Editor's note: This is the second in an occasional series of articles on the many forces pressuring some of the top underclassmen girl athletes to make college commitments.
The waiting was the hardest part for the Zang family. The decision was easy.
Former South Forsyth girls soccer player Elena Zang had always known she wanted to play at the University of Alabama. She went to her first summer soccer camp in Birmingham, Ala., while in middle school, convinced to go by a friend and teammate on her travel team who had siblings at the school. It’d be a neat experience, they thought.
The Crimson Tide noticed her right away: a left-footed defender with speed like a forward. Alabama’s coaches made a point to meet Zang’s parents when they came to pick her up at the end of the camp.
“They said she’s got a lot of potential,” remembered her dad, Tony. “It was all great. Had a great time and continued to go there the summers after.”
Indeed, the Zangs started seeing Alabama coaches more often. Elena enjoyed the camp enough to return each summer. She started playing on one of the top travel teams in Georgia, and Alabama coaches came to watch her play at showcases and tournaments. During Elena’s sophomore year, Alabama had seen enough and offered her a scholarship.
“I kept asking, ‘Aren’t you a little early? She’s only a sophomore,’” Tony said. “They actually came back and said they felt a little behind in the Class of 2015.”
It was then that the Zangs found out they were caught within a women’s college recruiting world shaped by forces unique to non-revenue generating sports – constrained financial resources, limited scholarships and a smaller talent pool – pressuring coaches to offer scholarships to the top athletes earlier and earlier lest they lose out on the best talent.
That world has swept through Forsyth County in recent years. There are currently 13 high school girl athletes in Forsyth County who committed to college as underclassmen, at least six of which came during the 2014-15 school year.
Those commitments conjure up a conflicting mixture of excitement, relief and anxiety.
“Part of it’s good,” said Bud Huey, whose daughter, Katherine, a rising junior softball pitcher at South, committed to Purdue this past school year. “It’s obviously flattering when your kid is a freshman or sophomore in high school being recruited by schools.”
“It comes with a lot of excitement,” said Carlos Guimbarda, whose daughter, Marissa, a rising junior softball pitcher at Lambert, committed to Furman this past school year.
West Forsyth rising senior girls basketball star Jenna Staiti made her verbal commitment to Maryland the summer going into her sophomore season.
“Once she knew and she was so firm in that decision, it was like she could put the blinders on,” said her mom, Sandi. “She could see Maryland at the end of the tunnel, and now she could just focus on basketball.”
“We were happy when we first announced back in Elena’s sophomore year,” Tony said, “but then it’s kind of this waiting and waiting and waiting.”
It’s a waiting that can feel interminable, and it’s filled with pitfalls, so the Zang family went through all of them: Will the school honor the commitment if you get hurt? What if the coach gets fired or leaves for another job? What if the school recruits another player at your position?
“Any number of things could happen,” said Catherine Aradi, who wrote “Preparing to Play Softball at the Collegiate Level,” a comprehensive guide to college recruiting for high school athletes. “The coach’s need could change. Your skills could not increase or improve the way the coaches anticipated.”
“[Coaches] are basically hedging their bets,” Guimbarda said.
Tony put all the doomsday scenarios on the table for Elena. He told her to take her time to make a decision, knowing Alabama wanted an answer on the offer by summer.
Elena didn’t need that long.
“She reluctantly agreed for a few days, and she said, ‘There’s no other school I want to go to.’” Tony said.
Fast forward two years, through two summers of travel team seasons, two springs of high school seasons at South, years for possible injuries and coaching changes, to the day this past November when Elena stepped up on to the stage inside South’s Performing Arts Center. She sat behind a table with an Alabama baseball cap. She wore a white Crimson Tide women’s soccer shirt and sat between her parents.
Then she signed her National Letter of Intent to play women’s soccer at Alabama.
“That day finally came and you knew it was real,” Tony said. “It was anticipation, and then the day was great.”