Athletic recruiting in the year without sports
Every head turned toward Director of Athletics Vicky Chun as she advanced across Reese Stadium on March 11 toward Andy Shay, the Yale men’s lacrosse head coach. It was a clear, mild afternoon in the stadium, and attackman Matt Brandau ’23 stood beside a teammate, exchanging nervous glances.
Five minutes later, Chun and Shay emerged from a team room underneath the bleachers.
“I can’t really describe the feeling in the huddle when he said, ‘It’s over, we’re done,’ other than there was a mix of tears right away — guys throwing gloves; some guys were angry,” Brandau said. “Athletic Director Chun tried to console us, but I think everyone was so glazed over that we weren’t really absorbing her words.”
Most spring Ivy League student-athletes say that it is easy to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they received the news that was released at 3 p.m. on March 11, 2020. That news, of course, marked the end of Ancient Eight spring athletics. In July, the League terminated all intercollegiate athletic competition sports until at least the 2021 calendar year.
Now, the athletic community has just begun to grasp the real possibility of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting college athletics far beyond the spring of 2020.
From lacrosse to basketball to fencing, collegiate sports recruiting is entering a whole new landscape. Over the years, the athletic community had settled on a comfortable recruiting timeline: scouting, visits, checks with admissions, commitment, application and acceptance. But with a deadly virus in the picture, this is no longer sustainable.
“I can’t really describe the feeling in the huddle when he said, “It’s over, we’re done,” other than there was a mix of tears right away — guys throwing gloves; some guys were angry, Athletic Director Chun tried to console us, but I think everyone was so glazed over that we weren’t really absorbing her words.”
—Matt Brandau ’23, men's lacrosse attackman
THE DEAD PERIOD
Shortly after the cancellation of the spring athletic season, the NCAA introduced another drastic change when it implemented a recruiting “dead period” — a prescribed duration of time during which no in-person recruiting is allowed. The Division I Council Coordination Committee placed this immediate ban on March 13, and the Council has met virtually to extend the dead period multiple times since then. Currently, there is no in-person recruiting allowed through Sept. 30. According to Maia Dreyer, the founder of Three 4 Three — a consulting agency for high school athletes looking to get recruited in college — the dead period will most likely continue to be extended through the end of this calendar year.
While virtual recruiting — such as Zoom meetings or phone calls — can still take place, this extension changes the game for prospective athletes and coaches.
“My 2021 high school kids, what they have had to do is visit college campuses but not meet with the coaches in person, and they do not get to meet the team,” Dreyer said. “Three of my juniors have committed to schools without being face-to-face with the coaches … So, there are ways to do it, and it is being done, it’s just not ideal.”
On the other end of recruiting conversations, coaches are also attempting to make the process as seamless as possible despite major setbacks.
With the dead period in place, the lack of in-person visits has been a major source of frustration for Steve Gladstone, the Yale heavyweight crew team head coach.
“The critical piece is that [recruits] get a sense of what it would be like to be a student at Yale and an oarsman, of course,” Gladstone said. “I think one of our significant advantages is the energy of our squad. Anybody that comes down on a recruiting visit and watches one of our practices, it’s going to mark them. We can have lots of discussions and Zoom calls and so on, but for them to actually have a palpable sense or feel for our squad is eliminated.”
Gladstone said he relies heavily on his crew to provide feedback on prospective athletes, given that the presentation recruits put on in front of coaches disappears when interacting with the team. Interaction with current squad members, which helps determine which prospective athletes might get a spot, is now gone.
Claudia Chang, a swim recruit for the class of 2025, managed to narrowly escape this problem –– she visited and committed to Yale shortly before the dead period was implemented.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to make my decision and be on campus before this whole pandemic,” Chang said. “Seeing how the team works and the team environment was super important to me. I had some friends who didn’t get a chance to visit before COVID. They have visited campus and gotten the chance to meet with a few swimmers, but I think they are definitely disappointed that they didn’t get a chance to go on an official and meet the whole team.”
“Anybody that comes down on a recruiting visit and watches one of our practices, it’s going to mark them. We can have lots of discussions and Zoom calls and so on, but for them to actually have a palpable sense or feel for our squad is eliminated.”
—Steve Gladstone, head coach of the Yale heavyweight crew team
A LACK OF VISIBILITY
In addition to the ban on in-person visits, the disappearance of high school sporting events across the country also makes the recruiting process more difficult.
Student-athletes who participate in sports such as track, swimming and rowing often rely on personal records or times to secure support from a coach. Without the opportunity to achieve those goals, getting recruited is challenging. Similarly, without games or matches, athletes have fewer opportunities to showcase their skills — they may have a shorter highlight reel or worse statistics to present to a recruiter.
For a swimmer like Alex Deng, who committed to Yale for the class of 2025 in August, the lack of swim meets abruptly halted his recruiting journey last March. Without the opportunity to record personal bests, it was difficult for the prospective student-athlete to demonstrate that he deserved a spot at Yale.
“Everything was running pretty smoothly up until COVID hit, and that’s when things started really slowing down for me because there were no meets, all swimming was at a halt and coaches had to focus on their own swimmers,” Deng said. “It went kind of 100 to zero pretty quick for me … I was very anxious about it.”
As the future of both high school and college athletics is unclear, coaches said they are forced to rely on old results or videos. Selecting athletes becomes much more of a gamble.
Geographic disparities also present an unforeseen complication in recruitment. As states make their own decisions on whether to allow athletic events, high school athletes from high-risk areas are faced with an additional burden.
The Minnesota Department of Health allowed athletic activities to resume on June 24 for outdoor sports and June 1 for indoor sports. On the other hand, the California Interscholastic Federation announced on July 20 that the start of the high school sports season will be delayed until December or January.
Chang noted this disparity in opportunities for athletes in various states and said it could affect coaches’ ability to assess one’s performance — especially for sports that tend to recruit later, such as swimming.
“I definitely think it’s a hard situation because every state is so different, so some swimmers have had the opportunities to swim at meets and get their best times and others haven’t,” Chang said. “I think it could definitely help some swimmers and hurt others, but hopefully the college coaches would be able to do a pretty good job of using their experience to predict how an athlete will do in college.”
ACADEMIC TESTING CHANGES
As colleges adapt their general admissions procedures to the ongoing pandemic, prospective student-athletes are also forced to navigate an environment with changing academic requirements.
Due to potential COVID exposure during ACT and SAT testing, the NCAA and the Ivy League have both relieved student-athletes of the requirement for a standardized testing score. All Ivy League institutions have also released individual statements that they do not require any student, athlete or not, to submit a standardized testing score.
“Like all applicants, prospective student-athletes are encouraged, but not required to submit the results of any standardized tests they have taken to date,” the Ivy League announced on its website. “Full consideration will be given to all applicants, regardless of whether they have the opportunity to take a standardized test.”
Though Chang achieved a high enough score on her standardized test before COVID struck, her peers have experienced trouble when scheduling tests. She added that the fact that many college applications are test-optional does not change much, given that many of her peers are still planning on somehow finding a time and place to take it.
Dreyer also reasoned why many high school athletes are still trying to secure a score.
“A lot of kids didn’t have the score they needed … but a great score could definitely tip the scales in your favor and help if your transcript wasn’t super strong,” Dreyer said.
EFFECTS ON VARSITY PROGRAMS
On top of challenges with recruitment, the number of incoming first-year athletes taking gap years makes the future of Yale athletics more unpredictable.
Historically, when a first-year student-athlete takes a gap year, they end up stripping an unsuspecting potential recruit of a spot. Every varsity program at Yale has a limited number of spots for recruits in a given class.
Jack Stuzin ’24, a defenseman for the Yale men’s lacrosse team, told the News that he decided against a gap year partly for this reason.
“I was close to taking a gap year,” Stuzin said. “But I didn’t want to put anybody in the position in the grade below me where I was taking up a recruiting spot because I know if I were in that situation I would be pretty bummed about it.”
Despite the recruiting policy, Stuzin said his coaches and athletics staff did not encourage or discourage him to take a gap year. Both Gladstone and head volleyball coach Erin Appleman said they feel that the decision to take time away from Yale is a personal one.
When asked about this policy, the Yale Athletics Compliance Office deferred responsibility for admissions decisions of student-athletes to the Admissions Office. The Compliance Office is comprised of two staff members, Jason Strong and Katie Tortorici, who help Yale athletic affiliates adhere to NCAA, Ivy League and Yale rules.
“The athletic department works closely with the Office of Admission each year regarding its support of prospective student-athletes,” a representative from the Compliance Office wrote in an email to the News. “All admissions decisions reside within the Office of Admission.”
The Compliance Office also added that Yale does not require first years, including student-athletes, to reapply for admissions even if they are taking a gap year.
Though Gladstone was under the impression that first years taking the year off would result in fewer recruiting spots for the collegiate class of 2025, both Gladstone and Dreyer emphasized that change is always imminent and nothing is certain.
“I think at this time with all things, they’re in flux. And it’s not because people are incompetent in the leadership positions, but there are so many moving parts that they can’t give us an exact figure.”
—Steve Gladstone, head coach of the Yale heavyweight crew team
“I think at this time with all things, they’re in flux,” Gladstone said. “And it’s not because people are incompetent in the leadership positions, but there are so many moving parts that they can’t give us an exact figure.”
Dreyer added that each school and conference is different, and the NCAA has been making unprecedented changes to adapt to the ongoing pandemic.
When the News inquired about student-athletes’ plans, the Yale athletic department declined to comment on individual students’ decisions.
“We cannot comment on student-athletes’ decisions on leaves or deferrals and the numbers that have or have not done so due to several HIPPA and NCAA standards,” Associate Athletic Director Mike Gambardella said in an email to the News.
With athletes taking time off, team size will also likely change, potentially resulting in drastic roster imbalances. Gladstone predicted that his team will grow in the coming years. But in three years, depending on how many of his incoming first-years take time off, he said he might have a smaller senior class.
Gladstone also expects bigger schools to have an enormous advantage over the Ivies if there were to be a competitive season this spring.
Many rowers at other Ivy Leagues, such as Harvard, are following the trend and taking time off, according to Gladstone. Because there will be fewer rowers on both teams, the playing field might be more level with the rival Crimson than with the likes of the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley — two strong heavyweight rowing competitors.
While Yale’s Athletic Department did not comment on how students taking a leave of absence might affect team size, Princeton’s Director of Athletics Mollie Marcoux Samaan said that her department is working with its admission office to manage roster sizes and support opportunities for recruits.
“Maintaining manageable roster sizes in each class year is always very important, as we are focused on providing a highly meaningful experience for all of our student-athletes,” Marcoux Samaan wrote in an email to the News. “As our coaches have navigated the current challenges, I am proud of how they have continuously put the individual needs of each student-athlete front and center.”
Moreover, the future of these recruits rely on collegiate athletes’ plans to either defer or enroll because some specialty positions are only recruited every other year. When a talented player takes a leave of absence, they will likely be encouraged to utilize their year of extra eligibility. But this also means that this position will not be needed on the team for at least another season.
One of Dreyer’s clients is a volleyball setter in the high school class of 2022. Under normal circumstances, a volleyball coach would recruit a setter every two years. However, since a current setter may have the option to stay another year, that position may no longer be needed for the college class of 2026.
“It’s important to know if they need one or not, and [the recruit] is kind of in a tough situation because they don’t know,” Dreyer said. “Are they going to need my position, or are they going to keep a senior an extra year that’s my position and not need me?”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The athletics community at large remains unsure of what the next few months, possibly years, hold.
Still, although the future remains speculative, the head coach of the Yale volleyball team, Erin Appleman, said she is focused on the situation at hand.
“There are student-athletes on campus, there are student-athletes in New Haven, there are student-athletes at home, there are student-athletes that are taking a leave of absence, and it’s honestly getting a little confusing to keep track of what category everyone is in.”
—Erin Appleman, head coach of the Yale volleyball team
“There are student-athletes on campus, there are student-athletes in New Haven, there are student-athletes at home, there are student-athletes that are taking a leave of absence, and it’s honestly getting a little confusing to keep track of what category everyone is in,” Appleman said. “We don’t really know everything about admissions at this point in time. We’re excited about starting whatever part of the season we can start.”
Many athletes interviewed by the News also remain optimistic. Stuzin, a first-year on the men’s lacrosse team, acknowledged his coaches and upperclassmen teammates’ efforts to keep things running smoothly and the team in shape.
“I think with us it’s always work hard really no matter who’s watching, and the older guys have done an unbelievable job of getting first-years acclimated,” Stuzin said. “Unbelievable job is an understatement. We’re not [in New Haven] right now, or at least some of us aren’t there right now, but they are making a team atmosphere … Once we are finally together it’s going to be a pretty seamless transition.”
For those who are enrolled in New Haven, the Ivy League has introduced a three-phased approach for return to play, which will progress depending on public health conditions. The plan begins with individual and small group workouts and will ramp up to larger group practices.
For now, coaches and athletes are waiting to see the outcome of phase one, which will commence following this week’s medical examinations of the student-athletes. Phase one is run by the strength and conditioning program, not by the sport’s individual head coaches.
Phase two and three will be rolled out as conditions permit.
“The policies and procedures put forth are designed to welcome our Bulldogs back to campus and put them in position to succeed while keeping health and safety at the forefront,” Athletic Director Vicky Chun wrote to the News. “There will be more challenges ahead but we will face them head on; just as we have done in the past.”
Chun also expressed gratitude for the Yale administration’s meticulous planning for return to campus and commitment to the wellbeing of Yale’s student-athletes.
For now, coaches will have to navigate the tricky, ever-changing recruiting landscape in order to prepare for the competitive seasons of the future.
“You don’t really know what’s happening with the scholarship schools, what’s happening around the conference,” Appleman said. “You just try and make good connections with prospective student-athletes … and see if they can find the same love as we all have for Yale University.”
(Yale Daily News)