Wildcat recruiting takes COVID-19 sized hit

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RECRUITING RUT—NMU Football Head Coach Kyle Nystrom meets with his team after an October practice. All NMU sports are left without their coveted spring recruiting seasons due to COVID-19. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

Recruiting has taken a hit across college sports, and NMU is no exception. The NCAA announced a mandatory dead period in face-to-face contact with recruits through April 15, which has now been extended to May 31 due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19.

This change has created an unorthodox spring season for many Wildcat coaches. For the first time in 17 years, Women’s Track and Field Head Coach Jenny Ryan hasn’t been coaching during this season. And, first year Women’s Soccer Head Coach Jon Sandoval has to overcome obstacles for his first recruiting class. Times are different right now, but all coaches have their own ways of getting through it.

Communication between recruits and coaches remains similar, but it is now done electronically through Zoom. The tricky part for a lot of teams is talking to athletes who are not from the area, and trying to give them an understanding of what campus is like without having set foot on it. This is the case for Swim and Dive Head Coach Heidi Voigt and her staff, as there were 15 international swimmers and divers listed on the team’s roster this season.

“We just do the best we can. We typically have some international athletes on our team, and we’re kind of now treating our domestic like we do international athletes in the sense that the international athletes can’t come over and take a recruiting trip,” Swim and Dive Head Coach Heidi Voigt said. “Now everyone’s doing it virtually and trying to touch base with us and ask questions and just try to get the best idea that they can.”

NMU’s campus, surrounded by nature, has been a big selling point. However, with these few months without that recruiting tool, things could become more difficult. Along with the importance of showing recruits the culture of the program, Ryan and her staff are trying to make NMU feel like home.

“It’s an advantage. I’ve always thought that if we can get a kid to come up and visit, [there’s a] good chance we can get them to come to NMU because Marquette’s such a great town, and the campus as a whole, and the area by the lake,” Ryan said.

With limited access to recruits, coaches can only do so much at NMU to show the campus off. Through it all, coaches are trying to make it work in any way they can. Things like emailing or calling these coveted high school competitors, and talking over FaceTime or Zoom can connect a coach and player. Especially for a sport that has many international students like swimming, making them feel at home is important for Voigt and her coaching staff.

“We have a great campus where [recruits] can see themselves here, and that was really a big selling point,” Voigt said. “It’s a little bit harder to work through that, but just constant communication and hopefully sending enough video footage of our team doing things, and Marquette videos and pictures. Hopefully they get a good feel.”

Another issue is that coaches can’t travel to see high school coaches and players. Football Head Coach Kyle Nystrom and his staff said they thrive on going throughout the Midwest to different high schools to figure out which players have what it takes to play at NMU.

There is also the matter of grades. With the closure of schools statewide, coaches won’t know students’ final grades, Nystrom said. 

“Part of [spring recruiting] is going out to see the people and talk to the people. You do all of that preliminary work. Well, we’re not going to have that this year.” 

Another part of spring recruiting is official visits that athletes take to universities, and for all teams like Track and Field, right now that isn’t an option.

“It’s pretty interesting, this time of the year we’d have a lot of visits from some kids that we’re still recruiting for next year. We had to cancel all of those, we’re sending them [recruits] some online stuff and we’ve been able to do a couple of FaceTime visits of the [Superior] Dome before everything got shut down,” Ryan said.

Sandoval is fresh at the helm in his first season with the soccer program, and it’s hard to imagine a rookie head coach beginning their tenure like this.

“It’s definitely not the scenario I would like to walk into. But on the flip side, the rest of the country is going through the exact same thing,” Sandoval said. “I’m trying to be as positive about it as I possibly can, and trying to stay in contact with our players and [giving them] the resources that they need in order to be successful.”

Sandoval has lost valuable time to introduce his offensive system to his team, he said. He has shown players different attacks and formations online, but there’s only so much you can do without repetition, he said.

“One of the major things that I wanted to do this spring was implement my system and implement a different way of how we attack,” Sandoval said. ”That is actually what I’m going to miss the most with this time, is not being able to implement my system.”

The recruiting class of 2020 was almost set in stone, Sandoval said, but 2021 is where the dead period is hurting.

“It’s really important for 2021, that’s going to be really my first full recruiting class, and that’s really what I’m missing out on right now,” Sandoval said. “[The class of] 2020 was pretty close to being wrapped up, and luckily we were able to get some of those pieces we needed done before everything shut down.”

Coaching staff have been using electronics to continue with business as usual, and a few recruits have been set up with virtual tours, Voigt said. The virtual tours have students from NMU talk individually with potential future students and show them around campus, including talks with professors and academic department heads.

“Matt Williams, our assistant coach and recruiting coordinator, does a really good job touching base through Zoom or we do a lot of Whatsapp video chat,” Voigt said. “We really like what the university is doing with these virtual tours, we’ve been able to set up a couple of recruits on a tour, and that’s been really helpful for them to get a good idea of the university.”

Not only are these services tools for talking with recruits, but as the football team does, they are used for staff meetings. Despite not being able to travel to different high schools, the due diligence is being done. Instead of visiting high schools, the football coaching staff is meeting using the Google meeting platform, and are emailing and calling high school coaches, Nystrom said. 

Throughout all of this, these coaches are understanding, and they know that this has to happen to stop the spread of COVID-19. Nystrom doesn’t see there being football camps in June, and the season as a whole is up in the air, he said.

“It’s not a good thing [no recruiting] but at the same time, compared to what we have right now as it relates to humanity, it was the necessary thing to do,” Nystrom said. “I’m not going to complain about that, we have bigger things than to play football right now across our country, so let’s have our priorities right.”

At the end of the day for all coaches across the NCAA, there’s one thing that they can do, and that’s go to work. Whether it’s online platforms, virtual tours or conducting staff meetings, there’s work to be done.

“One of the more positive things of this is that everyone is in a similar situation to where everybody is in this dead period, so it just means I have to get back to work when things come down to it,” Sandoval said. “I understand these precautions are the way it is, it’s for the betterment of everybody, so I’m staying relatively optimistic that we’ll still get things done.”