•  

Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 28, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

Sports

Coaches cope with recruiting challenges amid pandemic

When rising sophomore field hockey player Elizabeth Pillow logged onto Zoom on April 5, it was not for a class lecture. Instead, Pillow helped to lead a conversation alongside teammates, program alumni and her coaches to give recruits a feel for Ithaca College from a distance.

The college’s campus was closed until the end of the academic year because of the coronavirus outbreak, so high school student-athletes were unable to visit the campus or meet current team members in person. Many state high school athletic governing bodies across the country canceled the spring sports season, and summer and fall seasons are still in question. While many coaches have already finalized their recruiting classes for the 2020–21 academic year, the impacts of the pandemic may be felt for several seasons to come.

The field hockey team planned to host an annual overnight spring prospect clinic in April for current high school juniors to experience the college’s campus, meet current athletes on the team and play alongside other high school athletes in front of the team’s coaches. However, it was canceled because of the campus closure. 

In lieu of an in-person event, head coach Kaitlyn Wahila organized a virtual Junior Day via Zoom for recruits to hear about what the college has to offer and experience the culture of the field hockey team. Pillow, a panelist, said that the event went better than she expected but that she could not imagine going through the recruiting process without taking campus and overnight visits.

“When I did my overnight, I realized how amazing the facilities are at school, and I just absolutely fell in love with the team,” Pillow said. “It was really the deciding factor for me, but obviously now that’s not an option.”

Karrie Moore, women’s lacrosse head coach, is facing a different problem. While Wahila was able to scout many of the field hockey team’s recruits during the fall season, the spring lacrosse season has been canceled for high school students across the country. 

Moore said that there are some high school athletes who are not initially up to the program’s standards but are able to significantly improve before their senior year. For this reason, she said she relies on the summer club lacrosse season to watch potential recruits compete and observe their development. While most major summer tournaments have not been canceled yet, many — including the champions cup in Midlothian, Virginia, one of the largest tournaments that the college recruited at last year — have been postponed until later in the summer. 

Moore said the high school graduating Class of 2021 will be the most impacted by the pandemic in terms of recruiting.

“I think the hard thing for a lot of people is your junior year is pretty defining, and there’s a ton of personal growth,” she said. “You kind of get your footing. You’re at a place where you know what’s going on and what is expected, so you’re in a place where you’re ready to step into more of a leadership role.”

Incoming college freshmen are also impacted by cancellations. Many high school athletes who compete in spring sports will be entering their first college season without having competed for at least a year. Moore said she is concerned about the lack of organized competitions, but she hopes recruits take advantage of this time to sharpen their skills.

“On the one hand, you could say, ‘Oh, geez, we all need to be really worried that everybody’s going to come in and be at a lower skill level,’ but, on the other hand, maybe this is an opportunity for everybody to work on their individual skill and come in, and now we’ll only have to work on team concepts,” Moore said.

Wahila said she has made a significant effort to stay in touch with her team’s incoming freshmen and communicate with them as plans change. She said she meets with every incoming athlete on Zoom every other week to ensure that she is still able to connect one-on-one with them.

Incoming freshman field hockey player Sarah DeVito said she feels these meetings did just that.

“For me, meeting with the coaches was a gamechanger,” DeVito said. “Of course, I was upset that I couldn’t come to campus this spring, but I feel that despite this I’ve been able to connect with my fellow incoming freshmen and the field hockey staff in the same way over Zoom. … I’m grateful to know my team already has my back before I’ve even been on campus.”

While there has been little communication from the college about whether fall sports will be able to compete in their official seasons, Susan Bassett, associate vice president and director of the Office of Intercollegiate Athletics, said in a message to student-athletes that the athletics office is working with the Liberty League, the NCAA and New York state guidelines to determine the best plan for athletic participation in the fall. The college will not begin the 2020–21 academic year until Oct. 5, and most fall sports were scheduled to begin their seasons in late August or early September. 

With so many unknown circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic, many incoming freshmen have considered taking a gap year rather than starting college right in the fall. Bassett said that according to weekly updates about recruiting she gets from coaches, the number of incoming student-athletes has not fluctuated greatly.

“People have been very positive about the Oct. 5 announcement because they’re excited [Ithaca College] has a plan to bring people back to campus,” Basset said. “I’ve asked coaches for weekly updates on their recruiting, and it’s been very, very strong. In fact, quite close to what we normally get.” 

Wahila said she is focused on trying to keep things as normal as possible for her recruits.

“I feel like the general consensus amongst these kids right now is kind of one day at a time,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is just assure everybody that our recruiting timeline is not going to change, and, if there are recruiting events this summer, we’re going to do our best to see those kids play.”

Emily Adams can be reached at eadams3@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @eaadams6