By Randy Sharer
Special to Illprepvb.com
Major life choices that come up for the first – and perhaps only – time can be challenging.
Take, for example, volleyball players looking to continue their careers in college.
By the time they learn the ins-and-outs of the recruiting process, they may wish they’d had a guide from day one.
Volleyball insiders say there are several ways players can find a good college fit, but a common theme in their advice is that athletes should be proactive in their recruitment, even if it means hiring a recruiting service to help.
“There is such a lack of education out there for navigating this process…,” said Peter Gustin, a recruiting coordinator for My Recruiting Assistant, a business which helps connect prospects with college coaches.
“We work directly with our athletes and our families on one half. We also work with college coaches and sort of work to bring that puzzle together of what each individual family needs personally, academically, financially and athletically.”
Besides working with families, Gustin’s company also serves as the recruiting coordinator for about a dozen volleyball clubs.
“For those clubs, we are their point of contact,” Gustin said. “We drive the communication with a lot of colleges and figuring out what they need so that we can say, ‘we have athletes who fit that bill and may be great for you.’”
Online recruiting services range in cost from free to more than $1,000 a year. My Recruiting Assistant charges $349 to launch a player’s profile online, and then $100 per month until the athlete verbally commits.
Some players take a do-it-yourself approach by building their own profiles on social media such as Facebook, where college coaches can and do follow them.
Andy Erins, director of the Bloomington-based Illini Elite Volleyball Club, says there is a misconception among parents and players that college coaches discover prospects by chance while attending tournaments.
“That’s just not how it works,” he said. “The college coaches and their staff, when they go to events … they know who it is they are going to watch already.
“That’s done because the players use the tools that are available to get their name out there to let college coaches know they’re interested. There are tons of free services out there where they can create profiles and upload video. There are paid services that do all that for you.”
Erin’s club uses Connectvolleyball.com, which allows players to make a profile, email coaches and provide highlight videos. Some Illini Elite players also use Gustin’s service.
“All the college coaches, it’s one-stop shopping for them,” said Erins, whose club used SportsRecruits.com last year.
Connectvolleyball.com charges $50 per year. SportsRecruits.com charged $150 last year.
Before such online recruiting services came on the scene, parents and athletes had to search online for the email addresses of college coaches.
“It would take hours upon hours of work to do that,” Erins said. “Recruiting is big business. There are several different pay sites that charge quite a bit of money. College coaches have to pay to use the services, too.”
The pandemic has complicated matters. First, in-person scouting of recruits by college coaches was shut down. Later, the NCAA allowed current collegians an extra year of eligibility.
“That fifth-year waiver, there is going to be a trickle-down effect for a few years,” Gustin said. “It eliminates a lot of (open) roster spots right now. (High school) kids are having to cast a wider net right now than they normally would.”
Prior to 2019, college coaches could make scholarship offers to players – some still in seventh grade. Now the NCAA doesn’t allow coaches to communicate with players until June 15 after their sophomore year of high school.
Prior to the pandemic, college coaches saw nearly 100 percent of their recruits play in person prior to signing them.
“I think it took a while for coaches to adjust to not being able to go see them in person,” said Erins, who had college coaches requesting prospects’ practice and scrimmage videos.
“There was a pause in people making offers and people making commitments because you couldn’t speak in person. You couldn’t go to a campus. There were plenty of coaches who weren’t going to make offers over the phone or over Zoom.”
Erins estimates 99 percent of college players have a club background, while the 1 percent of non-club players is composed of elite athletes who coaches believe can be “coached up” when they get to college.
Parents often ask club coaches what level of college volleyball their child should pursue: NCAA Division I, II or III, NAIA or junior college.
“The college coaches are the ones who make that decision,” said Erins, who recommends players contact coaches at all levels because even if a college coach doesn’t pursue a player, they will pass along their name to colleagues at other levels.
Gustin notes that the potential for playing time is a big factor when matching a prospect with a college. The glamour of playing in Division I, for example, may fade in time.
“Sometimes kids find out it’s not so glamourous if they are not seeing the court,” he said.
Coach Emily Thebeau of Division III Monmouth College estimates she first heard of her players through recruiting services 75 percent of the time, followed by club sources (10 percent), high school channels (10 percent), colleagues (2 percent), players or players’ families contacting her (2 percent), and other sources (1 percent).
“A recruiting platform, free or paid, is super helpful,” Thebeau said. “There are so many options out there, some more popular than others, but as long as you have film, you should be able to find a college you love.
“It is extremely beneficial to reach out to the coach and show your interest. You never know what coaches’ needs are each season, so always show your interest and follow up often.”
Thebeau doesn’t have geographic priorities in recruiting, but she likes having a roster on which many states are represented.
“It’s fun for the athletes to meet others from other states and build lifelong bonds,” she said.
James Seitelman of Division III Aurora University estimates he first heard of his players from recruiting services 40 percent of the time, followed by clubs (35 percent), colleagues (10 percent), players and their families (10 percent), and high school channels (5 percent).
“We love hearing from recruits,” Seitelman said. “The more we know, the more comfortable we are with having them join our volleyball family. Videos are very helpful. That is usually the first step, and if we feel that they could be a good fit, we will watch them live.”
Heartland Community College coach Mary Frahm, who founded her Normal-based program in 2020, says she discovered about 50 percent of her players on her own by attending high school matches and club tournaments. She estimates 20 percent of her players first contacted her, 15 percent were found through recruiting services and 15 percent were recommended by volleyball colleagues.
“During the pandemic, we’ve had to lean heavier on film than we’ve had to in the past,” Frahm said, “which has been great for some coaches who prefer film, and a challenge for some coaches who prefer to be in person.”
Frahm believes a lot can be gained by scouting prospects in person.
“There are intangibles you can’t find on film – everything from their body language to their responses to mistakes, to even how their parents are acting in the stands that give us more information to what kind of teammate they are going to be,” Frahm said. “That stuff is important.
“I watch how much teammates celebrate for the recruit when she is successful because it tells me how much they do or do not value her as a friend, teammate or leader. All these situations, I can read better in person, and I can’t read on film. And all of it affects our culture, which is the most important piece to our success as a program.”
Frahm appreciates players taking control of their recruiting destiny.
“My biggest piece of advice is not to pay for a recruiting service,” she said. “Recruiting services are great, but there are plenty of free options out there that can get you where you want to go. I personally prefer when recruits just reach out to me directly. It shows that they are taking initiative with their recruiting process.”
Kyle McCall of McHenry County College, a community college in Crystal Lake, said 35 percent of his players arrived through his network of volleyball colleagues, 25 percent from high school channels, 20 percent through players and their families contacting him, 10 percent through club sources and 10 percent through recruiting services.
“We start with local players at clubs and club tournaments,” McCall said. “We resource the recruiting coordinators – if clubs have reputable credentials. Then we utilize our relationships with local high school coaches.
“After targeting local players we want to recruit, we broaden our reach to the state level and Midwest. We use the recruiting resource FieldLevel as our first site, then follow-up with some others like NCSA (Next College Student Athlete), SportsRecruits, etc.”
By the time college coaches have sorted through the prospects and the prospects have researched the colleges, both groups will take comfort in feeling they’ve made an informed choice.