Softball legend Jennie Finch on recruiting, being a mom and the state of the game

Softball legend Jennie Finch on recruiting, being a mom and the state of the game

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Softball legend Jennie Finch on recruiting, being a mom and the state of the game

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Jennie Finch at the celebrity softball game at the baseball All-Star Game in New York in 2013 (Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports)

Jennie Finch at the celebrity softball game at the baseball All-Star Game in New York in 2013 (Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports)

Jennie Finch started playing softball as a 5-year-old in Southern California. By 8, she was pitching.

Her first recruiting letter came during her freshman year at La Miranda High from UCLA. As a child, she had been a bat girl for the Bruins baseball team.

“It was a surreal moment,” she says. “It was like I can feel and see my goals and this is the beginning of it. I remember thinking my hard work is paying pay off and this is the beginning of my dreams coming true.”

Those dreams took Finch to becoming the face of women’s softball in the United States and a national profile beyond her sport.

She is among the most decorated pitchers in history: national champion at Arizona, multiple time All-American, NCAA record for consecutive wins, her number retired by the school, Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and silver medalist in 2008.

She retired in 2010 after a professional career and remains an advocate for female athletes and teacher of her sport through camps, clinics, speaking engagements and appearances.

In that role, Finch has joined forces with Playced.com, a recruiting service that helps match athletes with colleges and educates athletes on the recruiting process. (Playced.com also provides a weekly recruiting column for USA TODAY High School Sports.)

Finch’s biggest role, though, is mom. She and husband Casey Diagle, a former major league pitcher, have two sons, Ace, 8, and Deisel, 3, and a daughter, Paisley, 2.

Finch spoke with USA TODAY High School Sports about recruiting, being a mom and the state of softball.

Q: Why did you decide to get involved with Playced and with college recruiting?

A: Recruiting is a hot topic these days. The goal is to get a college scholarship. I do camps and clinics around country and I get asked a ton of questions and people express their concerns about playing in the next level. Me being a parent of three children, unless you are in the top select percent of athlete who get recruited, it takes a lot of work by parents and players to present themselves and pitch themselves and make themselves known.

I was approached by other recruiting organizations, but they cost a lot of money and I never felt right about that. Playced is affordable and gets knowledge you need out there. The responsibility is still on the player and the player’s parent, but it gives them a realistic view of where they can go and schools that match up. It gives them a starting point in the incredibly daunting cycle of recruiting to inform them where to begin and what they should be doing.

Q: Obviously, not every athlete is an elite prospect like Jennie Finch. How does your personal experience in recruiting translate?

A: I was lucky enough to be among the small select percentage where I could pick where I wanted to go. The majority of athletes have to find out where they fit. I work with a lot of junior college and Division II and Division III programs. There are so many schools out there. If want to play it’s probably not going to be your top five choices. You need get in a realistic realm and find a place that fits for you. I always tell athletes there’s nothing better than to play at the next level. The window to play is so short and it’s an extreme honor to be able to keep playing. It comes down to how bad do you want it.

My junior year at Arizona, we had a recruit come in named Allison Andrade. She was at a junior college and now she was playing shortstop at Arizona, helping us win a national title. (in 2001). You never know where you will end and what doors will open if you put in the hard word and dedication.

Q: You weren’t only a softball star in high school. You played basketball and volleyball and were a team captain in all three sports. What’s your view on the increased specialization and focus on one sport for young athletes?

A: It’s truly to each his own. Playing other sports helped me athletically with body awareness and coordination. Eighty percent of kids drop out of sports by the time they are 12 year old so we obviously are doing something wrong. You can see the burnout. The athletes have to have the passion themselves.

There is only a small percentage who go pro so I hope that my children experience the best of sports — being active, being fit, seeing how hard work pays off, teamwork, discipline, sacrifice. That’s what I learned from playing.

I would love to see my 9-year-old son play at the next level, but truly I hope he learns life lessons from sports. Our son plays football and basketball, but we let him lead. It’s fascinating now to view it as a parent and navigate what’s the right decision. As long as he’s having fun and he’s enjoying it, that’s the best case. He doesn’t not want to be good at something, but we have to let him to figure out what he enjoys and what his passion is.

The scary thing is my son is in third grade, he could be recruited in five years. You see these athletes committing to a college in eighth grade. There has to be some rule against that. If someone told me at 13, I would be ready to pick where I was going to go out of state and move away from my parents, I couldn’t imagine having to do that … You change so much emotionally and physically. You haven’t even played in high school and you already have the end goal in mind and the whole thing mapped out. It takes the fun out of it. I can see the athletes and parents feelings pressure.

Q: You mentioned getting your first recruiting letter and letters are still part of the process, but now it’s texts and tweets and cell phone calls. The process certainly has changed.

A: Not just from the players’ perceptive, but from the college coaches’ perspective, they have to be by their phone. They can’t make contact; the athlete makes the contact so the coaches have to be ready 24/7. We all know how much college coaches have on their plate. The process has changed on both ends.

Jennie Finch helped pitched the U.S. team to a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. (Photo: Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)

Jennie Finch helped pitched the U.S. team to a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. (Photo: Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)

Q: You have been retired for almost five years now, but does that competitive streak ever go away?

A: You mean like when I try to beat my husband in HORSE in the barn (laughing).

As a mom, I’m competing to help my kids grow and be the best they can be. I don’t think that competition ever goes anywhere. It is always in you even if you try to suppress it. As a former athlete, you think you can do anything and be your best.

Watching college and pro leagues on TV, you appreciate the sacrifices the players had to make to get where they are and do what they do. Retiring when I did, I no longer wanted to attain that at that point in my life. But once a competitor, always a competitor and I’ll never stop competing to do my best at speaking engagement and camps and clinics and encouraging the next generation of athletes.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about softball in general. With the sport not being in the Olympics, that eliminates a major point of exposure. What’s your sense of the health of the game in terms of participation?

A: It was a heartbreaking decision about the Olympics. But if you come to my clinics, one of my talking points is control the controllable and you can’t control what’s done. Hopefully softball will be back in 2020. I’ve partnered with Mizuno and the president of our company is helping lead the campaign to get baseball and softball back in for 2020.

The fast-pitch pro league is at 5 teams. Every leagues struggles at the beginning. Our draft is on CBS sports for the first time and a lot of games will be on television. Our college game is at an all time high.

(Without the exposure from the Olympics), the bigger concern was on the grassroots level of our sports, but young athletes are playing. Here in the U.S., young athletes are getting more exposure to the game than ever. There are indoor facilities with turf fields so there are more games and more opportunities. It doesn’t matter where you are from anymore. You can still be competitive.

When I was growing up, I watched the Dodgers and Lakers, now young women are looking up to college athletes they see on TV. It’s so exciting to see how far we’ve come but we still have a long way to go.

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