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How young is too young to recruit kids for college teams?

As women’s soccer coach at Boston College, Alison Foley grappled with practices that had girls committing to teams while in middle school.

05/07/2019 Newton Ma -Alison Foley (cq) is the former coach of BC Women's Soccer. Jonathan Wiggs /GlobeStaff Reporter:Topic:Soccer
Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff
Alison Foley, the winningest coach in the history of Boston College women’s soccer, became troubled by the sharp rise in recruiting middle school girls through “verbal commitments.”

By the time Alison Foley entered her senior year at Plymouth-Carver High School in 1987, there was little doubt she was headed for big things in college soccer. Still, under NCAA rules, she waited until that fall to take her five official college visits and decide where to spend the next four years. She ultimately accepted an athletic scholarship to Keene State College, going on to earn All-America honors.

But as the head women’s soccer coach for Boston College for the last two decades, Foley saw the landscape change dramatically. On the books, the NCAA now required prospective recruits to wait until junior year to visit colleges. In reality, though, at most elite Division I women’s soccer programs, team rosters were all set by the time of those visits. College coaches had long ago buttoned up their recruiting class through an off-the-books “verbal commitment” process that made the official one look like something of a sham.

The trend started with offers to 10th-graders, and then ninth-graders. About six years ago, Foley was troubled to see Division I coaches turn their focus to eighth-graders. The nonbinding verbal commitments were contingent on the girls being able to keep up their grades to meet college admissions standards for recruited athletes.

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Still, how in the world were girls supposed to make that kind of consequential decision about college while in middle school, Foley wondered. Yet she could only see the trend accelerating. She’d become the winningest coach in the history of women’s soccer at BC. But for her program to continue thriving in the intense Atlantic Coast Conference, she’d need to spend time talking to middle school girls.

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NCAA rules prevented her from initiating calls or sending texts to any girls before junior year. But it was perfectly legal for college coaches to give their phone numbers to promising players’ club coaches and then wait for those girls to call.

When they did call, Foley found that questions she typically asked high schoolers didn’t make much sense. “Do you want to do business or economics?” she says. “Half of them don’t even understand what economics is. They still have a piggy bank.” She noted that a large share of middle schoolers gravitated to colleges near them, too young to imagine ever being away from home.

Foley’s own daughter was developing into a more serious soccer player, and Foley felt a gulf growing between the advice she was giving as a parent and the strategy she was pursuing on the job. She told her daughter: Give yourself the chance to bloom academically, develop physically, and get to know yourself better so you can make a well-reasoned college choice. But as a coach, she joined her competitors in pursuing the top middle school athletes. “My value system,” she says, “wasn’t lining up.”

Lilly Reale and her younger sister, Sophie, had been all-in on soccer since shortly after they joined the South Shore Select soccer club eight years ago. Both committed as eighth-graders to playing for Boston College. Lilly, a chatty 15-year-old defender and member of the US national soccer team for her age group, has played in Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, and China. Sophie, a ponytailed 14-year-old striker who wears braces, just returned from her first overseas trip, to Spain.

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Their mom, Melissa, says all the shuttling to practices and tournaments has been challenging but worth it. “It’s not easy being a 14- or 15-year-old girl in today’s society,” she says, “and I think soccer has been a wonderful distraction for them.”

She says she and her husband, Jeff, were careful never to pressure their kids to get a free ride to college via sports. Instead, they hoped soccer would eventually help their girls get into a good college that would be a good fit. Alison Foley had a close association with their soccer club and saw the girls develop over the years. The Reales felt reassured their daughters would be in good hands with her at BC.

Just before Christmas, though, Boston College made an announcement that stunned the world of women’s soccer. After 22 years, Foley was resigning as head coach. Other veteran BC coaches had departed following the arrival of a new athletic director on campus, but, with Foley’s record 280 wins, few people had seen her exit coming.

“I made the decision,” Foley says. “It wasn’t necessarily one thing. I’m a big relationship person, and things have to feel right for me.”

Lilly Reale learned the news while scrolling through Instagram and called her mom in tears. The entire family felt bewildered. They had nothing in writing to back up the verbal commitments. Would the new BC coach “decommit” one or both of the girls?

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Foley says now, “When I gave the offer to Sophie, I certainly didn’t think I was going to leave so soon.”

After BC named Foley’s replacement in January, and he got a chance to see both Lilly and Sophie play, he made it clear BC remained committed to them, according to their mother. Though the Reales remain grateful for what soccer has done for the family, everyone’s eyes are open wider now. “Five years is a long time away,” Melissa says. “When the girls started in soccer, did I think they would be committing to a college in the eighth grade? Absolutely not.”

These days, Foley runs a consulting business advising girls (mostly high schoolers) and their families on how best to navigate the waters of college soccer. She tells her clients to choose their college based largely on what the campus offers. “If they have engineering, they’re going to have engineering four or five years from now,” she says. “But the coach might not be there.”

Foley loves her new role but acknowledges that she has her work cut out for her in trying to make the recruiting process less stressful. “There’s too much panic, in parents, in players,” she says. “Once a kid commits, it’s on their Instagram. Then everybody else thinks, ‘Oh no, there’s one less slot available. That window is closing. I’ve got to hurry up and make a decision.’ ”

All of this is leading to burnout and rushed decisions and, in some ways, lost childhood. The pressure that starts as early as kindergarten soccer and escalates all the way to the college quad has become insanely fierce, she says. “I think it’s unstoppable.”

But there is one surprising new development that has left her feeling more optimistic. On April 19, the NCAA adopted a new rule that prohibits coaches in many sports, including women’s soccer, from having any communication with prospective recruits before the end  of their sophomore year in high school. The restriction went into effect May 1.

I ask Foley if she thinks this new rule will fix the problems, or if coaches and families will simply find a new loophole. (The NCAA decided against an outright ban on verbal commitments, saying it would be too hard to enforce.) She replies, “I hope everybody abides by it, and they don’t fight it.”

This conversation I’m having with Foley takes place on the last day of April, the eve of the new rule going into effect. “There are probably a lot of calls going on right now” between coaches and kids trying to wrap up verbal commitments, she cracks. “And there will be all night.”

If the new policy helps bring some sanity back to recruiting, she says, she might even want to return to coaching. Right now, she’s content to take the advice she gave her daughter — a 10th-grader who has yet to commit to a college — and just slow down.

Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine’s staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.