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After long standstill from COVID-19, athletes, college coaches return to recruiting trail

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After long standstill from COVID-19, athletes, college coaches return to recruiting trail

High school basketball summer recruiting
Iona and Stepinac in boys basketball summer action during NYC CHSAA June Team Camp game at Iona Prep in New Rochelle June 25, 2021.
Frank Becerra Jr., Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Much like everything else during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the college recruiting trail transitioned into the digital space. Film became a hot commodity, while Zoom, FaceTime and other means of virtual video chats kept coaches and potential recruits connected.

However, there was a key component that was missing throughout the whole process for more than 14 months: in-person evaluation. With COVID-19 restrictions gradually being eased and gymnasiums and athletic fields opening back up, college coaches were given the green light from the NCAA to hit the recruiting trail starting in June.

They are no longer limited to just viewing prospective players on a laptop screen. They’re able to scout and have live evaluations once again.

Likewise, high school athletes have an opportunity to stand out and leave an impression for coaches, rather than worry about getting their highlight tapes lost in a vast online library of other like-minded players looking to get their name out there.

“I just want them to see that I’m the most hardworking kid on the floor at all times,” said Iona Prep point guard Blaise New, a rising junior who played for dozens of colleges at the CHSAA Team Camp in late June. “I like to get my teammates involved before myself. If you need a bucket at the end of the game, I can get you one.”

It’s one of the first few stops New has planned. He’ll be busy with his AAU team, the New York Gauchos, in a summer filled with various tournaments and events.

Stepinac guard Samuel Gibbs hopes to bolster the collection of Division I schools interested in him before his senior year begins this fall. He also looks forward to being able to forge meaningful connections with coaches.

“Things are starting to get back to normal, which is perfect timing as I head into my senior year summer, so I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself,” Gibbs said. “Also, it’s all good when you’re texting and calling coaches, but there’s something to be said about being face to face with someone. Having a handshake and saying it’s nice to meet you for the first time in person, we’re super lucky and super fortunate to be here.”

‘It’s almost like a blind date’

Although the COVID-19 sidelined high school sports teams and cancelled numerous competitions, that didn’t mean college coaches had an extended vacation.

“We weren’t driving anywhere, but the process took a lot longer doing it through video,” Pace women’s basketball coach Carrie Seymour said. “I think the biggest part, too, you just don’t get that feel that you do sitting down in-person watching somebody play. Maybe the evaluation process was more thorough — I don’t know about accurate — but I think it was longer.”

No amount of footage felt like enough.

“You’re missing body language, verbal communication with their coaches, extra effort,” said Tom Mariano, a lacrosse coach and president of the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. “Let’s face it, a lot of times you’re getting highlights. In a game, you’re going to see the good, the bad, the ugly. You’re going to see it all, and you want to see how they react to every situation.”

And sometimes, things end up not being like how they first appeared.

“I think the funniest thing that I’ve heard from other coaches is they’ll get recruits on campus and look at them,” Iona men’s basketball assistant Casey Stanley said. “They’ll be like, well they’re two inches shorter than what they said they were. It’s almost like a blind date in a way.”

Stanley thinks there are some aspects of recruiting during the pandemic that will become a part of the norm moving forward.

“I do like the Zoom, because that’s obviously something that was never really a part of it. You would do phone calls,” he said. “I think Zoom recruiting will stay in some capacity, where it’s just way easier, cheaper — let’s get everybody here, let’s not fly everybody out. I don’t think it will totally replace in-home visits or anything like that, but just another alternative to continuing to build that relationship.”

While everyone keeps their fingers crossed that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over and there will be no relapse, even as recruiting returns to normal, there are still lingering challenges.

With the NCAA having granted athletes a bonus year of eligibility — and Division III and NJCAA spring sport athletes get two — it presents teams with unique benefits while complicating their recruiting plans.

“The intention was great by the NCAA. I think it was a great idea,” Seymour said. “But then you start to think about it, and it’s going to cause some difficulty. We’re not getting more scholarship money. Everyone knows they have an extra year, but you still have to stay within the NCAA limits and institutional limits. There were some difficult conversations I think, but in the end it’s a good thing. It just didn’t go as smoothly as a lot of schools thought it would go.”

Ardsley senior Rory McNerney felt the ramifications personally after her spot on a potential college volleyball team was taken by a senior who opted in for a fifth year.

“Because of COVID, I lost the only offer or roster spot that I had, so I had to restart my entire process at the beginning of senior year,” she said. “But now that the dead period is lifted, it’s really exciting, because I’m finally going to have the chance to play in front of coaches and get the exposure I need.”

Mariano thinks the bonus year of eligibility offer will impact collegiate sports for at least the next few years.

“You have to have a conversation with your current team about the potential future,” he said. “It’s hard when you’re talking to a sophomore that still has three years to play for you. Maybe they don’t know, or maybe they want to play a fifth year as a sophomore, but as a senior they get a great job opportunity. It’s a very fluid conversation, but for me, it’s always about being up front and transparent and being on the same page.”

Persistence and patience

Coaches had their challenges and, unsurprisingly, high school athletes did, too.

Harrison senior Casey Judelson had dozens of college football programs interested, but things quickly stalled out once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. His stats and game tape impressed coaches, but they wanted to be able to evaluate him live. As camps and combines were put on hold indefinitely, his suitors gradually backed out.

“It was really tough, because as a 17-year old kid you want everyone to love you,” Judelson said. “I wanted every school to love me or be interested, and when I started to narrow down what schools I wanted, they all started to back out. I dealt with a lot of adversity throughout the entire process.

“There were days I was optimistic and hopeful, and there were days where I said I’m not getting an offer. This is crazy, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. The panic starts to set in, and it was just a really tough time for myself and a lot of other recruits.”

Now, Judelson is fully booked with camps and college visits throughout the summer. He’s looking to capitalize on the opportunity to showcase his talent.

He also elected to reclassify to 2022 and take a post-graduate year at a prep school, a route that McNerney will also be taking, as a way to increase exposure and get a full year to undergo the process.

“I’m very excited because a lot of people talk,” Judelson said. “I’ve done some talking on Twitter, and I think my film reflects my game, but I think it’s time to show out what I am as a prospect and a player at these camps.”

While the extended dead period left many high school athletes suspended in limbo, there was a small bit of solace in knowing it was impossible to fall behind or have someone else have an edge on the recruiting scene.

“Just thinking how every athlete was going through the same thing, it wasn’t just personalized to me or just around this area, it was happening to everyone,” Yorktown junior volleyball player Allison Torres said. “That gave me a little bit of comfort.”

A positive outlook helped Marissa Graziano, a standout sophomore on Pearl River’s girls soccer team, get through the year, but she admits it was difficult at times.

“I would say that was more nerve-wracking than actual recruiting now, because you weren’t getting responses and you didn’t know what was happening on the other side,” Graziano said. “You didn’t know if you were actually getting anywhere with coaches. You were just sending e-mails and getting camp invites back, but that wasn’t helpful in a recruiting sense.”

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Like many others during the past year, Graziano tried her best to get her name out to college coaches by sending game film. She stayed busy stitching together clips from games to send out.

While a recent injury will keep her sidelined for a portion of the summer, she isn’t concerned about the lost time. She continues to put together highlight videos, work out, and looks forward to stepping onto the field again.

“It’s very exciting now that it’s normal,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about the NCAA pushing the deadline back again or colleges not being able to provide camps, or me not being able to go to a college for a visit. It relieves the nerves a lot.”

The excitement is palpable, with a full slate of summer events and showcases lined up for sports and plenty of watchful coaches in attendance.

Irvington junior Ethan Pakola is riding high into the summer after the Bulldogs’ first-ever appearance in the Section 1 Class D boys lacrosse title game. Although his team fell short in their title aspirations, the result has only given him more motivation to excel in the offseason. It also helps knowing scouts are watching once again, and that adds to the competitive environment.

“I feel like it makes each player play a little bit harder,” Pakola said. “It also stops players from hanging their heads, and they just try to do whatever they can to make themselves look better.”

Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5 and on Instagram at @byeugenerapay. 

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