This is the first of two stories detailing "July Madness," women's college basketball recruiting season. Today's story follows Canisius coach Terry Zeh.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Forget those summer vacations at the beach or the retreat to the mountains. Don't you know the place to see and be seen in July is a hot and poorly ventilated auxiliary gym in Happy Valley, Pa.?
At least it is if you plan to make collegiate women's basketball your livelihood.
And if you're going into the game -- as a coach, player or even referee -- you better not just love basketball. You better love basketball or else, quite frankly, you don't have a prayer of surviving July.
This is the month when coaches and players can run themselves ragged attending tournaments and camps across the country. July marks the official summer evaluation period that puts coaches on the road but strictly limits their contact with recruits (see box).
The kickoff to the women's recruiting madness was at the Blue Chip Basketball USA Invitational at Penn State, where more than 300 AAU teams and 193 college coaching staffs began the latest version of the game within the game.
The players at this event were high mid-major to mid-major level talent. You wouldn't see Tennessee or UConn recruiting here but perennial top-25 George Washington was in town.
For Terry Zeh, the head coach at Canisius College, July is both exhausting and exhilarating. He, along with his three assistant coaches, will take in 10 tournaments in the first 10-day period.
"I really hate the time it takes me away from my family," Zeh said. "But you have to love recruiting. You have to get excited about it. It's the future of your program."
That future starts here, on makeshift courts in the multi-purpose building at Penn State.
>First up, get organized
Zeh and assistant coach Chris Vozab made their way to campus for their first day of the summer recruiting trail, with plans to each see 12 games.
The Canisius staff had spent the last few weeks deciding which events to attend and fine-tuning its list of players to watch.
Organization is a key to this event and Vozab had that end covered at this site thanks to a few hours spent each night with "the book."
Each tournament director compiles a master book that includes bracket and game information, rosters with names, high school and heights along with contact information for players and the AAU coaches. The book, a simply bound pile of photocopies, costs anywhere from $250 to $750. To not buy the book is not an option -- there is no other way to know who you're looking at, particularly if someone from another team catches your eye. The Canisius staff has budgeted $2,000 alone for books for the first 10-day evaluation period.
Vozab toted the book around, ripping out rosters to give to Zeh so he could make notes on the games he watched. Text messaging is vital among the staff members and Zeh often contacts Vozab with questions about rosters and keeps in touch with assistant coach Kendra Faustin, who is attending a similar event in Orlando, Fla.
The games began at 8 a.m. at five buildings at Penn State. In the auxiliary gyms with no bleacher seating, folding chairs were set up along the walls and down the sidelines. Areas were clearly marked to separate parents from coaches in order to minimize intermingling during this strict no-contact period.
The far baseline was filled early with college coaches sporting school polo shirts and khaki shorts, or some variation of that theme. All the Big 4 schools were represented with Zeh frequently running into Jim Crowley from St. Bonaventure and Bill Agronin from Niagara. Linda Hill-MacDonald represented the University at Buffalo.
Coaches have different styles. Some scribble furiously while others make occasional notes. The conversation varies, with some chatty about the state of their programs while others are still friendly but more reserved, playing their hands close to their vest while observing who others are watching.
When it became time for the fourth game of the day, Zeh needed a change in location. He had to get to Rec Hall in time for an 11:30 game. The map made it look like an easy walk, and it would have been if there wasn't road construction. So the walk turned into a dash around the detour. He entered the gym and sat down just in time for tipoff.
So why do coaches and players put themselves through this grueling schedule?
First, it's the best bang for the buck as far as volume is concerned. Players get to showcase their game to college coaches who might not otherwise see them play in high school, and coaches get to see many quality players at one time.
"We can see 20 to 25 kids in one day," Zeh said. "It would take us a month to look at all them during their high school season. And it's difficult to get out during their high school season because we're in season and we're worried about the team we have. Once we find kids we like, we do go out and watch them play high school games, but at summer tournaments, you see them play against high level competition which they may not get during their regular season."
The other key ingredient to making July an important month for recruiting is the early signing period. Many seniors will make verbal commitments later this summer and the majority want to sign their national letters of intent in November. That means committing to a school before their senior seasons even begin, which makes summer evaluation and the ensuing scholarship offers critical.
The emphasis for coaches is on those 2008 graduating seniors. At this point, coaches look not just for what the players can do but also what they can't. They start noticing liabilities while zeroing in on what skill set suits their needs. A school may have only four scholarships to offer but have up to 50 players they're looking at to fill those spots.
This is where practice makes perfect for coaching staffs. Everyone can see the obvious -- the players who can jump high, run fast or shoot the lights out. What coaches look for are intangibles and those evaluations can vary widely from coach to coach. Twenty coaches can see 20 different things in just one game. Some live by looking for "tweeners" -- players who are talented but perhaps undersized for their position. Others look for versatility -- players who can do multiple things well.
But the evaluation is never easy. Average players can have one great game while talented players can have one horrendous game. And sometimes coaches can twist themselves into knots trying to figure it all out.
"During this month you can talk yourself into or out of any kid," Crowley said.
>Instinct and luck
The opener was a good day. Zeh missed only one game due to scheduling problems and by 10:30 p.m. that Friday he and Vozab finally sat down for dinner.
By then he knew he'd get only a few hours sleep since he had to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Indianapolis to watch two games there. With no flights to return him to Penn State in time for Sunday's games, he was planning to drive overnight from Indiana to Pennsylvania. Zeh then headed to New Jersey for another tournament on Monday.
But before he jetted off to the next tournament, he and Vozab shared thoughts on the players they had watched. Stock went up for some, down for others, but there are more games for players to again change the minds of coaching staffs.
Canisius is specifically looking for a physical post player, a good shooting guard and a versatile, athletic player. Once those skill sets are identified, much of the process revolves around finding players who fit the coach's personality and the personality of the team.
The process involves good research -- and the quality of the assistant coaches can make or break the recruiting game -- a healthy dose of instinct and a little bit of luck.
For Canisius, AAU tournaments led them to forward Ellie Radke. The sophomore was low on the school's radar until the coaches saw her play in the summer.
The opposite happened for guard Amanda Cavo. She had a rather pedestrian AAU season, but the coaching staff loved the way she played in high school. Their instincts proved right, considering that Cavo was the rookie of the year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Some players are wooed for up to three years by college coaches.
Others for only five days.
That's how St. Bonaventure got forward Dana Mitchell. The Bona staff saw her play in a weekend tournament in October. The Fairless Hills, Pa., native didn't have school the following Monday so she came to Olean for a visit. By Friday, she had signed her letter of intent.
Not a bad find considering she led the team in scoring, reached double figures in points in 21 games and was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team.
"Recruiting is not about who you want," Zeh said. "It's about you can get."
SATURDAY: Scouting Pioneer's Joelle Connelly, the reigning Buffalo News Player of the Year.
Some rules of the recruiting road
*The NCAA regulates contact between college coaches and recruits, including the high school player's family members and AAU coaches. *For Division I schools, July has a 10-day evaluation period, beginning July 6, where coaches can attend summer tournaments and camps but cannot have any contact with recruits. That's followed by a six-day dead period where coaches can call, e-mail or text message recruits, but face-to-face visits on or off campus are prohibited. Then another round of 10-day evaluation begins, running from July 22-31, with again no communication between coaches and recruits.
*The calendar for July is similar for both men's and women's basketball at the Division I level. The contact period for Division II and III is longer and less restrictive.
*August is a contact period for D-I programs, when many scholarship offers and verbal commitments are made. *The early signing period for basketball is Nov. 14-21.
*Coaches are not permitted to discuss recruits publicly -- including identifying which players they may be looking at or commenting on a player's specific skills. They can only make comments after a player has signed a national letter of intent and the player has been cleared by the university and NCAA.