Lay your cards down on the table. That’s Maryland softball coach Mark Montgomery’s adage for handling the rapidly changing landscape of college sports.
Montgomery, a man with 20 years of head coaching experience, has seen his job change since 2018 when the NCAA made it easier for players to transfer between schools by removing the requirement that athletes sit out a year of competition after switching programs.
The move forced coaches across the country to adjust. According to Extra Inning Softball, 1,474 players entered the transfer portal in 2022.
Montgomery and the Terps use the portal to find ideal fits for their squad, but don’t want to rely on it. Just two members of Maryland’s roster transferred into the program in 2022, replacing two that left this past offseason.
The lack of roster turnover is relatively unusual in college softball. The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country per ESPN’s Top 25, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, brought in ten combined transfers ahead of the 2023 campaign.
Other coaches have changed their recruiting and coaching strategies to attract players via the portal and retain their own. Meanwhile, Montgomery has remained steadfast by his beliefs of being upfront with players and maintaining a business-like approach with potential transfers.
One player Mongomery did bring in was Purdue transfer Kiley Goff. The catcher recalled how the coach explained that their relationship would be a two-way street — Montgomery would help her improve but she needed to show the required dedication to do so and earn playing time.
Goff’s a player who dislikes when coaches “beat around the bush,” she said.
Other coaches are looking for talent as well, putting Montgomery in positions where he could lose members of his roster to the portal. The coach’s responsibilities include making sure that current players stay with the Terps. In those conversations, Montgomery is honest with his players rather than trying to mollify them.
“I don’t know if I fit into modern times as well,” he said. “[I] tell kids what they … need to hear, not what they want to hear.”
Montgomery believes in honesty — even when it’s directed at him. He’ll have meaningful conversations with his players where he asks them to improve aspects of their game but also receives their feedback of him as a coach.
That candidness can lead to difficult conversations, like the ones Montgomery and sophomore Amelia Lech had this past offseason. The Terps expected the talented California native to contribute as a freshman, a projection that did not come to fruition. Lech only started nine games and hit just .103 with a mere four hits on the season.
Many players would look to find a new home after a freshman year like that, Montgomery said. However, it was the honest talks between coach and player that brought Lech back into the fold.
“[Lech] decided that, you know what, ‘I gotta learn how to take that criticism… I gotta be held to a high standard and I’m ok with that,’” Montgomery said. “I think … that we have done a better job of coaching her, I think of learning who she is and how she needs to be addressed.”
Lech never thought of transferring and the decision to stay paid off. The sophomore blossomed into a star and has already hit eight home runs on the season, including a crucial grand slam against then-No. 3 Oklahoma State.
But Montgomery’s frank approach won’t work for everyone. Despite that, the coach stressed that he won’t stray from his principles.
“I’m sure there are a handful of schools that will be in the World Series this year that would want Jaeda [McFarland] to come play for them,” Montgomery said. “They may reach out, because that’s the way this kind of sneaky stuff happens, and if she decides to go then she goes.”
But the Terps’ players appreciate the honesty their coach offers.
“Our relationship has just progressively gotten better,” Goff said. “You can just give it straight to me, and I feel like that’s what he does.”
Montgomery will never have negative feelings toward any player that decides to transfer, he said, but cautioned about the portal’s downsides. Other coaches can and will exaggerate their program’s merits, he said.
“Everybody puts the outside of their house in order,” Montgomery said. “The inside of their house can be a mess.”