I would say during your sophomore year leading up to the summer travel ball season after sophomore year. Make sure you get the word out with enough notice that the coaches can make it to the applicable exposure tournaments.
Usually by the spring time of your senior year, many colleges have made their decisions on recruits. That being said, your Junior year will be a key season. Your sophomore season will be important to get on their radar. I have heard mixed results about showcases/tournaments. However, I understand that the right ones are excellent for softball.
It is important to make a strong first impression to colleges. With the use of technology, you can efficiently introduce yourself to college coaches. Having quality video that is easy for them to navigate will allow you to get on their radar. Once they know who you are, they can make an effort to watch you play. Many coaches know ahead of time who they want to see at a tournament. If they are going to be there, why not put yourself in a postition to be seen as well.
I would say make initial contact as soon as your freshman year, but definitely in your sophomore year. You want them to know your name before tournaments, games, showcases and camps so that you can be seen. Michael is absolutely correct when he said you need to get on their radar.
A lot of coaches, especially in women's sports, don't have time to search for talent so you need to make it easy for them anyway you can. Send letters, send email, send video! Make initial contact to schools of interest and then before the "events" you are playing in ensure you are on their radar by contacting them again with where you can be seen in action. Remember to continue contact throughout the process. It shows interest, passion and drive...the sign of a true competitor and athlete.
Also, I am not sure how much you know about the process, but it also helps to send all coaches of interest a cover letter and resume. This should be one of your first contacts with them. The cover letter is an opening and the resume should be more bullet points with more detail. Here is something to give you an idea of what to include just in case.
Introduction, why you have chosen their school based on both academics and athletics.
Brief summary of your athletic and academic accomplishments, possible programs of interest at their school, etc.
Brief summary about why their softball program is of interest to you.
Thank the coach for considering you as a future player, request information, inquire about a possible campus visit.
You can use a form letter for a lot of it, but make sure the letter is personal and school specific. Should be a one page typed at max.
Should be two pages typed at max.
The best time to contact a college coach is anytime! Coaches love to have kids come to them instead of having to search for student athletes. It also shows that you are interested in the school and the program which is always a plus
I agree. In my initial post, I was referring to initial contact. If you are truly interested in a school and honestly believe that you are a good fit with their athletic program you should contact them several times. Don't be aggressive, but assertive. "Squeaky wheel gets the oil."