June 2nd, 2020
GC coaches adapt to recruiting in a pandemic
COVID brings unprecedented challenges to team-building
Dennis Gibson, Garrett College's athletics director and head men's basketball coach, says the College's decision to increase athletic scholarships for 2020-21 is playing a critical role in the Lakers' ability to recruit student athletes.
JT Lewis, head women's basketball and volleyball coach, said not being able to bring in recruits for on-campus visits has been a challenge. "Garrett is a beautiful place on and off campus," said Lewis, who said College staff have done a great job creating online resources that emphasize that beauty.
The coronavirus has seemingly changed the way everyone does everything. Intercollegiate athletic recruitment is one of those areas adapting to life inside a pandemic.
"The biggest challenge is the fact that we cannot do face-to-face visits and show our facilities – and also judge the character of recruits," said Dennis Gibson, Garrett College's director of intercollegiate athletics and head men's basketball coach. "We also miss the [basketball] showcases where we would find hidden gems like D'Monte Brown [a freshman guard who averaged 13.5 points per game for the Lakers in 2019-2020]."
John Chambers, GC's head wrestling coach, agreed that the inability to conduct on-campus recruitment visits has been the most challenging aspect of dealing with the pandemic.
"Not being able to have on-campus visits creates an obstacle," conceded Chambers. "As a head coach you have to be able to sell your program from the inside out and create that visual that will appeal to your recruits."
JT Lewis, a former Laker athlete who now coaches both women's volleyball and women's basketball, also lamented the inability of recruits to visit campus.
"Garrett is a beautiful place on and off campus," observed Lewis. "Having your recruits drive up and see what we have to offer – like the STEM Building, our library, the CARC, the lake, the Wisp and the dorms helps a lot.
"I've been doing a lot of phone work for both volleyball and basketball," added Lewis. "I'm getting interest from a lot of recruits, but you can tell some are kind of scared to commit to a place they can't come see for themselves." While the pandemic has taken the face-to-face piece out of recruitment, GC coaches said they are fortunate that technology-related strategies were already a big part of coaches' recruitment plans.
"Contact has actually been more frequent with each recruit – more texts, more emails, more phone calls than before," said veteran baseball head coach Eric Hallenbeck, adding, "This is the first time I've used FaceTime to talk with a recruit."
"Text, FaceTime, Zoom, Instagram, and Twitter give you the avenues to the recruits," said Chambers. "Facebook gives you the avenue to the parents. You have to navigate times to communicate as most students stay up until early morning hours, which leads to communicating all hours of the day."
Coaches lauded the efforts of various college offices in assisting the Athletic Department in retooling the recruitment process in critical areas.
"Our Creative Services team did a remarkable job in putting together a virtual tour of our facilities," said Gibson. "The sports video really helped out," agreed Lewis. "Recruits are able to see the level of facilities we have available. Kym [Newmann] does a great job of helping with housing, and Coach Chambers [who is also an academic advisor] does a great job of keeping me updated on grades and who he has been in contact with so I can get them [returning Lakers] back for next year."
"Marketing, housing, admissions, advising, academics, and financial aid have all played a role in helping me through this pandemic," said Chambers. "Working with the other departments on campus makes everything so much better for us all around."
Chambers said he has had to expand his circle of coaching contacts as one strategy to deal with the pandemic challenges.
"The cancellation of the late spring and summer individual wrestling tournaments has taken away the opportunities to pick up that last-minute uncommitted athlete," said Chambers, "but I have created a network with high school coaches and respected coaches in different wrestling communities to be my eyes in the field. Then, as a coaching staff, we try to find video on the recommended recruit. The feedback I am receiving from these individuals is a tremendous asset."
"Increasing aid has been the No. 1 tool that has helped us and most of our sports," said Gibson, noting the College has significantly boosted its athletic scholarship funding this year to provide athletics with additional recruiting resources. "Recruits that would have waited previously have committed without a visit due to our offers. We're grateful to [Dean of Student Affairs] JR Kerns and the Student Affairs Division for seeing the value in attracting top student athletes. We've been very fortunate to have the administrative support for athletics that we have." Hallenbeck said a return to on-campus visits at some point in this recruitment cycle would be helpful.
"For me, if I can get the student-athlete on campus – meet the parents, see the field, the campus and residence halls – I have a real good shot at him," said Hallenbeck.
Gibson said there is widespread optimism that college sports will be back, even if it looks difficult during a pandemic.
"I have not had one question concerning if we will play," said Gibson, whose 2019-20 team just finished a 24-8 season a few weeks before the pandemic shut down the sports world. "The same questions about scholarships and housing have been consistent. Housing will be the biggest issue for all coaches by the end of June after registration and billing begin."
Other questions also remain.
"No one is sure about international travel and Visa procurement, so there are much fewer commitments yet among international students," added Gibson, who had six international student athletes on his 13-player varsity roster last season. "The fact that the NCAA is changing or cutting the need for the SAT score at their level has made it much more difficult for us, as recruits are now able to commit to D2 [NCAA Division II] schools without waiting for that score."
Hallenbeck said spring sports like baseball will continue to feel the impact of the pandemic for several years. That's due to the fact that no student athletes in spring sports lost a year of eligibility in 2020 since their sports seasons were not completed.
"I won't feel the effects of this until the 2021-2022 academic year," said Hallenbeck. "After next year, my third-year sophomores will transfer, and my freshmen from this year are mostly all on pace to graduate and will transfer with three years of eligibility at the four-year level.
"It's hard to get incoming freshmen because a lot of recruits that I have talked to are either taking a gap year or going to a post-grad school so they can have a chance to play and get looked at by colleges," continued Hallenbeck. "So, essentially 90 percent of my guys will move on next year and probably 5 percent of freshmen I'll lose for various reasons. So going into 2021-2022 I'll need to replace a lot of student-athletes."