“We would do campus visits via Zoom and take the phone around and show them how beautiful Cal Poly is,” head coach John Smith said.
Despite not having a full grasp of what Cal Poly was, Esparza and Dhal both said they didn’t worry about how they would fit in at Cal Poly or on the team.
“I was fully confident and loved the coaching staff and the academics,” Esparza said. “My unofficial visit went well and I fell in love with the campus.”
Esparza is a 6-foot-2-inch guard from Whittier, California who attended Sonora High School. He was able to take what is known as an unofficial visit, which is when a player visits the campus but has to pay for his expenses.
While he wasn’t able to officially visit Cal Poly, Esparza’s enthusiasm about the coaching staff and their special connection with the players helped sway him to commit.
“I love the coaching staff,” Esparza said. “That was probably the biggest reason why I came. Coach Smith is incredible; not many colleges have a staff as good as Cal Poly does. The head coach tries to develop a relationship with each player.”
Meanwhile, Dhal wasn’t able to take an unofficial visit. Instead, his first taste of Cal Poly was through a virtual tour, like many of the first-years at Cal Poly. The only person he met face to face before committing to the school was the coach who recruited him, Justin Downer.
He pointed out that, along with doing his research, knowing coach Downer since his junior year of high school gave him “enough confidence to commit.”
Cal Poly offered Dhal a scholarship early in his junior year of high school, before the pandemic. Dhal is a 6-foot-11-inch center who was born in Rumbek, South Sudan. He attended Phoenix Prep in Arizona.
When asked what drew him to Cal Poly, Dhal said it was the atmosphere within the program.
“It’s more than basketball here at Cal Poly,” Dhal said. “It’s like a family and basketball second. I like that. You go to where people welcome you as a family.”
While COVID-19 had a large impact on the players, the pandemic also made the recruiting process more difficult and limited what the coaching staff could do. They were unable to travel and watch players play or bring in recruits for unofficial or official visits until late in the process.
“COVID has affected recruiting on a larger scale because it puts everyone in a logjam and some kids weren’t able to be seen by us,” Smith said. “Lots of kids went to prep school and a lot of [junior college] kids didn’t get out.”
Cal Poly was still able to add many new players. Eight of the 16 players on the roster are in their first years with the Mustangs. The coaching staff was able to see Esparza and Dhal play in AAU and high school games and offer them scholarships before the pandemic hit.
In April, the NCAA expanded their one-time transfer exception to allow first-time transfers to play right away instead of sitting out a season. This new rule led to an unprecedented amount of Division I basketball players entering the transfer portal. According to the sports business website Sportico.com, in Division I basketball alone, there were 1,464 transfers, which is roughly 500 more than in 2020.
Additionally, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for all athletes who had a season impacted by COVID-19.
Dhal said that the new “COVID year” of extra eligibility and the new transfer rules did affect his recruiting process.
“I was talking to seven or eight schools and when COVID started a lot was going on,” Dhal said. “[College] seniors got their year back. Transfers don’t have to sit out. Right there, some schools pulled away because they never saw me play.”
Cal Poly was on the other side of the trend Dhal experienced. According to Coach Smith, the program only signed “two high school kids who we already [saw] before COVID-19 to scholarships.”
In addition, the lack of official visits and ability to see high schoolers play due to COVID-19 led to Cal Poly missing out on some “east coast guys because they couldn’t come to campus.”
To supplement the roster, Cal Poly brought in four transfer students. One of these transfers was third-year forward Trevon Taylor. Cal Poly is Taylor’s third school, and he said transferring this time around was a lot more complicated.
“[Transfering] was different because the transfer portal was so saturated due to the one-time transfer waivers,” Taylor said. “It was harder to get a good fit with schools having such good options. They were picky on who they wanted to recruit.”
Although it was tough to figure out where he wanted to go, Taylor said that he was “sold” after a conversation with Coach Smith.
“Coach Smith is definitely one of those coaches who tries to make you the best man you can be even before you step on the court,” Taylor said. “He does a great job setting that tone of family because he really cares about you.
He also felt he had the opportunity to become more of a leader at Cal Poly.
“Something I wanted to work on myself was being a leader, and being more of a voice rather than leading by example like I usually do,” Smith said.
To put a team together, Smith compared it to “putting a puzzle together.” The staff identified they needed more guard and forward depth and veteran leadership.
At the same time, Smith pointed out how recruiting changed to resemble an interview through Zoom. Instead of having official visits where recruits can take in the sites of San Luis Obispo, Coach Smith was showing recruits videos of Cal Poly through his phone.
For Taylor, what differentiated Cal Poly from other schools was the fact that Coach Smith and the rest of the coaching staff were the ones that cared about the players the most.
“Even when I was getting recruited, there’s usually two different types of coaches: coaches who care about wins and do whatever to get a win, and the other who actually cares about the player and making them into a young man,” Taylor said.