This is the final entry from the “Journey Journal” of Sophia Taliaferro, a high school junior in Virginia who first hit the Triple Crown Sports radar in June 2022 while taking part in multiple pre-event camps before the Colorado 4th of July softball tournament. The idea was sparked to hear straight from a student-athlete’s perspective about not just college recruiting, but how past experiences and current events influence the timeless question – what’s next?
If you follow me on social media, you know that I committed to Syracuse University. For the last entry of my Journey Journal, I want to share why I chose Syracuse.
During the National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association (NFCA) convention last December, the Syracuse coaching staff had talked about me with my travel coach, India Chiles. The Syracuse staff watched my team play last summer, and head coach Shannon Doepking knew my travel ball coach from their days playing together in college and in the National Pro Fastpitch League.
Syracuse wasn’t a school that was on my list or one I knew much about. However, I received an invite from them after the end of fall season inviting me to their winter camp. Coach India confirmed that there was genuine interest and had good things to say about the program so I signed up. A few things that stood out to me were the personalities of the coaching staff, the Syracuse players who worked the camp and the culture I saw there.
When I was 12 years old, Lauren Haeger, All-American and national champion from the University of Florida, came to one of my team’s softball practices to help us with hitting. At the end of practice, she told us about her own journey and gave us a piece of advice that stuck with me. She said the most important thing to know when picking a college is to know what you like.
She used herself as an example and explained that her dad was a football coach with a reputation for being tough. She said that she knew she played best under strict, down-to-business, male coaches. One of the main reasons she picked Florida was because the coach there was the type of coach she liked playing for – the type that would bring the best out of her.
I have been coached by many different types of coaches across all the sports I’ve played. I figured out that I respond best to strong-minded female coaches who have a good sense of humor. When I met Coach Shannon, it was clear that she was someone I would love to have as a coach. I also loved her two assistants, Katie McEachern who played for Coach Shannon at Dartmouth, and Sydney O’Hara, who played at Syracuse. Collectively, it was clear they got along well and played off each other’s strengths.
The close relationships of the coaching staff reflected the culture of the program. Coach Shannon told me her program was focused on player AND person. She explained that she values people for who they are outside of softball and works to develop her players in both aspects of their lives. When I was at camp, I saw evidence of this. First, I got to meet a member of the softball staff who works with players on their mental game. This is important because it shows that the athletic program cares enough about their athlete’s mental health to pay someone to help.
There were two athletes from the team working the camp and they also told me they loved their coaches. One of them transferred twice before she got to Syracuse. She shared that she hated softball before she got to Syracuse, where her mindset changed completely. Because of the Syracuse coaches, she had learned to love the game again and found peace with herself. Finally, “person over player” is something my high school coach, Suzy Willemssen, also talks about and I learned that Coach Suzy and Coach Shannon knew each other from attending “What Drives Winning” seminars. This was another affirmation of their culture.
Another thing important to me going into recruiting was going somewhere competitive athletically and strong academically. For that reason, there were many Atlantic Coast Conference schools that I had contacted. I liked the combination of athletics and academics in the ACC. Syracuse is in the ACC and is also well-known for academics. It's somewhere where I can play softball at the highest level, while earning a great college degree.
Other high academic schools with D-I softball programs also talked to my travel ball coach at NFCA and asked me to come visit, which I did before committing to Syracuse. Syracuse stood out because it appeared to me that Syracuse didn’t place athletics over academics or vice versa. Additionally, Syracuse provides significant academic assistance to its athletes. The high academic schools seemed more like academic institutions that play softball – academics first. Ironically, the high academic schools also had less academic assistance available for their student athletes compared to Syracuse.
I wanted to be somewhere that excelled at both, and Syracuse, for me, was the best choice.
Lastly, I love the campus. It has an old-money, cozy feel. Syracuse is a university with many colleges and each college has a unique architecture, which is very different from schools that have a uniform look. The campus is easily walkable and doesn’t have a huge population. There are roughly 23,000 students, which was a perfect size for me. I didn’t want to go somewhere where I would know everyone after the first semester, but I also didn’t want to go somewhere with an overwhelming number of students.
The best advice I want to leave you with is first, know what you are looking for. What culture is important to you? What kind of coaching do you respond best to? How far away from home are you willing to live? What do you want to achieve both academically and athletically, and what schools provide that? It’s important to be open minded throughout the entire process because you never know when opportunities will present themselves.
My dad likes to say that “people are interested in people who are interested in them and it works both ways.” Even though I wasn’t initially interested in Syracuse, they were interested in me. I opened myself up to that interest and found a place that I feel is perfect for me. Finally, healthy relationships and honesty matters. My travel ball coach, my high school coach, my recruiting advisor and my parents were all parts of my recruiting journey. They helped me set attainable goals, and then gave me the resources to achieve them.
My journey has led me to Syracuse and I am counting down the days until I get there. I can’t predict the future, but I feel good about where I am now.
Best of luck to you all! – Sophia