The recruiting game

Raising the Bar: PART 2 OF 3

The men’s basketball team were ranked 11th in the country on three occasions this season.
The men’s basketball team were ranked 11th in the country on three occasions this season.
Credit: 
Supplied photo by Changuk Sohn
Canadian Julia Colizza is the captain of the Mercyhurst Lakers.
Canadian Julia Colizza is the captain of the Mercyhurst Lakers.
Credit: 
Supplied

How do Queen’s recruitment practices compare to university athletic programs at Carleton, Harvard and Mercyhurst?

Julia Colizza, captain of the Mercyhurst Lakers women’s hockey team in Erie, Pa., is from Sault Ste. Marie, but never had any intention of going to university in Canada.

When she got a call from Lakers’ head coach Michael Sisti the summer before Grade 12 offering her an athletic scholarship, she didn’t think twice about accepting the offer.

“Especially coming from a family of five kids, that [money] really helped out in that aspect.”

Mercyhurst’s women’s collegiate hockey team is the number-one ranked in the U.S.

Colizza, whose brother Sam is a forward for the Queen’s Golden Gaels, said if she had stayed in Canada, she would likely have enrolled in a nursing program at her community college in Sault St. Marie.

She said the Mercyhurst coaches asked for her tournament schedule after seeing her play at a prospect camp in Toronto the summer before she entered Grade 10.

According to National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) rules, coaches aren’t permitted to contact players until after July 1 of their Grade 11 year.

Colizza was contacted by Dartmouth College and Princeton University, but neither school offered her a scholarship comparable to what Mercyhurst would give her, and she said she didn’t even visit them before deciding to join the Lakers. She signed with the school before January of her senior year.

Sisti said Canada is his best source of recruits.

“Our biggest challenge is drawing top U.S. players.” He said Mercyhurst’s location means the coaches are in competition with approximately 20 other quality hockey schools in the New England area. evaluating potential players as early as three years before they’re eligible. It’s not unusual, he said, to scout prospective players years in advance, especially if the student is highly sought after by other schools. He said high school students are also planning their futures earlier than they used to.

“I think the kids are getting more educated at a younger age, so they’re starting the process a lot earlier.”

The majority of the players on the team in any given year are actively recruited, but Sisti said he’s occasionally surprised by a talented walk-on.

He said the coaches usually prefer to take the time to ensure the player is a good fit for both the athletic and the academic aspects of the school.

“We ask them some tough questions, make sure they know what they’re getting into.”

He said the status of women’s hockey within the school is a big draw for students.

“The thing that’s so unique to Mercyhurst College is that women’s hockey is one of the top three things happening on campus. … What is great to see is a women’s sport taking over the school.”

Harold Parsons, head coach of the Queen’s women’s hockey program, said he generally waits for athletes to contact him because of the relatively small pool of athletes who meet the athletic and the academic requirements for Queen’s hockey.

“If we look at 60 athletes, the top 20 go to the NCAA, the bottom 20 can’t make the team. Of the middle 20, only five have the marks to get in.”

He said the coaches always have to factor Queen’s academic reputation into their recruitment plan.

“It’s something we work around,” he said. “I don’t see it as a problem.”

Queen’s has one of the highest entrance averages of any university in Canada, and student-athletes must meet the same requirements as every other student.

Parsons said the coaches make a concerted effort to recruit locally and have been successful in the past few years. Queen’s has been home to the OUA Rookie of the Year the last two years. This year’s winner, Elizabeth Kench, grew up in Gananoque. Victoria Kaufmann, winner in 2006, comes from Whitby.

He said the atmosphere at Queen’s and in Kingston is something a lot of prospective students, especially those from big cities find appealing. The proximity of student housing to the athletic centre, as well as the construction of the Queen’s Centre also helps coaches sell the school.

“We have a lot to offer with respect to the community at large.”

Recruiting has become ‘a real business’

Drew Love, athletics director at Carleton University in Ottawa, said he expects the addition of a sports administration program will attract student-athletes to the school. The scope of programs the university offers has been a factor in students’ deciding to go elsewhere.

“We have, at time, lost athletes who have correctly chosen to go to a school with their first-choice program.”

Carleton doesn’t have a faculty of physical education or kinesiology, a traditionally popular program among student-athletes.

He said the men’s basketball team targets the top five per cent of graduating high school athletes, but the NCAA is their fiercest competitor. The money available to students in the U.S. is often enough to secure the top Canadian talent.

“It doesn’t make that much difference when you’re talking about players who aren’t really starters on your team but it’s very important when you’re trying to recruit that one special player.”

Queen’s basketball ‘not in the game’ with country’s best

Love meets with basketball coach Dave Smart in the fall to decide who their top recruits will be so they can direct resources toward convincing those players to join the team. He said the team’s reputation for success and Smart’s reputation are two of the program’s greatest strengths.

They also evaluate the progress of the current roster so they don’t bring in too many new recruits.

If a young player develops faster than expected, he said, recruiting too many top prospects can mean there won’t be spots on the floor for every deserving player.

“If you have a strong team you don’t want to over-recruit.” Queen’s men’s basketball head coach, Rob Smart—brother of Dave— agreed the University’s high academic standards are a factor in Queen’s ability to draw potential athletes, but in most cases, it’s not the deciding factor.

He said Queen’s academic requirements force him to recruit primarily from students with averages of 85 per cent or higher.

“The biggest disadvantage we have is the players we recruit have marks that will get them pretty significant academic money elsewhere.”

He said he starts with a group of 30 to 50 potential players and narrows it down by talent, grades and level of interest.

Smart invites anyone who’s interested to scrimmage with the team to get feedback on their game and on whether the coaches feel they would fit the program.

He said he gets 50 to 60 people who come to play and he keeps 15 to 16 players to train with the team, though not all of them will dress for games.

He said the only way for Queen’s to start attracting the most sought-after players is to build the reputation of the team—something he said the team began to do this season.

“I think the biggest advantage we have this year is that people were sort of shocked at how we did.”

He said the team was ranked 11th in the country on three occasions this season and beat several nationally-ranked teams.

Despite the improvements over the past two years, Smart said he’s still recruiting from a smaller-than-average pool.

“We’re not in the game with the top 15-20 basketball players in the country.” Smart said the image of Queen’s basketball needs to change.

“Queen’s is a good place to go to school, and that’s a positive, but it also had to be a good place to play basketball.”

Pat Tracey, assistant football coach and recruitment coordinator for the athletics department, said successful recruiting is all about selling the program.

“It’s a real business now; it’s sales, it’s marketing, it’s trust.”

Within the department, Tracey acts as liaison between coaches and the admissions office to track the academic progress of potential student-athletes.

When promoting the team and the University as a whole, Tracey said, coaches need to address every aspect of student life—from coaching and training facilities to classes and residence information.

“They want all the answers initially. They want to lay out their four-year plan. … If you don’t have an answer for one of those questions, you’re sunk.”

In December of each year, the coaches make a list of 300 to 400 potential players, divided into three categories: recruits are the top prospects and are likely being recruited by all of the strongest football schools in the country; prospects are the players who may not play much in their rookie season but who have the potential to be significant contributors in their upper years; identified athletes are those who have let the coaching staff know they’re interested in playing for Queen’s. Typically, 30 to 40 players join the 85-man roster each year.

“Everyone’s a little different,” Tracey said. “You have to feel them out before you decide what you’re going to sell.”

He said the biggest challenge is the amount of time coaches are forced to put in. Because most coaches with the football team and most coaches at Queen’s have full-time jobs outside of the University, phone calls and visits must be made in the evenings and on weekends.

Tracey said money, academics and athletic reputation are all factors that can hurt the team’s chances of landing the top recruits, but there is a relatively simple solution.

“You can overcome them all. It’s a matter of good information flow.”

Cory Bosworth, assistant coach of the women’s rowing team at Harvard University in Boston, Mass., said the history behind Harvard rowing is a big selling point for potential students.

“It’s a name that’s been long associated with rowing, and not just rowing, but high-quality rowing.”

Harvard has one of the biggest teams in the NCAA and the Ivy League, and the annual Head of the Charles regatta attracts teams from all over North America, including Queen’s.

But she said the prestige associated with both the athletic and the academic aspects of the school can be just as much a hindrance as a help. She said prospective students are often intimidated by Harvard’s reputation.

“They take themselves out of the competition before they even check us out.”

Head coach Liz O’Leary said the student-athlete’s first priority should be their academics.

“You want to have kids come to school here who are here not just to row, but who are also excited about academics.”

She said she’s willing to deal with the ramifications of high academic standards

“Does it lower the pool? Of course it does, but that’s OK. It’s part of the challenge.”

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