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Recruiting during COVID-19: a novel test for Carleton coaches

Recruiting student athletes to Carleton has been a major challenge for varsity athletic teams throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Traditionally, Carleton’s athletic programs host prospects from across the nation during the fall and winter months, when recruits have the opportunity to explore campus, attend classes and spend a night with their potential future teammates.

This year, however, due to campus health guidelines, such visits are rare, and when they do occur, coaches and players must refrain from meeting directly with recruits and their families on campus. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, recruits are allowed to visit campus, but they must avoid contact with others, and are encouraged to refrain from entering buildings. As the November 15 Early Decision 1 deadline rapidly approaches, teams are doing their best to fill roster spots with quality talent. 

With opportunities for in-person recruiting sapped, coaches have had to get crafty with how they navigate virtual recruiting and Carleton’s COVID-19 health guidelines. 

“To make up for the lack of in-person visits, we have done quite a bit via Zoom,” said Swim Coach Andy Clark, “including virtual tours hosted by current team members, virtual Q&A panels and a virtual ‘game night.’ We’re hoping these experiences can have a positive impact on our recruits in terms of how Carleton and our team would be a great fit for them, but as good as the virtual experiences can be, they don’t measure up to connecting with our recruits in person,” Clark added. 

Similarly, the women’s soccer team has shifted its recruiting efforts to a virtual setting. “We touch base with our recruits on the phone and via zoom, as well as outdoors with masks on in downtown Northfield when possible,” added Women’s Soccer Coach Jessica Mueller, explaining how coaches are allowed to meet with recruits in downtown Northfield while maintaining social distance. From there, coaches can provide directions to recruits and their families for an outdoor walking tour of campus. 

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing faculty members who have stepped up and conducted calls and Zoom meetings with our recruits to speak more about the academic side of the college,”  added Mueller. “In my opinion, our faculty are a huge component of what makes Carleton special, and the experience in the classroom is everything. Still being able to showcase that to our recruits has been a game-changer for us.” 

Carleton’s exceptional professors are undoubtedly one of the college’s biggest recruiting draws. However, small discussion-based classes don’t translate as well to a virtual setting as large lectures do, which may put Carleton at a slight recruiting disadvantage when compared to larger universities that are less affected by the shift to online learning. Traditionally, one of Carleton’s main selling points to recruits is the accessibility and quality of its professors, and recruits almost always leave impressed after sitting in on a class or lecture during a recruiting visit. 

“I accepted my coaching position at Carleton because of the academic reputation for undergraduate teaching,” said Women’s Cross Country Coach Donna Ricks. “Our professors are among the best in the country, and for recruits to no longer have the opportunity to observe our professors directly in their element, to meet with them after a class, or to see the inside of our academic buildings and athletic facilities, has undoubtedly hurt our recruiting efforts. Not many students are going to attend a college sight unseen. They want to feel the vibe in person to get a sense of whether or not Carleton is the place they would like to spend their next four years.” 

Ricks relayed her frustration with the inability to connect with recruits in-person. “Families are cautious about flying out to Carleton, and our location in the Midwest makes it difficult to drive out for a weekend visit,” she mentioned. “And even when a recruit and their family decides to drive out, they can no longer spend the night with a student in the dorms, eat a meal in the cafeteria, study in the library for an evening vor make cookies with future teammates at the Dacie Moses House.” 

In spite of Ricks’ understanding of the necessity for strict health guidelines, she nevertheless expressed concern. “Of course I’m concerned for the future, not just for our team, but for education overall.”

A common theme expressed by multiple coaches is that recruits have changed what they’re looking for in their college experiences. Unfortunately, some of these shifts in attitudes don’t fit well with an expensive residential liberal arts college like Carleton. Swim Coach Andy Clark addressed these changes:

“There are so many new things our recruits are now considering which weren’t necessarily there before the pandemic, like concerns over college costs in an economy where job security is less certain, questions of personal safety and wellness in and the prospect of remote learning are all things recruits have to deal with in this day and age.” Clark also expressed the increased desire among athletes to choose a school in close proximity to home should public health issues worsen again in the future.

Carleton has put in place some of the most stringent – and effective – COVID-19 safety measures in the country. While this is better for the health of its students and faculty (competitor schools such University of Wisconsin La Crosse are sporting up to 35% positivity rates), schools with laxer restrictions now enjoy a leg up in athletic recruiting. 

Strict restrictions mean that coaches are limited in their ability to hit the road and recruit. While the internet may boast player statistics and film of high school competition, a coach’s in-person eye for talent is an essential part of the recruiting process. Coaches need to watch competitions to understand how a certain player will fit into their team. Unfortunately, attending high school athletic events in person has proven to be a risky endeavor during the pandemic. 

“Within the MIAC, many schools conducted face-to-face campus visits all summer long, and their coaches are now out at high school meets recruiting,” said Men’s Cross Country Coach Dave Ricks. “I considered going to a high school sectional meet, but decided against it because I thought that I should play by the same rules that our student body is playing by.”

Thankfully, the NCAA has been nimble in its response to the pandemic by lifting restrictions so that coaches may effectively adopt new recruiting strategies. Prior to the pandemic, video conferencing was limited to independent meetings between a single player and coach. To accommodate recruiting efforts, the NCAA is allowing for video interaction between coaches and recruits to accommodate multiple prospects at a single time. 

“This has been a life-saver for us,” said Head Football Coach Tom Journell. “As you know, it’s hard to visit Carleton for most people during normal times. Now all of a sudden we’ve had over 750 virtual visitors since May, which has really allowed us to narrow our focus and recruit certain players earlier on in the recruiting process than in previous years.” 

With seven sought after football recruits already committing Early Decision I to Carleton, Journell and his staff are optimistic about the incoming recruiting class that is beginning to form before their own eyes. Ironically, the football program has enjoyed a lot of success this recruiting year with thanks to new opportunities made possible via Zoom. Throughout the summer and fall, coaches and players hosted weekly recruiting sessions on zoom with upwards of 20 recruits per session.

Thanks to aerial drone footage of campus attractions such as Willis Hall, Laird Stadium and Goodsell Observatory, the team has managed to put together an attractive virtual presentation to recruits, who only need to log on to their computer to feel like they are on campus and interact with current players.

“We’ve been getting an amazing turnout at our new virtual information sessions, which were not an option prior to COVID-19. It’s been really exciting to see our program connect with student athletes all over the country and the world,” said Assistant Football coach Brian Erickson. 

Overall, Carleton coaches remain relatively optimistic about recruiting prospects for future seasons. After all, Carleton competes with a relatively small group of schools for the small fraction of students smart enough to gain admission, athletic enough to compete at the Division III level and strange enough to want to come here at all. While Carleton’s appeal may not always shine as bright on Zoom, Carleton’s innovative coaches and the school’s academic reputation are strong enough to support a bright athletic future.

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