These college scouts can’t get much closer to the action without playing. And that’s the way they like it.
The NCAA has finally lifted what will amount to a 15-month-long ban on in-person recruiting, opening the door for a sense of normalcy at two of the biggest amateur baseball recruiting events on the east coast.
Effective June 8, Division 1 college coaches can return to their familiar spots behind home plate at Diamond Nation fields 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 just as the summer showcases heat up. Two of those top events — the Garden State Underclass Games and the two-week long Super 17 Invitational — will provide recruits and recruiters a nice jumping off point to the summer.
While the travel ball circuit was restarted the first week of July last summer, the NCAA still precluded Division 1 coaches from recruiting in-person and inviting potential recruits to their campuses for visits.
When the NCAA announced in April that Division 1 programs could go back to their normal recruiting calendars effective June 1, it meant June 8 would be the actual first day of the end of what it refers to as its recruiting “dead period.” In early 2020, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the NCAA had added the first week of June as part of its dead period because it was the first week of the NCAA tournament.
The pandemic forced Division 1 coaches to become much more creative in their recruiting practices last summer and that included carefully reviewing player videos and interviewing players and coaches by phone and zoom meetings. Coaches and players will gladly trade in that less than perfect scouting and recruiting existence for a more personal one.
When the Garden State Underclass Games gets underway on June 16 and the Super 17 Invitational runs its course at Diamond Nation from June 21-July 2, Division 1 coaches will be omnipresent and happy to be back in their wheelhouse.
“We’re excited to get our eyes on players and watch in-person how they handle failure and interact with their teammates,” said Brendan Monaghan, Rutgers University’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. “It’s a little difficult, to say the least, to see how a player responds to adversity in a video.”
A video is certainly one-dimensional in that it showcases a player’s athleticism and his specific abilities on a baseball diamond. But a video provided by a player does not show the intangibles that college coaches can only discern from hours of in-person observations of game situations.
“There’s a lot of little, specific things that you can’t sense unless you are there, in person,” says Monaghan. “Is he a good teammate? How does he communicate with his teammates on the field? We are looking at the things that make a player a good teammate and a good fit for our roster.”
The recruitment process is, indeed, a summer long commitment by the college coaches, who will also carefully watch the Super 16 Invitational at Diamond Nation beginning on June 11, followed by a busy July and early August of weekday and weekend tournaments that provide insights and answers to colleges’ recruitment needs.
“We are really looking forward to getting back out and watching baseball,” said Monmouth University head coach Dean Ehehalt. “I’m very happy for the players as I am sure they are excited. Being able to watch games in-person as well as seeing prospects compete is critical to the recruiting process. There are so many kids that bring intangibles to the table and it is always important to identify ‘baseball players’ and observe how they carry themselves.”
While Division 1 recruiters will miss much of the high school season for a second straight year, at least they know the recruiting door will swing wide open on June 8, allowing them to take in the bigger NJSIAA state tournament games as a stage-setter for the summer season. The NJSIAA tournament begins on June 1 and concludes with the four public Group finals on June 19.
For all the angst, frustrations and limitations, some tangible gains have been realized for having gone through a hamstrung recruiting process during the pandemic. Some of the ingenuity born of adversity provides its own fruit. College baseball coaches are a hearty group and are always looking for like-minded players who, too, can adjust to adversity and brush off the steady stream of failures baseball throws at them.
Division 1 coaches today are grinding through the final few weeks of a 15-month recruiting experience that demanded daily adjustments to assorted adversities. It is heartening to see them emerge from the other end smarter and stronger in their recruiting game.
“I think moving forward we will blend together what we did prior to the pandemic together with what we learned during it,” says Mark Pappas, Seton Hall University assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “Some things we did streamlined the process wherever we were. But being at a game or on a campus face-to-face with a player is hard to replicate. We’re just glad that the kids that work hard to deserve an opportunity to play at the D-1 level will get a chance to be seen. The kids who took the time to work on their game and skills will stand out from the others.”
Lafayette’s first-year head coach Tim Reilly was named to his new post shortly after COVID-19 derailed the Leopards’ 2020 season, so he is really a noble case study in how to deal with adversity in a new job. Adversity is all coach Reilly has known since assuming the reins at the Easton, Pa. college.
“I think we will continue to use things like Zoom and other video chat platforms to connect with players who live far away,” says Reilly. “We’ve been able to attract players from across the country, so video evaluations, Zoom calls and coach relationships will continue to be useful tools for us.”
College coaches develop critical relationships with high school and travel ball coaches each spring and summer and many of those relationships are many years in the making. The lines of communication and trust built over the years proved very beneficial for Division 1 coaches, as well as the high school players they were recruiting in 2020.
More than anything, there is unanimous joy in the Division 1 coaching community for a return to recruiting normalcy when the calendar turns to June.
“We’re very excited to hear that we will be back on the road in June,” says Reilly. “I really enjoyed getting to know the players who committed through phone calls and Zoom chats, but there’s no substitute to meeting someone face-to-face and seeing them play in a live game setting. I’m looking forward to seeing other college and travel ball coaches on the road this summer. I think we all have a lot of catching up to do.”
Diamond Nation’s recruiting coordinator Steve DiTrolio had an equally unsettling experience in the recruiting game the past year.
“The last 15 months have been filled with much speculation, creativity and a lot of communication,” said DiTrolio. “When I finally heard in-person recruiting was going to open up in June, I was relieved for all the players who have been stuck in recruiting limbo. I’m thrilled to go back to business as usual.
“For us, the college coach’s evaluation of our players is such a huge part in finding the right fit for each guy because, at the end of the day, it’s their opinion that matters most.”