While the coronavirus pandemic is causing sports organizations everywhere to put their seasons on hold, planning for the future continues at Cal Poly. Recruitment remains a priority during this time as coaches and staff continue to adjust to a fully virtual format.
Summer basketball tournaments usually conducted throughout June and July provide coaches an opportunity to see players in action and evaluate how they would perform at the collegiate level. With those tournaments postponed and possibly facing cancellations in light of the pandemic, recruitment staffs are being forced to explore new avenues within the process.
Watching film gives coaches an idea of a player’s ability, although it doesn’t always present the whole picture. There remains certain intangibles that coaches cannot measure through a screen, adding to an already difficult situation when it comes to recruiting new athletes.
“When you’re building a team, the first thing you want to build around is not just their athletic ability, but their character,” head coach John Smith said. “You can pick up on certain things: how they respond to adversity, how they respond to bad calls, how they respond to coaching… you can pick up on it easier when you’re twenty feet away as opposed to on a TV screen.”
Creating a team culture built on character and a strong mentality is a sentiment Smith has echoed throughout his debut season with the Mustangs. While it may be awhile before he can meet his top recruits in person, the staff are still working hard to identify players with the type of attitude and character vital to Smith’s coaching philosophy.
Smith and his staff, like many others during this time, have utilized Zoom to keep in contact with the team and meet with prospective players. However, they recognize that it cannot fully replicate the experience of bringing potential recruits to San Luis Obispo to show them the program first-hand.
“The ability not to have them on campus, it hurts in a negative way,” Smith said.
Smith said he is hoping to strengthen his team in the summer after coming off his debut season with Cal Poly, which saw the Mustangs finish with a better overall record and conference record compared to the 2018-19 season.
Women’s Basketball head coach Faith Mimnaugh discussed similar concerns regarding the inability to bring recruits on campus, saying it is not only beneficial for the team and coaching staff to observe how a prospective player fits into the program, but for the individual as well.
“I think it’s critical for the students to be able to have that opportunity,” Mimnaugh said. “For us, we’ve been pretty successful in identifying the right people that would fit well with our program. But to ease the prospect’s mind, I think it’s critical for them to have that opportunity.”
Observing how an incoming player interacts with the team and staff is a vital component of the evaluation process. There is hope this could still be possible toward the end of the summer in order to avoid players committing to the team without getting a chance to experience the school in its entirety.
“Our preference is that they get an opportunity to meet people,” Mimnaugh said. “We’re holding out hope that potentially by the end of the summer restrictions are lifted and students can take visits on campus. If our students are not here, that seems like an incomplete evaluation for those prospects.”
The women’s basketball team has not had any new players commit as of now, although the recruitment process is still in its early stages. The team said they are keeping in close contact through weekly virtual meetings as many of the players did not remain in San Luis Obispo for the remainder of the academic year.
Cal Poly Men’s Soccer is facing different challenges during the pandemic as soccer programs recruit almost a full year in advance. While the team is still facing the same challenges as others in terms of recruitment, the recruits coming in for the 2020-21 season are already committed. The men’s soccer team has used this environment as a learning opportunity with the conversion to a virtual format, giving the program new ideas that they otherwise wouldn’t consider.
“I’ve asked [the incoming recruits] to put together a three to five minute videotape, and I’ve been sending those videotapes out to all of our current players and to all of our recruits so that the recruits get to know each other and the incoming freshmen and transfers get to present themselves to our entire current roster,” head coach Steve Sampson said.
“To be honest, I would never have done that prior to this coronavirus situation, but I think going forward it’s a magnificent way of introducing players to each other,” Sampson said.
The current pandemic has also given the program a chance to get a head start on building a community atmosphere amongst the incoming recruits. Without the chance for the coaching staff to go to the players or have them come to campus, there has never been a better chance to bring them all together at once, according to Sampson.
“One of the things I’m going to be doing in the next couple of weeks is having a Zoom call with all the parents and all the [incoming] players simultaneously, which we’ve never done before prior to a season,” Sampson said. “I would have never thought to have brought all the parents together on a Zoom call prior to the coronavirus issue.”
While Sampson has found a positive way to connect his team amid the age of coronavirus, he also pointed to the many problems underlying the current recruitment process.
Before travel restrictions were put in place, the coaching staff would often travel to games and potential recruit’s hometowns to meet in person. Since that opportunity has been put on hold, Sampson said the responsibility of contacting coaches and furthering careers is placed solely on the shoulders of the athletes.
“Now, it’s all on them,” Sampson said.
It is still unknown whether collegiate sports will make a return in Fall of 2020. But when sports do return, many athletic departments such as Cal Poly’s may have new strategies when it comes time to recruit.
“I think this is going to be a part of the new normal,” Sampson said.