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Student Athlete Recruiting During COVID Had to Change

By David Ertischek ’01

Emerson may not be a Division I sports powerhouse like neighboring Boston College, but campus tours and bonding with current athletes has always been a strong part of the recruiting process.

So how does recruiting happen when COVID-19 restricts travel and campus access?   

“Coaches spend almost a year recruiting student athletes. What I think has changed the most is the coaches aren’t able to see the athletes performing,” said Patricia Nicol, director of Athletics. “If the spring sports high school schedule is canceled again, then it will be a two-year hiatus of being able to watch the skill level of these high school athletes.”

Head baseball coach Nick Vennochi said that high school baseball showcases, where players take batting practice, field, and play games, have continued across the country. While Emerson coaches haven’t been able to travel to showcases in Florida, New York, or California, they have been able to see the players via video.

But the harder thing to tell is if prospective students would be a good fit for Emerson.

“[Video is] really good to see who’s good at baseball. It’s harder to tell if the student wants to study at Emerson. Are they good enough students?” asked Venocchi. “A lot of coaches [need to see players play in games], with baseball we don’t rely on those as much. If we have a guy who wants to study journalism, marketing, or video production, who wants to go to school in the city, and wants to play baseball – [that’s who we recruit].”

Like Venocchi, Nicol said it’s always been important for students to visit campus.

“Ordinarily, when recruiting a student who coaches are very, very interested in, part of the ‘sell,’ if you will, is having the students visit the campus and see what Emerson has to offer,” said Nicol.

Not being able to engage students on campus is by no means a problem isolated to Emerson. All colleges are tackling the same issues across the country. But even without seeing a student athlete in person, there are ways to determine how good a prospective recruit is at their sport.

“There are some sports that you can go by pure data, like track and field and basketball. Other sports, like lacrosse — more or less team sports — it’s hard. You’ve got to see them. That’s why we’re hoping we have a spring season,” said Nicol.

If there isn’t a spring season, there will be Lions who will not have put on an Emerson uniform until their junior year.

Head women’s soccer coach David Suvak said the team had already recruited its 2021 team, and is now focused on its 2022 and 2023 classes.

To counteract not being able to see players in person, coaches have leant more on social media and teleconferencing platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Zoom.

Suvak said previously, he’d reach out to prospective students through an introductory email, and speak with the student and their parents on the phone, oftentimes separately. Now he’s been able to become more familiar with students and their parents at the same time thanks to Zoom.

Head women’s basketball coach Bill Gould said thanks to Zoom, recruiting has become more direct with prospective players. He said students are more invested, and will reach out to him directly. Normally, he’d be in the gym watching the players.

“Now they’re thinking, ‘No one’s here. I’ve got to recruit the team and sell myself,’ and let the coach know why they should be recruited,” said Gould.

Former three-time captain Amanda Benavente ‘20, who just graduated in December, had a large role in recruiting students for the last two years as the manager of the women’s soccer team’s social media accounts. She’s also joined Zoom calls with recruits.

On the calls, Benavente said she tried to familiarize the students with Emerson, and answer any questions they may have about the college.

“What is it like to go to Emerson? How is it managing school and sports — which is very manageable,” said Benavente. “A lot of them want to know what are fun things to do, what do you do when you’re not playing soccer, and how do you feel about living in the city. There are also specific questions about majors like [Business of Creative Enterprises] or film.”

In her role as social media manager, Benavente has had a direct role in recruiting students, said Suvak.

“With COVID, everything has to be visual and digital, as far as recruiting. I always felt there was power in having a cool social media channel for college sports,” said Benavente. “I feel students get a feeling of what the team is like when they see language, pictures, and the atmosphere they’re in.

“Basically, since COVID started, I really wanted to make sure I tried to push memories of the season we just had, or other seasons we’ve had, just to show what Emerson soccer is like, even if as a team we couldn’t be together or be recruited in person. I wanted to make sure we were alive in the digital world.”

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