Pair of local softball players plot college careers before ever pitching in high school game

Across the country, thousands of high school students still are figuring out where they’ll be going to college next year — or if they’re even going to go to college at all.

One student at Clark-Pleasant Middle School had all of that taken care of before her 13th birthday.

Keagan Rothrock is not your typical seventh-grader. She’s one of the top softball pitching prospects in the country, already capable of throwing at speeds normally seen at the collegiate level.

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She also is one of two young hurlers in Johnson County who has accepted a scholarship offer from a major Division I program before ever throwing a high school pitch. Rothrock verbally committed to the University of Florida in December. Just a few weeks earlier, Franklin freshman Izzy Harrison committed to the University of Kentucky.

The recruitment of players at such young ages has always been rare, and still is — but it’s becoming commonplace enough that the NCAA is considering some proposals that would place restrictions on various parts of the process.

Both Harrison and Rothrock were drawing attention from colleges at a very young age, with dozens of college coaches watching their every move at various summer tournaments. Despite being under that microscope so early, neither seemed to buckle.

Greg Rothrock, Keagan’s father, said that his daughter is quite aware of who’s watching. She can tell him which coaches were sitting where behind home plate. And she rose to the occasion when Florida’s coaches were there.

“You’ve got your dream school sitting directly behind you, clocking you,” he said. “What’s she do? Out of 15 batters, she struck 13 of them out and threw a no-hit shutout. Pressure’s different for different people, but she’s that 1 percent.”

Harrison’s mother, Cyndi, sees the same qualities in her daughter.

“She’s one of those kids, if she sees 30 coaches back there, she throws harder,” she said. “I have to say that one of her biggest assets is she’s very calm and collected on the mound.”

Both remained just as calm throughout the decision-making process, saying they didn’t commit until they were sure they knew where they wanted to go.

“I didn’t really feel any pressure,” said Harrison, who chose the Wildcats after also visiting Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Notre Dame and Ohio State. “I just knew that that’s the school I wanted to go to.”

Rothrock, whose in-game pitching speeds of between 62 and 64 mph are already in line with the average Division I pitcher, visited Auburn, Missouri, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, but Florida has always been her first choice.

“I started out playing on the Indiana Gators, so I wanted to be a Gator my entire life,” she said. “I started working harder so I could be a Gator my entire life, and then they started looking at me and I got excited.”

Both girls play travel ball for the elite Beverly Bandits club program, which has essentially become a college-placement program for the top softball players in the Midwest. All 20 players on the Bandits’ team have committed to Division I colleges — as have 50 of the 55 players on the four teams made up almost entirely of current sophomores and juniors.

Harrison and Rothrock are two of nine players on the Bandits’ teams comprised of freshmen and middle-schoolers that are already committed.

Girls tend to mature physically at a younger age than boys, so most early recruiting happens in women’s sports such as softball. College coaches feel more comfortable making earlier assessments of players’ potential.

Rothrock wasn’t the first verbal commitment that the Florida softball program landed from the 2023 graduating class. Infielder Mia Williams, who lives in Florida and plays club softball in Georgia, pledged to become a Gator in October.

The concern from some is that girls that young haven’t gained enough life experience to make an informed decision about their academic futures.

“I have kids who have committed early to us,” said Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, who has recruited Harrison but is prohibited from commenting until she signs a letter of intent. “I feel great about the people; I don’t feel great about the process. I think it’s in everyone’s best interests, including the colleges, for individuals to wait until their junior year to start actively seeking out colleges and taking visits and go through the process, because that’s more in line with what would happen from an academic standpoint.”

The NCAA doesn’t recognize verbal commitments. Nothing is official until an athlete signs a letter of intent to play for a collegiate program, which isn’t allowed until the student’s senior year. Still, the recruiting process is always being monitored, and the NCAA is planning to vote this spring on a handful of proposals that could potentially rein in the process.

Changes would be welcomed by many college coaches, who are feeling the pressure of having to keep up with their peers.

“It takes one kid with exceptional talent who gets noticed, and then one school says, ‘Hey, we want you.’ And then when that kid, or her parents or her travel coach or her high school coach, comes back to another school who’s showed interest and says, ‘So-and-so already made her an offer,’ then the other schools get nervous, because their job is to bring in the best talent they can and to win — and if they don’t, they won’t have jobs,” said Joanna Lane, director of education and program development for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.

“So then they start offering, and then you have a kid that now has five, six, seven, however many offers it would be, and here’s this seventh- or eighth-grader trying to take all these unofficial visits and pick a college when she hasn’t even taken a class in high school.”

The Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association and the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Coaches Association submitted a proposal to the NCAA in 2015 asking that all recruiting contact — including official and unofficial visits and phone calls — be prohibited until Sept. 1 of a student’s junior year. That proposal was ratified by the NCAA and took effect in April. Coaches associations from other sports were given the chance to adopt the same regulations as lacrosse, but only gymnastics and wrestling did on selected portions of the legislation, according to the NCAA.

Lane, who said that her association did not opt in to the lacrosse rules because it had its own proposal already on the table, estimates that 80 percent of Division I softball coaches would be in favor of not being allowed to start recruiting players before their junior year.

Count Lawson among them.

“It takes away from the development of the players who are currently on campus, because there’s only so much time in the day,” Lawson said. “So if people are recruiting five classes at a time, that takes time — and time is a valuable resource. And so if you’re spending time recruiting, what you’re not doing is spending the time developing yourself as a coach.”

In April, the NCAA is slated to vote on three separate recruiting proposals that were drafted by its Student-Athlete Experience Committee:

Allowing recruits to begin taking official visits, which are paid for by the school, as soon as Sept. 1 of their junior year. Currently, official visits can only be taken by seniors.

Prohibiting any unofficial visits, which families pay for, until Sept. 1 of the junior year.

Prohibiting college coaches from talking to any prospects attending on-campus camps or clinics until Sept. 1 of their junior year.

Even if all three of those proposals pass, that would not address every area currently covered by the lacrosse legislation. Phone calls, for example, would not yet be subject to further regulation.

The relationships that Rothrock and Harrison have with their respective colleges will likely be restricted in some way before they are juniors in high school. For example, under the proposed rules changes on unofficial visits, Harrison could potentially attend a softball game at Lexington sometime in the next two seasons but not be allowed to have any contact with Lawson while she’s there.

Neither Harrison or Rothrock think that such potential restrictions would have an impact on their decision.

Having the recruiting process out of the way this early might actually allow the two local standouts to enjoy playing the game more, their parents said.

“For (Keagan), it’s all been a positive experience,” Greg Rothrock said. “We didn’t go down to Florida to be recruited. We took her to a camp at the school that she wanted to go to, and everything just kind of started to fall into place. It wasn’t something that we were pursuing, and for her, she was having fun.”

“Is the system broke? I think it is. Did we play by the rules that are on the table? We did.”

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The NCAA is currently weighing three separate proposals that would change the recruiting rules in most Division I sports:

  • Allow recruits to begin taking official visits, which are paid for by the school, as soon as Sept. 1 of a player’s junior year in high school. Currently, official visits can only be taken by seniors.
  • Prohibit contact between coaches and recruits on any unofficial visits, which families pay for, before Sept. 1 of the junior year. Those visits can currently be taken at any age.
  • Prohibit college coaches from talking to any prospects attending on-campus camps or clinics until Sept. 1 of their junior year. Such contact is currently allowed.

Should those proposals pass this spring, they would apply to all Division I sports except for football, basketball and lacrosse. Football and basketball are governed separately by different committees, while men’s and women’s lacrosse came up with their own guidelines, where no contact of any kind is permitted between college coaches and recruits until Sept. 1 of a player’s junior year.