Coronavirus pandemic forces college coaches to get creative on the recruiting trail

Southwestern College men’s basketball head coach Matt O’Brien has his hands full despite the coronavirus pandemic that has left the sports world at a standstill. O’Brien said his staff must check on the health and welfare of his current players while going online with “virtual” tours of the college for prospective athletes.

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The cancellation of the spring sports season due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a ripple effect for high school and college athletes alike.

Not just for those who are already playing college ball, either.

The ability of college coaches to get on the road and watch prospective athletes has been shut down due to the coronavirus. Not that they have anyone to watch — at least live, since the entire world has been put on hold.

“During this time, my main focus is to check in with our current players to make sure they are doing OK with all the changes and the stress of this terrible epidemic. Our staff wants to make sure our players are getting the help they need transitioning to online learning,” Southwestern College men’s basketball coach Matt O’Brien said. 

“Fortunately, our administration, faculty and staff have done an excellent job of leading and caring for our students, which has created a sense of pride to be a part of the Builder community. This also gives us as coaches an opportunity to model positive leadership during a time of adversity.”

Prospective athletes have been forced to take “virtual” tours of colleges instead of having the ability to actually step onto the hallowed grounds of an institution to find which college is best.

“The ability to get on the road and scout prospective student-athletes has become more difficult due to recent circumstances. Fortunately, we have a lot of technology that we can lean on,” Southwestern women’s soccer coach Joe Wood said. 

“We have been utilizing online recruiting agencies, Zoom, Facetime, text, email and phone calls. While things have changed, the process remains the same, with a few differences. For instance, I gave a campus tour (recently) that involved a meeting with admissions, campus tour and meeting with me (coach). I scheduled a meeting on Zoom and had a couple recruits join the meeting and away we went. It was really fairly similar to an in-person tour.”

For others, planning ahead has reaped tremendous rewards that has left some coaches behind.

“We are constantly recruiting/scouting ahead to check out new talent,” Cowley volleyball coach Steven Gream said. “When the coronavirus hit, we had just completed our 2020 recruiting and had already begun scouting talent for 2021, 2022 and 2023.”

The rest of the scouting is through video and other means. Since volleyball is a fall sport in the majority of places in the U.S. and around the world, the playing has actually finished — now it’s time to pop in a tape and watch.

“The coronavirus hampered our ability to go out and scout these players, with the NJCAA issuing a recruiting pause and the USA volleyball also canceling events and practices for us to go watch them in action,” Gream said. “That said, these players that are on our list have their own Facebook recruiting pages, national recruiting pages, and they are constantly sending us updates and videos to check out. So we are still able to scout out these players, but just not in person or live. Technology has really helped in our scouting and communication with our recruits. It isn’t the same as being there in person, but it is the next-best thing.”

For some, video is not enough. There’s nothing like being able to physically watch an athlete perform in a natural setting.

“The ability to identify players is probably the part of the process that is most impeded right now,” Wood said. “The ripple effect of our current situation is likely to have some impact on our soccer season this fall, but we are optimistic. The Builder spirit is alive on campus and online. As Builders, we continue to work hard, do the little things right, stay positive, and we will persevere.”

Southwestern women’s basketball coach Whitney Corley said with physical recruiting finished for winter sports, plans for next season are next on the list.

“As coaches, we are mostly business as usual. This time of year, we are finishing up our recruiting, reviewing the past season and making plans for the next season,” Corley said.

“For recruiting, we are excited about the girls we have added so far, and we have several who have already visited campus and we are excited about the possibility of them joining us in the fall. We are prepared to offer virtual campus visits to anyone who is not able to come visit campus in person. We have a goal to achieve in recruiting, so this is just another challenge we face and it is already pushing us to be more creative while staying true to who we are and all the great things we have to offer at Southwestern. We don’t see any of this as an obstacle, we only see it as an opportunity to get better.”

Since Cowley men’s soccer coach Ruy Vaz spends so much time recruiting international students, soccer coaches have had to rely on video perhaps more than anyone. While it doesn’t give an advantage over other soccer coaches, it has not changed the process of recruiting in the midst of the epidemic.

American soccer players, especially from area schools, has been another story.

“I would say that because the men’s soccer team has had a big international population, and thus, we are used to recruiting by video, it hasn’t negatively affected our scouting or recruiting,” Vaz said. “We also did a good job at recruiting early, so in January we already had several players committed. On the other hand, we were supposed to have a spring showcase for local players and because of this terrible situation, we had to cancel it.

“We will know more about our local recruiting situation around May or June, but we are already talking to a few players from Kansas. Regarding how the upcoming season might be affected, at this point we are still waiting to see.”

The ability of having their athletes continue a strength and conditioning program during the offseason has been the biggest challenge. Coaches must trust in those athletes to find ways of staying in shape.

“We are in a unique time trying to navigate how we move forward with our offseason,” Corley said. “Typically, our team is training with our strength and conditioning coaches during the spring, and working on their individual skills on their own time. With all the restrictions currently, and most of our student-athletes not on campus since we’ve moved to remote learning, we put our offseason training on hold.

“I know some of our team members continue to get in the gym to work out on their own and some have found ways to train at home. How the limited training this spring will affect our season next year will be something that we address into the summer.”

Those plans for the summer — like everything else associated with the shutdown of the sports scene — are still up in the air. Nobody so far seems to have an idea of when the epidemic will end, and summer sports are next on the chopping block.

“It’s difficult to make a plan for anything right now since we don’t know what to expect,” Corley said. “I trust that most of our student-athletes are finding creative ways to work out at home. We have sent some workout ideas to them and I believe that most of them will invest (in) the work needed during this down time. We made some big strides with our team this season, so I know they are hungry to continue growing and improving.”

There are no real advantages. Every collegiate coach at every level has had their programs shut down, whether it be in-season play, preseason exhibitions or strength and conditioning.

“Recruiting has been a challenge,” O’Brien said. “This spring we will rely on video evaluations more than we have done in the past.

“Protecting our program’s culture is always my No. 1 priority, so I do believe the restrictions with face-to-face contact has been problematic to identify the personal characteristics we are looking for in a Builder basketball player. We are currently relying more on references from coaches and people around each athlete.”

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