Lakota West’s Allie Cummins hits a single during their Division I state softball championship game against Massillon Perry Saturday, June 2 at Firestone Stadium in Akron. Massillon Perry won 11-1. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The stroke of a pen has Lakota West’s Cummins in college softball limbo

When her collegiate career will start and how long it will be are questions that have yet to be answered for the recent Lakota West High School graduate.

Cummins completed a standout prep career in early June when the Firebirds advanced to the Division I state championship game, losing to Massillon Perry 11-1.

The shortstop/catcher hit .591 with 17 doubles, three triples, nine homers and 44 RBIs as West went 26-4. She earned a spot on the Ohio High School Fastpitch Softball Coaches Association’s All-Ohio first team.

»RELATED: 2018 Journal-News All-Area Softball team

Cummins verbally committed to the University of Akron and coach Julie Jones in the summer after her freshman year. She signed a national letter of intent (NLI) with Akron on Nov. 8 during her senior year.

Now she’s trying to get released from that NLI because, she said, a visit to the school and some messages and information she has since received have made her uncomfortable.

Akron declined to give Cummins her release, so it’s become an issue for the NLI organization. Cummins has enrolled at Miami, but if she can’t win a final appeal to the NLI Appeals Committee, she won’t be able to play in the 2019 season and will lose a year of eligibility.

Institutions are under no obligation to grant a release once an NLI is signed, but Cummins believes there are extenuating circumstances in this situation that should allow her to have a four-year career.

Lakota West shortstop Allie Cummins makes a throw to first base during a Division I regional semifinal against Lebanon on May 24 at Centerville. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

An uncomfortable feeling

For Cummins, everything started to change when she took her official visit to Akron in the fall. She said it “didn’t go the way I wanted it to.”

“None of the players talked to us and the coaches didn’t really talk to us. The only people that talked were the four recruits and then the freshmen because we were staying with them,” Cummins said.

The visit made Cummins uncomfortable enough that she thought she shouldn’t sign with Akron. She told Wendell Hutchinson, her travel-ball coach with the Ohio Hawks Gold and also her hitting coach for the last four years, what she was thinking.

Hutchinson thought the best move was to get Cummins and Jones together on the phone, so he did. Cummins said Jones told her the recruits’ lack of contact with the coaches and players on the visit was the product of a very busy weekend and focusing on the fall competition.

“I was like, ‘OK, whatever, no big deal,’ ” Cummins said. 

So Cummins was set. She prepared for her senior season at West and Akron worked toward the beginning of its 2018 campaign.

It wouldn’t be a good season for the Zips. Some key injuries led to a 4-43-1 record, though Cummins said that had no bearing on her feelings about her commitment.

But there were other things that she found troubling.

“I started receiving videos and seeing videos on Snapchat of the team drinking and smoking,” Cummins said.

It was enough to make Cummins realize that she didn’t want to be a part of the Akron program.

Cummins never brought up any of the things she’d seen or heard about the team “because they were still in season and I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble.” She simply told Jones, “Some things have been going on. I’m just not comfortable going there.”

Jones said she’d get back to her and did, telling Cummins that she wasn’t going to release her.

Cummins said she’s tried to contact Jones multiple times since that conversation, but has gotten no reply.

Fighting for a release

The NLI is the official document that serves as a binding agreement between a student-athlete and an institution for one academic year.

The NCAA manages the daily operations of the NLI program, while the Collegiate Commissioners Association provides governance oversight. It’s a voluntary program for student-athletes and institutions.

Trying to get released from an NLI is a multi-step process.

First, Cummins completed an NLI release request form and was denied by Akron.

Second, she appealed to the NLI Policy & Review Committee with supporting evidence (videos, texts, etc.) and was denied.

Third (and the final step), she’s appealing to the NLI Appeals Committee, which is separate from the NLI Policy & Review Committee, and will get a chance to speak to that group via teleconference in the near future.

One positive for Cummins was that Akron agreed to lift a recruitment prohibition, allowing her to talk to other schools while going through the appeals process. That’s how she ended up at Miami.

Lakota West’s Allie Cummins rounds third base after her eighth-inning home run in a Division I state semifinal against Perrysburg at Firestone Park in Akron on May 31. PHIL LONG/OHIO PRESS PHOTO SYSTEM

“Students feel it’s an honor to sign an NLI. It’s a national holiday of sorts, right? And there’s no reason for it,” said Daryl Cummins, Allie’s father. “The thing my wife and I talked about is, you always tell these kids to make good decisions, be a good person. She makes a good decision and gets penalized for it. You make a decision at 15 and it’s held against you at 18.”

West assistant coach Dave Burbrink has been involved with travel ball for about 20 years. He said the problem with the NLI is that it protects the schools and does nothing for the athletes.

“You lose a year of eligibility just for signing that piece of paper, and that’s never discussed in the process,” Burbrink said. “The college wins, the player loses. That’s how I look at this. If you do your research, you will find out that very few people get released.

“I’ve helped girls get recruited. I will never, ever have girls sign those again after what Allie went through because you don’t have to. There is another way of securing your scholarship through athletic participation. You sign with the university and not the NLI.”

If her last appeal is denied, Cummins will be able to practice at Miami in the upcoming school year, but won’t be allowed to play in games. If her release is granted, she’ll have full and immediate eligibility.

Cummins briefly considered playing at a JUCO or NAIA school in 2019 because they aren’t bound by the NLI. She opted to go to Miami and play for coach Clarisa Crowell regardless of what happens with her appeal.

Hutchinson said he’s been disheartened by this whole situation.

“My first reaction back in November was, ‘Let’s keep this together. You’ve basically had a verbal commitment for about three years and you guys have established a relationship and they were very generous in their offer, so let’s see if we can right this ship,’ ” Hutchinson said.

“Nobody wanted Allie to leave Akron in the beginning. It wasn’t until the rest of the stuff came to light. Everybody has to do what’s in the best interest of their kid, and that’s a policy I always follow. The best interest for Allie was not to go to Akron. I thought it was pretty straightforward with the evidence that we had that it would be pretty easy for them to get out of this NLI. But obviously I was wrong.”

Hutchinson believes Cummins will shine whenever she becomes eligible.

“There’s not a conference in the country Allie couldn’t have played for. That’s obvious to everybody,” Hutchinson said. “I had phone calls from big Division I schools all over the country about her, but she was looking for the right fit. She really did her homework this time.

“Allie will be a great player for the three years she’s at Miami if she doesn’t get to play her freshman year. She’s going to be great no matter what, but the year off won’t hurt her. She’ll pick up right where she left off and be a star, and fortunately she’s close where we all can go watch her.”

Statement from Akron

Cox Media reached out to Akron coach Julie Jones and made an interview request through the school’s athletic communications department.

The following statement was released by Jones in response:

“The University of Akron and Department of Athletics has followed all of the required protocols in place when dealing with a national letter of intent. After receiving a request to release the NLI, the department thoroughly reviewed the request and ultimately decided to uphold the requirements of the NLI program.

“The university released Allison from her obligation to attend the University of Akron and allowed her to speak freely with any schools or programs. After an appeal was filed to the NLI committee, the university followed all protocols required and the NLI committee upheld the requirements established by the NLI program.”

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