How coaches recruit in the middle of a pandemic

Virginia Ontiveros

COVID-19 has changed nearly every facet of college life since campuses across the country closed in March, and athletics have been no exception. Over the past month, the recruitment process of the Class of 2025 in particular has been significantly altered as colleges grapple with limits to visitations and competitions.

“Right now is typically a very busy time for us in terms of hosting visits from juniors in high school,” said assistant coach of cross country and track & field Dusty Lopez ’01.

Though the application timeline remains the same, many prospective recruits no longer have the opportunity to visit campus, and coaches will miss the chance to see how students might integrate into the teams.

“What I call the X factor is the characteristics of the player and the personality,” head women’s golf coach Tomas Adalsteinsson said. “Are they a good fit for our program? That’s where, actually, I really rely on my team to kind of gauge, ‘OK, yeah, this student really has the mindset of a Williams student,’ which has been very helpful.”

Head coach of women’s ice hockey Meghan Gillis said that she had anticipated about 35 visits from potential hockey recruits, all of which had to be canceled and replaced with individual phone calls.

Games and tournaments, where prospective athletes would usually have the chance to impress recruiters, have also been canceled because of COVID-19. The results of these games and the athletes’ live performances are a major part of how coaches assess potential candidates.

“Students in [the high school Class of 2021] did not get to play their junior year — they are going to miss out surely on their first half or probably more of their summer season,” head softball coach Kris Herman noted.

According to Sarah Raymond, recruiting coordinator for women’s soccer, recruiting usually consisted of “watching a whole game so we could see when they’re not involved in the play, when they don’t do so well.”

The process was much the same for women’s golf. “We have ranking and access to a database where we can see all junior golf tournaments that are played in more than two days… so we can pull results from that for all players,” Adalsteinsson said.

The first week of April, usually has her eye on the results of the USA Hockey Nationals. Gillis, who had had the opportunity to see prospective members of the Class of 2025 play, said that her strategy consists of collecting “as much live evaluation information as possible.”

“Every time we go on the road, we try to take notes on everybody from the ninth graders to the 12th graders,” she said.

Game cancellations have in many cases prevented potential athletes from showcasing their full potential to recruiters.

“If we’re looking for a male miler who has run 4:20, somebody who ran 4:32 as a sophomore might have a chance to run 4:20 as a junior, but they’re not getting the chance to show that they can do that,” Lopez said.

Many coaches are now exploring other methods of identifying strong candidates.

“We’re doing a lot more of watching them through video,” Raymond said. “In an ideal world, I would not want to make a decision based on video — that’s just not typically what we do.”

In some cases, the College’s coaches have already used athletic camps and clinics as tools to see players in action. When considering potential recruits, coaches are now relying on the valuable information they were able to collect at these events.

Women’s soccer offers five day-and-a-half clinics each year, one of which had been scheduled for Easter weekend before being canceled. These clinics show player’s “natural leadership qualities” and whether they are “caring about the person next to them,” Raymond said. “We are fortunate that we’ve worked with many current [high school class of] 2021 recruits for the past year or two.”

Coaches also tap into networks within their sports to identify viable candidates.

“We have connections with people in the softball community across the country who know of good players and know a lot about Williams,” Herman said. “They’ve heard from coaches that this is the kind of kids we’re looking for, so they recommend for kids to contact us or for us to contact the players.”

The quality that every coach described as the most important when choosing athletes was their academic fitness for Williams.

“First and foremost, it’s the academics that determine the direction we go,” Adalsteinsson said. “We have to make sure that they are strong students that are going to do well with the rigorous academics at Williams.”

“Our hashtag is ‘jocknerd’ — someone who is really interested in their academics and learning,” Herman said. “We want kids to be excited about that.”

In addition to the impossibility of having on-campus visits this spring, another significant change to the admission process has been the College’s new test-optional policy. It has long been a requirement that athletes, along with all students applying to Williams, submit their ACT or SAT scores for review during the admissions process. But this year, all applicants, including prospective athletes, have been granted the choice of submitting their scores.

“It’s a big load off of our kids who have not been able to take the test yet, so that’s positive,” Herman said. “It may be a positive that they now get to choose. Or they have to choose, that may not necessarily be easier.”

Head coach of men’s basketball Kevin App agreed. “I think the College has done a really good job of making sure that the opportunity is still extended to everybody,” he said.

Coaches expressed empathy and encouragement for prospective athletes during these uncertain times. App advised student athletes to “finish their school year and focus on academics.” Raymond agreed, encouraging prospective recruits to “continue to do well in school, even though school is going to be challenging right now.” 

They also emphasized the importance of maintaining physical and mental well-being. “Right now, everyone and their family’s health is a priority,” Gillis said.

“Many people realize how much being on a team means to them,” Herman said. “We’ve all lost teams, in a way.”