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How Covid-19 impacts recruiting in college sports

Greg Paulus wasn't supposed to wonder how he would spend his time after his first season as head coach of the Niagara men’s basketball team.

He was ready to recruit, in order to solidify the foundation that he and his staff had set in his first five months as coach of the Purple Eagles.

But the offseason plan ended abruptly for Paulus and winter sports coaches across the country. The NCAA on March 12 canceled all Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, along with the winter and spring championships in college sports, because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Then, the NCAA put forth a mandate for its coaches: a recruiting moratorium for Division I and Division II sports through April 15, which means no face-to-face contact with recruits, no on-campus or in-home visits and no live evaluation of players at high school games or at amateur tournaments. That affects the recruiting process for college and junior-college coaches, and for high school athletes and junior-college athletes.

“We don’t get the chance to evaluate, and that’s what we would be doing, when the season is over,” Paulus said. “You watch state tournaments. You prepare for AAU events. With all of that not happening now, you can make calls and try to build relationships until you can go out there again.”

The NCAA moratorium limits a coaching staff’s reach in recruiting and inhibits its ability to plan recruiting classes one, two or even three years down the road. The NCAA Division I Council is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to grant an additional year of eligibility for athletes in spring sports whose seasons were canceled.

For now, that has put coaches of spring sports and administrators in a quandary as far as roster limits, scholarship limits and operating budgets.

“This is obviously something we are trying to navigate,” said Allison Daley, the Canisius women’s lacrosse coach. “There’s more questions than answers.

"We’re looking at scholarship allocations. Are we able to provide an opportunity to them, without taking away from anywhere else? Is this a realistic possibility, that we can look to provide for them? We’re working with our administration, right now, to see what we can do.”

How it impacts offseason recruiting

Mark Schmidt, the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball coach, has April 15 circled on his calendar.

The recruiting dead period is scheduled to end, but the deadline remains in question, even as coaches champ at the bit to evaluate potential recruits.

The first two evaluation periods for basketball are scheduled for April 17-19 and April 24-26, for certified events. Typically, coaches spread out their staffs among the elite AAU tournaments run by the top sneaker companies. Nike has canceled its Elite Youth Basketball League events on those weekends as has Under Armour for its Under Armour Association events.

“When the NCAA sets regulations, you’re trying to figure out, ‘How are we going to recruit?’ ” Schmidt said. “There’s so many things that are involved right now, and foremost, you have to be concerned about your players. Make sure we’re doing the right thing for them.

“But we’re also looking at how we’re going to figure out our scholarships. We’re talking on the phone about this. Texting. It’s the unknown right now.”

Coaches can still offer scholarships, and prospective college athletes can still accept them.

Jimmy Scott, a running back at St. Francis, posted Thursday on Twitter that he'd received a scholarship offer from Ole Miss, his fifth FBS scholarship offer. Sean Allen, a running back from Illinois, posted on Twitter that he had received a scholarship offer from the University at Buffalo football program. Norance "Tres" Berry, a guard from Scotland Campus in Pennsylvania, tweeted that he has received an offer from the St. Bonaventure men's basketball program, and JucoRecruiting.com reported Wednesday that Bona offered James Lee, a guard at Salt Lake Community College in Utah.

High school students can verbally commit to programs, too. Noah Carlin, a defenseman from Michigan who plays for the Amarillo Bulls of the North American Hockey League, announced last Monday on Twitter that he has verbally committed to the Niagara hockey team.

The Collegiate Commissioners Association announced March 15 that there would be no national letter of intent signings until April 15, the start of the spring signing period in basketball, and even that deadline could be changed.

“You just text and you make phone calls and you try to keep the guys you’re interested in as recruits abreast of what’s going on,” Schmidt said. “When everything clears, then you arrange visits. But the guys who you’re trying to evaluate, the guys you haven’t seen? That’s the problem. You have to get to schools, and those are probably closed. And you only have so many individual visits. It’s throwing a wrench into the whole signing period. But everybody is in the same boat.”

But Schmidt is aware of an underlying uncertainty that continues.

“Is it going to be April 15 when we know we might be back?” Schmidt asked. “That could be pushed back again, too.”

How it impacts high school athletes

The night before the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced it had canceled all its remaining winter sports championships on Monday, Roddy Gayle received scholarship offers, from Nebraska and Texas Christian. He also received scholarship offers from DePaul, LSU and Marquette last week.

Gayle, a sophomore on the boys basketball team at Lewiston-Porter, is a four-star recruit in 247Sports’ most recent composite ratings. In the Class of 2022, he is listed as the No. 1 recruit in New York, the No. 9 shooting guard in the country and the No. 44 player in the nation in the recruiting websites composite ratings.

Gayle is one of the more sought-after college prospects in this year’s sophomore class and had plans to take unofficial visits to several colleges during the offseason. Gayle’s AAU season has been put on hold because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Around this time is where I would be taking visits and visiting schools along with playing AAU,” Gayle told The News in a direct message. “But everything is being postponed because of the virus, which is disappointing because I felt as if this summer was going to be my breakout year.”

Shay Ciezki, a sophomore on the girls basketball team at St. Mary’s in Lancaster, has already put at least two unofficial visits to out-of-state colleges scheduled for April on hold. She has remained in touch with college coaches through phone calls and emails.

“It was unfortunate that our first open period for recruiting was canceled at the end of April,” Ciezki said. “I’m really taking direction from my AAU coach Randy Wright (I-90 Elite in Syracuse) as I move forward with things. He helps bridge the gap with college coaches for me.”

Like so many others, though, Ciezki also sees the need for boundaries during a public health crisis.

“Honestly, everyone’s health and well-being is so much more important,” Ciezki said. “I feel like that’s all we’re thinking about right now so we can return to the court as soon as possible.”

How it impacts junior-college athletics

At Niagara County Community College, Paige Emborsky of Newfane signed with Abilene Christian in November to join its women’s basketball team in the fall of 2020.

But not all of NCCC’s players had the same advantage. When the National Junior College Athletic Association announced March 16 it canceled its winter championships and spring competition, it took away a prime scouting opportunity during the late winter and early spring for college coaches and players. NCCC had qualified for the Division II women’s basketball tournament.

The NJCAA also announced that recruiting is restricted to emails, text messages and phone calls, and prospective junior-college athletes can sign a national letter of intent, provided the signings are not face to face.

Since the recruiting moratorium was announced, NCCC's Aubrey Halloran posted Friday on Twitter that she plans to join the Niagara women’s basketball team.

“Kids at the JUCO level are still in the process of picking where next to go to school,” NCCC women's basketball coach Nate Beutel said. “A lot of kids were going to be seen by hundreds of coaches at that tournament, and that process is also on hold because of the recruiting (dead) period by the NCAA.

“Everything is up in the air.”

How it could impact spring sports

The NCAA announced last week that it will discuss and vote Monday for eligibility relief for college athletes whose seasons were cut short due to Covid-19. Relief for winter sports athletes is also scheduled to be discussed, but that proposal seems to have limited support.

The Division I Council's coordination committee agreed that relief should be extended to athletes who participated in spring sports, and supports providing schools with a framework in which they have the autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of their campus, conference and student-athletes.

“The coordination committee recognizes that this local decision-making is made more challenging by the implications of Covid-19,” council chair Grace Calhoun wrote in a statement posted Friday on the NCAA’s website. “However, providing a broader regulatory relief framework will allow campuses and conferences to make decisions they believe are in their collective best interest.”

Yet in granting spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility, coaches and administrators face challenging logistics in planning for next year, whether it’s determining available scholarships and roster spots, or creating a schedule for next season that includes travel.

USA Today reported that giving an additional season of eligibility just to seniors on spring sports teams could cost public schools in the Power Five conferences anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000. Schools outside the Power Five, it stated, would face lower amounts.

USA Today analyzed the school’s financial reports to the NCAA, and examined the scholarship costs of NCAA-sanctioned spring sports during the 2018-19 fiscal year at 20 Division I athletics departments: Power Five, Group of Five, FCS and those that do not have football teams.

“This creates some tough decisions for the administration,” UB softball coach Mike Ruechel said. “They have to decide if we have the money, if we can come up with the money, and the NCAA also has to factor into this.”

It also creates tough decisions for the coaches, when it comes to roster and scholarship management. Daley, the Canisius women’s lacrosse coach, has already started the process of talking to the seniors on this year’s team about what the future could mean.

“We’d have some roster growth (if a fifth year is granted),” Daley said. “We only have three seniors so our roster wouldn’t expand largely, but that’s three more bodies we hadn’t accounted for.

“You have to look at the academic side for them, too. What makes sense for them? Financially, as well, and I’ve told our seniors, you can’t put life on hold and postpone graduation or jobs. They have to make what will be the best decisions, personally.”

But until the NCAA determines guidelines and dates for scholarships, for recruiting and for student-athlete eligibility, so much remains hypothetical as coaches, athletes and administrators in college sports continue to navigate a fluid situation.

At Canisius, Daley is looking at scholarship allocations for next year. So is Ruechel, who considers another factor: All his scholarships for the 2020-21 school year have already been allocated.

"When my seniors go out, I have that amount of money to put towards my incoming class,” Ruechel said. “My incoming class has signed and that money has been spent. Unless something changes, according to my budget today, I don’t have money for those seniors to come back.”

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