Monday, September 23, 2013

A Pitcher Without A Home

The last two months have been miserable for Austin Ragsdale.

But, prior to that the tall, blonde-haired righthanded pitcher was living a dream on the baseball diamond at Bradshaw Christian High School.

He was a part of two Sac-Joaquin Section Div. VI championship baseball teams and a Division VII championship team in his four years of high school. The past two seasons he emerged as one of the area’s top pitchers. He was 9-1 with a 0.60 ERA in 2013. Ragsdale struck out 76 batters in 58 innings pitched.

On top of that, he batted .446 with five home runs and seven triples.

He solidified his baseball resume this past spring by pitching a complete game win over powerhouse Elk Grove, a team that went on to win the Section’s Division I championship.  That night his fastball was registering near 90 mph on the jugs gun as he mowed down a club that included a pair of guys that are now playing in the minor leagues.

For the past couple years he was courted by coaches at Sacramento State, Wayne State in Nebraska, Colorado Christian University and California Baptist College along with several junior college coaches. This past spring he told Dave Nakama that he wanted to play Division I baseball for him at San Jose State. Nakama was newly hired after spending several seasons as an assistant coach at Washington and Stanford.

Ragsdale signed his national letter-of-intent to play for the Spartans in April, excited to help rebuild a struggling baseball program. The school would pay for his books and his tuition. His family would have to pay room and board, a typical athletic scholarship offer especially for baseball players.

Ragsdale had his bags packed; had purchased several items for his dorm room in San Jose and was just 16 days away from moving in. Then that fateful phone call from Nakama came Aug. 1.

“Coach called me, said ‘there’s a problem. You’re not eligible to play. You’re missing a class’,” Ragsdale recalled.

That phone conversation began days of multiple phone calls, emails and discussions that have resulted in Ragsdale becoming a talented college baseball prospect without a school. It’s not so much because of the lack of a required class he should have taken at Bradshaw, rather it’s due to the stringent rules behind the National Letter of Intent, the document colleges have prospective student/athletes sign.

According the NCAA’s National Letter of Intent (NLI) website, signing the document means the college-bound student/athlete agrees to attend a Division I or II school for one academic year. It also tells other colleges to halt the recruiting of the student/athlete.

Participating institutions agree to provide financial aid to the student/athlete as long as the student is admitted to the school and is eligible for the aid. The NLI also binds the student to the institution and they cannot attend a different school or else they will lose one full year of athletic eligibility.

They can only become eligible if they complete one full year at the new school.

But, according to the NLI website, “the National Letter of Intent is voluntary and not required for a student/athlete to receive financial aid or participate in sports.”

“I wish now I would have known that,” Austin’s father, Curt, admits. “I would have never had him sign it.”

The reason Austin was ineligible was Ragsdale needed an additional class in English, Science or Math; a requirement for athletes at NCAA Division I or II schools. His guidance counselor at Bradshaw was unaware of it. And, no one at San Jose State’s Compliance office noticed anything lacking on his high school transcript.

That is, until the 2013-2014 academic year was ready to start.

Nakawa told Ragsdale he’d have to take the additional class online this fall then could come to San Jose for the spring semester, but pay his own tuition, redshirt the 2014 season and then be placed on scholarship for the 2014-2015 school year.

Shocked and surprised, Austin hung up the phone and immediately called his mother, Felicia, who began making a few calls herself.

“I talked to (SJSU associate athletic director in charge of compliance) Lynn Meade and she said to me, ‘I’m so sorry’ three times,” Felicia said. “Mrs. (Melissa) Bowers, the guidance counselor at Bradshaw, said, ‘I’m so sorry. To be quite honest, I don’t check for NCAA requirements.’ “

Felicia and Austin at first were willing to go along with Nakawa’s plan for eligibility, but Curt had his suspicions. The next day he was on the phone with the coach.

“I had called around and found out that a waiver could be obtained so that he could attend school in the fall, play (baseball) in the spring, but (Nakawa) didn’t think that was a good idea,” Curt said.

“He wanted to have Austin take the class online, then come to school in the spring and he’d ‘look into getting money for us’,” Curt continued. “Right then suspicion started in my head.”

Those doubts were confirmed a few days later when Curt read on the San Jose State athletic website that three junior college transfers signed letters of intent to play for the Spartans.

“So the suspicion of taking Austin’s scholarship money and putting it into someone else’s hands became even more likely a scenario,” Curt said.

“Coach never once in the eight to ten times I talked to him never was apologetic,” he continued. “I just sensed there wasn’t much sincerity.”

The whole incident has upset the Ragsdale household greatly. They had purchased Spartan t-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, looking forward to becoming San Jose State fans.

“(Austin) would be the first member of our family to go to college, this is a big deal to us,” Felicia said.

The high expectations of attending San Jose State sank rapidly in those days. Austin had already arranged to share a dorm room with two other area baseball recruits, Alec de Watteville from Oak Ridge High School and Brett Batiste from Granite Bay High School. He realized that those plans were flying out the window.

On Aug. 9, Nakama phoned Austin saying he got the go-ahead from San Jose State athletic director Gene Bleymaier to look into filing the waiver for the required class. But, by that time the family felt as though the damage had been done. They couldn’t trust Nakawa or the San Jose State baseball program. Curt asked that Austin be released from the letter of intent.

Nakawa balked at the idea.

In a conversation with Austin on Aug. 15, Nakawa told him, “I’m not releasing you to go to play baseball for another Division I school.”

That led the elder Ragsdale to do some more checking on his own. He called the NCAA’s NLI office for advice.

“They were helpful and acted surprised with our situation,” he recalled.

Ragsdale was told that his only course to play in the spring of 2014 was to attend an NAIA or a NCAA Division III school.

“Not to knock the NAIA, but I just want to play for a Division I school,” Austin said. “I was preparing all along to play at that level. I still want to do that.”

The Citizen sent an email to Nakawa and to Associate Atheltic Director in charge of media relations, Lawrence Fan, asking to shed light on the Ragsdale situation. On Saturday, Fan responded, “In compliance with the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the university and its representatives cannot comment on the questions you asked in your September 20 email.”

Austin still lives at home, but has begun an online class entitled, “Environmental Science” so that he could obtain eligibility to play. He spends three hours a day in front of the home computer doing his class assignments so that he can complete the course by the end of the year.  He works out at a local sports clinic to stay in shape, wishing he could work out with a college baseball team to keep his pitching arm sharp.

The NCAA will have to rule him eligible in order to play in the spring. He’s optimistic that will happen.

Two weeks ago, though, a bit of light began shining on the horizon. Ragsdale received an email recently from San Jose State with news the school has made his letter of intent null and void. That means he’s released from his commitment to the Spartans and can talk to other colleges.

He has had two discussions with Sacramento State baseball coach Reggie Christiansen.

“The roster is full, he says, but he said that if I become eligible, I can come out and work out with the team,” Ragsdale said.

Ragsdale likes Christiansen and feels like that is probably where his baseball future lies. Plus, he likes the idea of being teammates once again with Franklin High School graduate Tyler Blake. The two were a part of the Elk Grove Thunder, a tournament baseball club, the pair played for when they were in middle school.

Curt and Felicia are still stinging from the incident with the San Jose State baseball program, but happy Austin may have an opportunity to eventually play for the Hornets.

“Do your research and know what is happening through the whole recruiting process,” Curt advises.

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