For the 172 teams in Chattanooga this week for the Amateur Softball Association 16-under fastpitch softball national tournament, winning a championship is the ultimate goal. But there is another competition going on behind the scenes.
In addition to family and friends, the players competing at Warner Park and the Summit of Softball complex are constantly being evaluated by the more than 200 college coaches from around the country who are in Chattanooga for this event.
"We're mostly identifying future players and trying to stay ahead of the game," Iowa State assistant coach Gary Hines said on Thursday. "We're recruiting younger and younger it seems. This has always been a big end-of-the-year tournament where you can see the best of the best."
Alabama head coach Pat Murphy was watching play on several fields at Warner Park on Thursday morning. He said that he sees evaluating talent at this tournament as a key to keeping his Crimson Tide team a national power.
"We've used this tournament over the past 12 years as the basis of our recruiting list for the next two or three years," he said. "Because you're going to see good up-and-coming juniors, plus you're going to see sophomores and freshmen."
Tournament director Kim Swafford said that the presence of so many college coaches has forced changes in how she runs the event.
"For a tournament director's perspective, it changes how you run a tournament," she said. "Knowing that I was going to have 200 college coaches here, I had to change things.
"For instance, the draw for pool play historically has been done at the managers' lunch, but we pre-drew this year just so the college coaches would have an idea of the schedule and the kids could email college coaches and tell them where and when they would be playing."
Wade Thomas, head coach of the Southern Force team from Illinois, said that college recruiting has become a big part of the atmosphere at big summer tournaments such as the ASA nationals.
"When we were playing 14-under nationals it was, for our kids and me as a coach, the first taste of how young and early coaches are trying to evaluate and make that connection with the best players," Thomas said. "Our goals every year are, first, to qualify for nationals, and secondly to play in as many showcase tournaments to get our kids the exposure they need to get a college scholarship."
Murphy said that a recent rule change moving the pitching distance from 40 feet back to the college distance of 43 feet has made the 16-under tournament more useful for college coaches trying to judge talent.
"When they switched the pitching distance, that helped in evaluating 16-year-olds," he said. "Because you used to see a kid pitching heat from 40 feet at 16, but then you'd see her the next year at 43 feet and it would be like it wasn't even the same kid."
With all the excitement of having NCAA Division I college coaches in the stands, it can be tough to keep the young players focused on the field.
Jeremy Higdon, coach of Chattanooga-based Fury Fastpitch, said he has to work hard to keep his players' attention on winning games and not on trying to impress college coaches individually.
"When we get here, this is nationals and how you finish is what it's all about, but there are all these coaches walking around," Higdon said. "You've got to make sure that your kids stay focused on the outcome of the game rather than who's in the stands watching.
"And you can understand because they're all trying get a college scholarship as their individual goals, but you have to keep the focus on the team [at nationals]."
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga head coach Frank Reed said he feels that he has an added advantage by having so many top-level youth players playing in Chattanooga and being exposed to the facilities UTC has to offer.
"We have the opening ceremony on our campus, and I was able to speak to them there and let them see our campus and our stadium," he said. "Once we get to the the point where we can talk to these kids, many of them say 'I've been to Chattanooga for nationals and seen the city and Frost Stadium.
"That only serves to help our recruiting efforts at UTC."
Contact Jim Tanner at email@example.com or 423-757-6478.