A pair of freshman pitchers, Academy at the Lakes' Alexis Kilfoyl and Land O'Lakes' Callie Turner, have already committed to Alabama and Tennessee, respectively.

• Tampa Catholic freshman Alexa Russo had her first college offer from Central Florida as an eighth-grader. She picked up another offer this season from USF.

"I was extremely excited, thrilled and mostly humbled," Russo said. "I finally felt like all my hard work and dedication to the sport was starting to pay off. Both offers motivated me to work a lot harder than ever before."

Romanello is part of Canterbury's star-studded class of 2017 that includes Taylor Bump, who committed to Michigan as a freshman. And former teammate Kama Woodall, now at Springstead, picked North Carolina State following her freshman season.

"I started getting letters from colleges at school for those three girls during their freshman season," Crusaders coach Jody Moore said. "That really surprised me at the time because most girls do not start fully developing until their sophomore season of high school."

Not everyone is happy with the trend.

This past fall, women's lacrosse and softball coaches both proposed NCAA rules that would limit recruiting of younger students.

Current NCAA rules forbid coaches in nearly every sport from directly contacting students before their junior year of high school. But coaches have found a loophole and are reaching student-athletes indirectly through a high school or travel ball coach.

The topic of recruiting also was highlighted at the Florida Athletic Coaches Association softball meeting this year. Among those in attendance for a panel discussion was USF coach Ken Eriksen and Florida coach Tim Walton.

"That was something we talked a lot about at the meeting, how young it was happening," Moore said. "The college coaches all said they don't like it either, but they felt they had to do it or else they miss out on a player."

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The push toward younger recruits also forces college coaches to commit to players before they know whether they will fully develop into the player they project them to be once they are high school seniors.

Romanello turned out to be the high-caliber player the Gators wanted. Last season, she was the Class 2A state high school player of the year.

"The coaches at Florida have been great throughout the whole process," Dan Romanello said. "They took their time with us and helped us be at ease with the decision we were making. Now, there is such an emphasis on getting younger players.

"It's a different landscape now."