West coast connection

BY NATHAN LINSLEY
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 15, 2001

To people in the Midwest, warm weather is like having a cold it"s a seasonal affliction that will be gone in a couple of days.

But Kate Eiland"s first taste of Midwest winter was the blizzard of 1999, and it was not what she had hoped for.

"I remember my freshman year, it wasn"t very cold and it hadn"t really snowed, and I came back from Christmas break and we had had this huge storm. I was stuck at the airport, frozen," Eiland said. "When I got back to my dorm room, I called my dad and was like, "I"m transferring. See if my credits transfer, I cannot handle it out here. I hate it." "

Eiland, from Fresno, California is one of many softball players who come from the West Coast to play college ball in the Midwest, and are harshly greeted by the four seasons.

The divide is apparent in collegiate athletics. From 1988 to 2000, 25 out of 26 teams in softball"s NCAA Championship game were from the West. Only Oklahoma, the 2000 champion, broke the mold.

It really isn"t that surprising that schools like Arizona and UCLA dominate college softball. Girls in southern California and especially Orange County, a heavily populated area just south of Los Angeles play softball all year, and the talent shows.

"The West coast, and Orange County in particular, is probably the best softball recruiting spot in the world," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.

So how do schools in the Midwest compete? By mixing the best their states have to offer and the right amount of West coast stars.

The 2001 Michigan team has eight players from the West coast Marissa Young, Meghan Doe, Monica Schock, Courtney Betley and Melinda Moulden are playing regularly as underclassmen.

And for three upperclassmen on the Wolverines, the decision to come to the Midwest has paid dividends. Rebecca Tune, Kelsey Kollen and Kate Eiland came 2,000 miles away to a new world of softball and life.

The Early Years

Kollen, who lives in the Los Angeles area, was one of the most decorated players coming out of Southern California. She was the California state freshman and sophomore of the year in high school, was an all-state selection in her final two years and played on the Amateur Softball Association national championship team twice.

"I would go to high school practice and then from there I would go to summer ball practice," Kollen said. "We would have practices on Sundays from like nine in the morning to four in the afternoon."

Kollen"s case is not unique in Orange County softball is almost a way of life. Players have a leg up on Midwest competition already just because of the amount that they can play.

"The Midwest kids, and the Michigan kids in particular, do not play the day-to-day schedule that the West Coast kids do," Hutchins said. "Kelsey Kollen and Marissa Young were on the best team in the country, and they played."

Eiland and Tune, from Aloha, Ore., also had the chance to play in games all year.

In the Midwest, softball takes a backseat to indoor sports in winter. As a result, some of the sport"s evolutions are slow to catch up.

"I know that in the Midwest, there is still slow pitch around that"s almost nonexistent in Oregon," Tune said.

The Decision

"I knew that I wanted to come and play in the Midwest, or away from California," Kollen said. "My sister went to Ohio State, and I just basically saw how much she loved it, and her experiences growing up, and I knew that I wanted to follow in her footsteps."

For Tune and Eiland, the Midwest was plan B.

"I actually never planned on leaving the West coast. I wasn"t totally against it, I just never thought about it," Eiland said. "I knew of Michigan, but had never really heard about it."

Tune was faced with the reality of recruiting in collegiate sports.

"I love warm weather and I like it (out west). If I had my number one choice at the time, I would have gone to Arizona, because it"s hot weather and they are big in softball," Tune said. "But those schools weren"t looking at me and then I found schools out here that caught my eye."

All three players said that the deciding factor was the recruiting trip, which included taking in a football game, meeting the team and coaching staff and taking a brief tour of the campus.

"I just want to show them the University of Michigan, and show them the inside of our program," Hutchins said.

But the 48-hour trip can make life unnerving for an 18-year-old being asked to join a new team with new coaches and having to make new friends.

"They fly you in, you"re there for 48 hours, and you go here, you go there, you meet this person, you meet that person, and you honestly don"t remember anything," Eiland said. "Then you have to base your choice off the little fragments of information that you do remember."

Hutchins thinks that the decision is made easier for someone who wants a change of pace from the West Coast.

"They have to want to be different. They have to want to try something new. And we"re different. A lot of girls don"t want something new, or they want to stay close to their families," Hutchins said. "If they don"t want to come here, then we don"t want them."

The Adjustment

The first year of college can be stressful for anyone, much less a softball player expected to come in and play right away. Tune and Kollen have been starting infielders since their first game, and Eiland was the Wolverines" starting pitcher in 19 games as a freshman.

Each player was forced to adjust in a different way.

Eiland"s parents "sort of let softball be my thing, and they don"t really come out all that much," she said. "My parents, they just want to come see me. They"re like, "When are you not playing softball? I want to come on a non-softball weekend." "

Tune, who since the age of five was coached by her father, found the adjustments to new life and new coaches the most difficult part of her experience.

"I think it was just more a matter of getting used to being on my own. Now I was sharing a room, and had to figure out school and doing everything on my own and getting used to new coaches," Tune said. "My dad had coached me since I was five, so I was used to his coaching style. When I was adjusting to school, and I was adjusting to being on my own, I had to play for new coaches and have a whole new team."

Hutchins thinks that fitting in with a new team may be the most important adjustment that a player has to make.

"It"s not just talent. Chemistry is very important," Hutchins said. "The girls have to fit in with the program and their teammates."

The Weather

"Softball is a warm weather sport," Eiland said. "It"s really hard to play when it"s cold."

Living in a climate as dynamic as Michigan"s has forced the three Wolverines to learn to live and play differently.

Hutchins said that the weather is the biggest reason why some players leave Michigan, or decide not to come in the first place.

"They"re concerned with the winter," Hutchins said. "They"re afraid of it."

But after the initial shock, the players became accustomed to the harsh cold.

"You learn to bundle up," Kollen said. "It"s funny, my summer team has a Christmas party when we go home. Everybody is all tan, and I"m like butt white. They"re all in winter jackets and I"m in a tank top."

Eiland has overcome her initial reservations about the cold.

"Now, I think it"s fun," Eiland said. "I was excited for the snow this year, but it"s hard during softball season."

When the weather is unbearable, the team practices indoors, but to many players, those days seem few and far between.

Even though the team is forced to play in the cold, Tune thinks making it through the snow to class is a far greater challenge.

"Once you get to practice it"s not too bad, because you"re there with everybody and you"re at least doing something with other people," Tune said. "But to get up for class and trudge through the snow and have it be that cold that is the hard part."

The Future

Kollen and Tune both plan to move back to the West coast after they graduate from college.

"It"s something that I did for four years and I can say that I did," Kollen said. "But I don"t know how people live here for 50 years. I could not shovel my driveway that long."

Tune, who thinks she might move to California in the future, is going to work at Nike after she graduates this year.

"I want to stay in sports. I love softball, so whether it be that I stay in softball or go to other sports venues, either way works out," Tune said.

But for Eiland, the Midwest has been a perfect fit.

"I like the pace of life here. There is a difference in people, from California to out here. And I like the people better out here," Eiland said. "I feel like I"ve been out here forever. I"m like a Midwest girl now."