BY OLIVIA GYAPONG DEC. 15, 2020
For some successful student athletes, continuing to play their sport in a college they’ve committed to validates years of hard work and sacrifice. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has slightly upset standard recruiting procedures and has affected where members of the class of 2021 ended up committing to.
Jonik Surprenant, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Maryland who committed to swim at Johns Hopkins University, equates the college athletics recruitment process to speed dating.
“Both you and the coach start with a wide variety of options,” Surprenant said. “You start winding up your bracket [and say], ’What do I want, what do I want to major in, what schools have this major?’ And then you talk to coaches, you figure out, ’Is this school a good fit for me or not?’ And then you kind of narrow it down to your top five, then you take your visits—except that got all messed up.”
Normally, this recruitment process officially begins the summer before student athletes’ junior years, when coaches begin contacting prospective recruits. Then, an arduous matching process between athletes and coaches begins, featuring numerous emails, calls and, in later stages, fly-ins to physically tour campus facilities. Yet, as Surprenant alluded to, COVID-19 has spelled an end to in-person visits. Madeleine Kemper, who attends Lincoln High School in South Dakota and will be playing softball for Macalester College, was one of the athletes affected by such a shift.
“A lot of my meetings with coaches were over a phone call instead of in-person,” she said. “Also, when I wanted to tour campus and things like that, I couldn’t go into a lot of the buildings, and I had to do virtual tours of the facilities.”
According to Jane Umhofer, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Maryland and a University of Illinois swim recruit, the lack of in-person visits has made committing far more difficult. As such, many of her teammates felt pressured to commit to a school they had already visited instead of risking commitment to a school they had never seen in-person. “People were committing the second [the pandemic] happened,” Umhofer said. “Some people did it so fast.”
Unlike Umhofer’s teammates, senior Michael Champagne, a soccer player at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, has not let the uncertainty of COVID-19 pressure him into making a commitment. “With all these unknowns you think settling might be the best option, given how unpredictable the year has been,” he said. “But at the same time, you feel you can do better as an athlete and student, so you have to decline very tempting opportunities in hopes that something better will happen.
Students are not alone in the changes; coaches have to similarly gamble on athletes they haven’t met and trained with. While some athletes can prove merit through scores and statistics alone, prospective recruits relying on large meets and major tournaments to play in front of coaches have lost out on their last opportunities to prove their worth.
“Over the summer, [coaches] couldn’t go see players play or see if they had gotten better since the last time they sent videos,” said Jack Palmer, a senior at St. Mark’s School of Texas and a Santa Clara University water polo recruit. “It made things just a little more complicated and both a little slower and a little faster because coaches were more willing to jump on the players they knew were really good. But if you didn’t have all that film, they weren’t super hasty to talk to you. I really think that if the state championship last year happened and if the Junior Olympics had happened, I would have had more to show to coaches.”
Palmer is not alone in sharing his concerns. Indeed, this year’s sophomores and juniors will be especially hurt by the pandemic.
“I know for some of the younger athletes and some of the people less far along in their recruiting process, if they had done well [in our last big meet], that could have totally changed the schools they [are] looking at,” Umohfer said.
Even though the majority of athletes were not able to visit schools or connect with coaches in-person, developing relationships with coaches and future teammates has been facilitated by modern technology.
Matthew Salter, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School who will be playing golf at York College next fall, regularly emails, calls and texts his coach, assistant coach and teammates. Surprenant, Salter’s classmate, plays video games with some of his future teammates.
Equally important to athletes in picking out schools are the safety precautions being implemented. Tristen Cook, a high school swimmer from Grant High School in Oregon, has not been able to decide where he will go to school yet because he wants to see what schools’ COVID-19 policies will be. “I’m not going to go to the school that isn’t handling this in a smart way,” he said.
Overall, despite the pandemic, many seniors are determined to surmount challenges, commit to a college and continue their athletic careers.
“I think having something that I’m that passionate about to focus on in college will keep me motivated in school and keep me focused,” Palmer said. “Being able to keep being competitive, as I have been the past four years, and take that competitive nature to another level in a D1 sport is just something that was very appealing to me.”