Stephanie Roach knew there would be questions, but which would come first:
• Why would her 13-year-old daughter, Katlyn Gilbert, make a verbal commitment to a college basketball program so early?
• Or, why would she commit to the University of Evansville, a mid-major program with a coach who has gone 14-46 in his first two seasons?
“Most of them said, ‘What if she is bigger than University of Evansville?’ ” Roach said. “(Former University of Connecticut recruit) Elena Delle Donne was bigger than Delaware but she went there and made it a great team (reaching the Sweet Sixteen and getting selected second overall last month’s WNBA draft).”
The family made the commitment due to its belief in Evansville coach Oties Epps and so Gilbert won’t have to worry about securing a college scholarship while in high school. Roach also said Gilbert hopes her decision will attract more recruits to Evansville.
The offer at such a young age is part of an increasing trend in women’s basketball, but few — if any — athletes have committed to a school so soon.
Verbal commitments are nonbinding and the family recognizes that the scholarship offer could be pulled if Gilbert doesn’t continue to develop. Gilbert can’t sign a binding national letter of intent for another 41/2 years; only three of the 10 Missouri Valley Conference coaches have held their positions that long.
“It feels like the decision takes a lot off my shoulders, but I can’t relax,” said Gilbert, a seventh-grader at Heritage Christian. “I still have to get better and better to keep my scholarship all the way through college.”
Younger and younger
Women’s coaches are following the trend of their male counterparts by offering scholarships to younger and younger players. Tech High School’s Trey Lyles and Marion’s James Blackmon Jr. committed to Indiana before they had played a varsity game in high school. Lyles has since decommitted.
All Star Girls Report’s Bret McCormick said it has become a coach’s job to secure commitments early.
“You can make the offer, develop the relationship and there is a good chance you can get them,” said McCormick, who convinced University of Cincinnati coach Laurie Pirtle to offer freshmen when he was an assistant there in the mid-2000s. “If you wait until the last minute and come in, your chances aren’t good at all.
“Until someone makes a rule you can’t (make early offers), then the majority of people are going to do that. The coaches are just doing their job.”
But McCormick doesn’t recall a girl committing so young in his 20 years in the women’s game as an assistant and recruiting expert. He doesn’t believe players should accept the offers, noting the potential for coaching turnover and the possibility of getting an offer from a bigger program.
Nichel Tampa, from Jonesboro Ga., got offers from South Florida and South Carolina the summer after sixth grade. But Tampa, who will be a freshman this fall, has yet to commit.
“I think it’s the perception that you are only at that level or that good if you have a scholarship,” said Chris Carr, a sport and performance psychologist for St. Vincent Sports Performance. “At that young of an age, to feel that accomplishment is a really good feeling for a young athlete.
“(But) there are a lot of uncontrollable variables that impact that final decision. When (Gilbert’s parents) say they are making the decision to relieve the pressure, (but) those external situations are still going to be out there.”
Gilbert, a 5-9 guard/forward, however, has no qualms about taking that chance.
“I feel it is God’s will for me to go there,” she said, adding that it has always been her dream to play in college.
Her parents, who coach basketball at Heritage Christian, didn’t want her to have to worry about securing a scholarship while in high school.
“I see a lot of kids who have been as talented as Katlyn, or perhaps even better, who just get lost in the system,” said Roach, who is a junior varsity girls coach at Heritage Christian. “Going into their junior and senior year, they don’t have any offers. That’s all they worry about.
“I don’t want that to happen to Katlyn.”
Heritage Christian varsity coach Rick Risinger said Gilbert is talented enough to have played for many varsity teams as a seventh-grader.
Versatility, assertiveness on the floor and knowledge of the game are strengths. Risinger said Gilbert, who competes for two traveling teams from Best Choice Academy, played every position from point guard to the post.
“The shooting we need to work on,” said Risinger, who won four consecutive Class 2A state titles with teams led by Kelly Faris, a first-round pick in April’s WNBA draft. “She has the ability to score. Right now it’s drive, pull-up and attacking-type style rather than a pure shooter. But she has the work ethic to do that as well.”
Gilbert has been a member of three national AAU runners-up and three AAU state champions, according to her parents. She will be going to the USA U16 National Team tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo., from May 23-27. She wasn’t invited as one of the elite 33 players but will be part of a pool of approximately 150 participants from across the country.
Epps’ goal is to turn Evansville into the best program in Indiana. Extending offers at such an early age is a risk, but seventh-graders are recruitable athletes and taking a chance by projecting a player such as Gilbert is likely necessary for Epps to accomplish his goal.
“I want to recruit kids that want to be part of something bigger than themselves — who want to make great instead of join great,” said Epps, 34, who isn’t permitted to discuss individual recruits until they are signed. “Sometimes you see kids that are just special. We try to identify kids early in the process in most cases before the big schools find out they are good and get in the door with them.”
The Purple Aces have a long way to go, with a two-season record of 14-46 under Epps. Evansville was 9-21 and 7-11 in Missouri Valley Conference last season. But his recruiting pitch was effective with Gilbert’s family.
“One of the first things he talked about was the way to build a winning program is to recruit winners,” said Marlon Wright, Gilbert’s stepfather and the seventh-grade coach at Heritage Christian. “That stuck with me. He has a good Christian foundation, so that is a big influence on us.”
For Roach, it was all about Epps and his staff’s approach.
“I know she won’t have any balls thrown at her or anything like that,” Roach said in reference to former Rutgers men’s coach Mike Rice. “(Epps) has two young girls. I know he’ll treat Katlyn like one of his own.
“We want to make sure she becomes a good woman, a good mother, a good citizen, and we have total confidence coach Epps will make that happen.”
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