The virtual recruits
Nate Kaiser (TheLorian)
The entire world was shocked by the COVID-19 pandemic as it took hold last spring. Members of the sports community were left wondering what the future of athletic competitions might look like. The NBA was the first domino to drop on March 11 of last year after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive. The next dominoes fell rapidly as collegiate and professional sports leagues were shut down.
While a lot of the sports we love have slowly returned with few to no fans in attendance, one thing that never really stopped was the wheel of college recruiting. Throughout the course of the summer and fall, coaches have had to redesign, rebuild, and re approach the way they recruit future players. At the division three level, the coaches at Loras faced plenty of hurdles and roadblocks during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown.
“None of the guys could come to campus because of the shutdowns,” head football coach Steve Helminiak said. “Every day was an unknown, especially as a coaching staff. We couldn’t be in the offices – we were forced off campus.”
With the lockdown starting in spring of last year, assistant wrestling coach Trevor Kittleson knew the normal summer recruiting would be impacted as well. “Usually, we would start making a list [of juniors we really liked], and then bring in 20 of them- get them to come on visits,” said Kittleson.
For him, the most important part is being able to go out and actually spend time with the kids in-person. “We go to see them as much as we can, be in person at the tournaments, but not being able to do that was a big hurdle,” Kittleson said.
Basketball coaches knew their summer recruiting mainstays would be affected as well. “We knew all AAU events we recruit at in the summer were being cancelled,” assistant basketball coach Gabe Miller said. “Everything was going virtual, summer events that we rely on had never been streamed before, it had just never been in our realm of recruiting.”
Not only did it affect the prospect of going out and recruiting, it also prevented athletes from having the chance to visit campus. Campus visits are a fundamental part of the marketing Loras has built to keep athletes choosing to put on a purple and gold uniform year after year.
“We had a proven method to recruit kids on campus (and) we had a pretty high return rate once we got kids here,” said Coach Helminiak. Without the chance to meet with kids on campus, coach Helminiak knew the program had to find an alternative to the large group in-person campus visit.
“We put together a plan to change our campus visits,” Helminiak said. “Compared to other teams we may have 15-30 kids per visit, so we would do three smaller visits per day just to be able to expose kids to the program.”
The shift to be safer and socially distanced forced all the coaches to adjust their regular recruiting process. “We want recruits around our guys as much as possible … to figure out if they are going to be a good fit,” said coach Miller. “We had to implement social distanced intimate player panels and allow the recruits to learn about our program and the culture.”
The recruiting process is the first step in building relationships between coaches and players. Miller emphasized how important it is to keep those relationships moving well after the recruit has visited campus. “We had zoom calls with our guys and phone calls,” Miller said. “We would have our guys write letters, try to keep creating those relationships.”
The one positive about the shift to more virtual recruiting was the chance to stay in touch with recruits over Zoom and Facetime. This allowed for the coaches and the players to keep their face-to-face time more frequent, even if it was through a screen. All of the coaches expressed how important it will be to keep changing as more technology allows for recruiting to become easier and easier.
With several fall sports playing shortened spring seasons more Duhawks’ teams are competing now than in any spring semester prior. Vaccines and warmer weather seem to be reducing the rates of infections in most states making coaches and players hopeful about next fall. And while faculty and students have been, for the most part, successful at adapting to hybrid teaching and testing methods, Loras coaches have successfully adapted many of their methods for recruiting potential players as well.