Recruiting Rituals

MARIETTA, Ga.—The ritual continues for Tom Kinkelaar on another Thursday morning in late July. Georgia Tech’s top assistant and pitching coach finds a baseball diamond somewhere at East Cobb Baseball Complex, long a mine for excavating precocious talent, and just watches. He is caught up in a rapidly gathering wave, and he must join it.

So Kinkelaar is at the 2009 16-Under World Wood Bat Association national championship, waiting for a game between the Ohio Elite and NVTBL Stars (Red) to commence, two teams from Ohio and Virginia. He has never heard of or seen them. Between the two teams, five players are rising seniors, 26 are rising juniors and three are rising sophomores. They are, on the whole, a collection of question marks. What will their grades be like come graduation? What will their bodies look like? How much will their talent mature? In short, what can they hope to become?

College baseball coaches are finding themselves asking these questions of younger and younger players in recent years. The recruiting process is beginning to expand across a wider age group, coaches said at the 16-Under WWBA event, reflecting a trend in football and basketball recruiting. Georgia Tech has already made offers to the Class of 2011. Some of its Atlantic Coast Conference competitors, and other elite programs across the country, already have commitments in that class of rising juniors.

So Kinkelaar is here in Marietta—again. The previous two weeks, Georgia Tech coaches attended the 17-Under and 18-Under WWBA national championships where the talent is more developed, a player’s academic qualifications are more obvious and mingling with players and coaches yields greater rewards.

Indeed, the 17-Under and 18-Under tournaments have long been mandatory for college recruiters.

Now, the 16-Under tournament is quickly becoming essential, too.

“This (tournament) used to be one that we didn’t do as much,” Kinkelaar said, “but now kids are committing so much earlier we have to get a head start on getting some names of the younger kids.”

Coaches said this tournament serves as a way to begin accumulating players in their database for the class of 2011, players they will follow and investigate further in the next year or two.

For Southeast schools, the 16-Under tournament helped them get a first look at the up-and-coming talent in far less time than they could chasing that talent across the region. That’s why coaches from South Carolina, Clemson, Alabama, West Virginia, Central Florida and Tennessee were among those on hand. Of the 174 teams that participated, 112 were from the Southeast.

It was especially useful for Georgia schools. Thirty-five teams from Georgia participated, right in the backyard for Georgia, Georgia Tech and other Georgia programs.

“It’s at one place in our state,” Mercer pitching coach Brent Shade said. “It’s close for me. It’s an hour-and-a-half away. There are probably 20 to 30 Georgia teams here and we get to see them all at one time; we don’t have to chase them around the state.”

It was just as fortuitous for Florida schools. Just as many teams from Florida (36) participated, so there was Brent Shelton, assistant coach of Chipola (Fla.) JC, which has produced major league talent like Dodgers catcher Russell Martin and Brewers third baseman Mat Gamel. And there was Jacksonville head coach Terry Alexander chatting with a team from Florida after its game.

“Instead of going all over the state,” Alexander explained, “it’s easier to go from one field to the other. You’ve still got to go to all the other tournaments, but I think this is a good place to come in, be centrally located and see a lot of teams play at one time.”

But for all the schools attending the 16-Under WWBA championship, this is a chance to get ahead, which is becoming a harder task for some, especially for coaches like Shelton.

“It’s kind of tough for junior colleges to watch this kind of tournament,” Shelton said. “No. 1, they’ve only been in high school for two years. How do you know if they’re going to have the grades or not? It’s a little far fetched for us.”

But Shelton is here anyway. He knows he must.

“I’m going to be ahead of about every junior college in the country,” he said.

And the rest of the colleges know they must be here, too. Recruiting is changing, and they must adapt. Changes by the NCAA—specifically, trimming scholarships available and roster sizes—have put an emphasis on cultivating relationships with players and travel teams earlier.

“In this day and time,” Alexander said, “even some of these young guys are committing. It’s kind of crazy. I don’t particularly like it, but you can’t just let all the good players get away. That’s why we’re here.”