The coronavirus pandemic has unquestionably and perhaps irreversibly upended the college sports ecosystem. Lacrosse, a spring sport with an active summer recruiting season, is caught in the centrifuge. 

How are college coaches adapting to the disrupted recruiting cycle? How has the traditional timeline changed? And what should rising seniors and juniors do to ensure that opportunities are not lost?

Earlier this week, US Lacrosse assembled a panel of college and club coaches and industry insiders to help provide some clarity in the final installment of its Leadership Panel Series with a webinar entitled, “College Recruiting in the COVID-19 Era.“

Panelists were Jesse Churchward (Next College Student Athlete), John Danowski (Team USA, Duke), Jenny Levy (Team USA, North Carolina) and Theresa Sherry (The Tenacity Project). US Lacrosse Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Matt DaSilva, served as the moderator. 

 

“This is a hard time to be seen because it’s a team sport,” Levy said. “We’re waiting on the opportunity, as coaches, when the COVID starts to clear up and we have a safe solution to playing. We are being pretty patient. Lots of players have sent us video and film from last fall and last summer. The best way to be seen is keep working on yourself. Keep improving on your skills. Everybody should be digging into their personal development at this time. And when the time is right, you will be seen.” 

“The biggest thing is to focus on your personal health and safety,” Danowski said. “Going forward, let’s prepare for fall sports. Maybe you weren’t thinking about being involved in a fall sport, but now you are excited to give it a try. Challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone by playing something else to improve your athleticism. Here’s an opportunity, if you are starting your junior or senior year in high school, to be with your friends and try new experiences. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

High school players are being encouraged to be creative and proactive.

“If you don’t have a ton of great game footage, high-end skills footage will be a good supplement, but you need to make sure you are doing it game speed” said Churchward of NCSA, the official Responsible Recruiting Services Provider for US Lacrosse. “Also, it’s important to development relationships with coaches since they can’t see you play live this summer. Recap the summer in detail for them.”

“The shift in focus could be from being seen to being ready,” Sherry said. “Get bigger, get faster. There’s so much that kids can do to control that. And there are things that you can measure, like your sprint times. We’re empowering the girls to do it on their own and drive the process. Focus on the little things that they can do every day.” 

The NCAA’s potential extension of the dead period for recruiting could alter the approach for college coaches. The landscape is constantly changing, and patience is encouraged.

“This is all unchartered territory. Patience is very difficult because we live in a quick-time society,” Danowski said. “We don’t even know how we are going to practice yet. Can we have contact? Can we be in the locker room? We’ll figure those things out as they come along.”

“There are so many unknowns. Thinking about doing in-home visits and first contacts is really not top-of-mind for us,” Levy said. “There’s such a bigger thing going on with COVID. There’s so many bigger things than the recruiting piece. I just want to re-emphasize working on self-improvement. Read an article a day about what’s going on in the world. Educate yourself. It’s not just a sport focus, it’s a human focus. How we can all come together and become better people?”

The panelists had slightly different messaging for the class of 2021 versus the class of 2022.

“There’s a little more urgency for the 2021s,” Sherry said. “But the process varies school by school, so it’s really about asking the right questions around timeline and about their roster. As schools are figuring things out, it looks like the 2021s are starting to get some answers. There will be some decisions made in July, and there are also kids that will have to wait until the fall to go through the admissions process. But it all continues to evolve. For the 2022s, the advice we are getting from most college coaches is, they will have next summer, so focus on being the person and the player you can become. Focus on being that whole person that coaches want on their roster.”

“You never know in life how things are going to go,” Levy said. “Isn’t this a lesson for everyone to learn? Do well in school. Look for the universities and colleges that fit you as a human being, not just the lacrosse piece. Maybe this is an opportunity to reset our priorities. In women’s lacrosse, there are a lot of lacrosse programs out there. There are a lot of spaces for these players to end up. There are a lot of great places to get a great education and have a great lacrosse experience. There are a lot of opportunities. For the 2022s, it goes back to the old school recruiting. There may not be college coaches recruiting in any sport until the end of 2020. There’s also discussion about pushing back the first date of contact (currently Sept. 1 of a player’s junior year). So my message to the 2022s is that you have to be patient. It’s okay, because everybody is in the same spot. And when it re-opens, everyone will be on the same page.”

Due to the NCAA’s granting of a fifth year of eligibility to all spring college players, roster management is still a work in progress for many coaches.

“The issue is incredibly complex,” Danowski said. “You have to get back to the basics of why you go to college. Number one, it’s to earn your degree. Socially, where do you belong? Do you like a big campus? Do you like being in the city? Then, when you find that right place, does it have a lacrosse program where you fit in? Right now, in Division I, all the rosters are bloated for the men. We’re all talking about rosters in the mid-50s and above. Division 2 and Division 3 are great options. There are great schools with great coaches. In some places, students are better suited. They still get to travel, they still get to compete, and they still get to play the game. And maybe it’s a little bit healthier than it is in some places in Division 1. If football doesn’t happen in the fall, we won’t even be worried about recruiting. There will be no lacrosse at the Division 1 level. They make the money that allows the rest of us to do what we do.” 

“I have heard a lot of my clients talking about taking a PG (post-graduate) year or doing a year of junior college,” Churchward said. “So we talk to them about being creative with their timeline. I tell our young high school players that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. It’s about getting better every single season. Enjoy the summer. You’ve got to recharge your batteries. Play the sport for the right reason. Yes, you want to play at the next level, but you’ve got to enjoy it.”

“There’s an incredible amount of unknown,” Levy said. “What I know for next year, and our team, is that we’ll have a bigger squad size than we’ve ever had. But we’re just not sure how it’s going to play out. We’ve got an incoming class, a current team, and players who now have an extra year of eligibility. Maybe there will be more transferring going on because people are unhappy with a role or an opportunity that they didn’t get. I don’t know if we can answer that right now. The experience on a bigger team might be different than in the past. For example, women’s lacrosse in the ACC, we can travel 32 players. That’s a hard and fast rule. It might be like when I was in college, where you had to look on the coach’s door to see if you made the travel list.” 

“If you’ve created a positive culture, where kids enjoy the program, you might have more guys who choose to return for the extra year,” Danowski said. “We have the potential of eight guys returning, who just three months ago, they were all out. And now they are all in. The logistics of what we do creates a logjam, and its going to trickle downhill.”

At this time, coaches are uncertain if the NCAA will adjust the traditional September 1 timeline that allows contact with a prospect, or will adjust the August recruiting restrictions.

“There is a lot of discussion around keeping the traditional calendar for August,” Levy said. “There’s also the issue of (colleges) now starting early in August, (Aug 10 at UNC), with freshman coming in on August 3. As coaches, we don’t want to be on the road. We haven’t seen our players for six months, and we have a new class also coming in. There’s not a lot of support to open up the calendar for coaches to recruit in August. We want to be with our players. I can’t wait to see my team. Secondly, when I see players, I want to see everybody, not just the players who can afford to travel to play in tournaments in states that are opening.”

Even if recruiting restrictions were extended until the start of the 2021 calendar year, the panelists could not envision offers being made to prospects who have only been evaluated by video and never seen in person.

“There will be a spring 2021 season,” Danowski said. “There will still be places that accept applicants at that point as part of a late admissions piece. So the spring will be important for some students and some programs.”

The panelists noted that the current situation allows players to take control of their own development and future.

“We’re really moving toward individual development and working on the whole person,” Sherry said. “It’s about working to control what kids can control. The mental health piece is far beyond the college recruiting piece.”

“I’m telling people to find small groups and an accountability partner,” Churchward said. “Find a workout partner. Find somebody to shoot on you if you’re a goalie. Find an attackman to do one-on-one with you if you are a d-pole. And find someone who is serious and gung ho to get better. The ownership is now on the athlete to do the work. To do the lonely hours. Focus and worry on what you can control. If you think you’re going to step into a tournament after just doing wall ball, you’re going to have a rude awakening. You have to be ready physically and mentally.”

“For so long, we’ve told them where to be, how to be, and what drills to do,” Levy said. “There’s an opportunity here to learn to be self-directed. To teach yourself and be motivated. That’s such a great life lesson and such a great life skill. Don’t keep looking to somebody else to set the stage for you. You’ve got to trust yourself. That’s a human skill you have to learn.”