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What’s it like recruiting during the coronavirus pandemic? We asked Arizona soccer assistant Sandy Davison

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Since March, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the NCAA to institute a mandatory dead period that bans in-person evaluations and prohibits college coaches from hosting recruits on on-campus visits.

Essentially that means everything is being done remotely for the foreseeable future.

Arizona soccer assistant coach Sandy Davison gave us a peek at what that entails when she posted a Tweet that read “COVID recruiting 2.0” along with a picture of her laptop streaming a game in her home office in Tucson.

I wanted to know more about what it’s like to recruit during the pandemic, so I reached out to Davison to get some more insight.

Here’s a Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ryan Kelapire: What are the biggest differences in how you have to approach recruiting right now?

Sandy Davison: I think the biggest difference is that we can’t see the kid and we’re relying solely on video of games. Some kids have played more recently, some kids are in states where they’re still not playing. For instance, the state of Washington, they’re not allowing kids to leave the state and go play in tournaments. So depending on where kids are from, some of them have recent video. Some of them we haven’t seen video since like maybe February of last year.

RK: So for those players that you haven’t seen recent video of, do you feel like you’re still able to get a pretty good evaluation of them?

SD: Well, I think the nice thing about soccer is that recruiting is always done like two to three years early. So by the time December of 2019 hit, we had a list of [2022 recruits], because that was the class we were working on that we had seen throughout the fall and in December and January national events. So we felt like we had a really good evaluation. We’ve seen those kids two or three times, and then COVID came in, and then the contact period for that age group was June 15. So we feel like it’s a little bit of a gamble, I suppose. But we felt really good about the players who are on our list. And we didn’t feel like that list was going to change just because we hadn’t seen a kid play in four months.

RK: You’re obviously not able to attend different events like usual, so how do you most of your recruiting now?

SD: It’s been interesting because everybody has had to evolve to deal with the pandemic. And that includes club coaches and their training environment. It includes how we recruit. It includes how we train our teams. And the tournaments have really adapted well and one of the big leagues—the Elite Clubs National League—has done a really good job in providing a live stream platform for all of their games. So anytime they do a national event—and so far they have had two and their third one is coming up in January in Florida—if they’ve got 20 fields, they’ve got 20 live stream games, which has made it nice for us to be able to evaluate players.

It’s still not as great as being able to see a kid with your own eyes. Part of watching these games is seeing the level of the team that they’re playing against, the quality of other players. It gives me a better idea, it gives Kyle (Venter) and Tony (Amato) a better idea if we know the opposition as to how athletic a kid is, how fast a kid is, how tough a kid is.

So the great thing is we’re able to at least see other teams right now and start to identify 2023s right now. And so it’s not like we haven’t seen games. We’re getting ready to start our season and we’re going to have [recruiting events] going on, I think, January 6th through the 8th. And so we’re gonna have to find ways to watch while we’re coaching our team, which will be a little bit different and challenging as well, whether that’s through a live stream platform, or whether they’re through on-demand, which the ECNL has done a really good job of.

RK: What do you like about this new method of recruiting?

SD: That piece has been really nice because if Kyle and Tony are watching one set of games, like three games, and I’m watching another three, we sit down and we have a recruiting meeting about players. It’s kind of nice because I can talk about what I like and Tony and Kyle can go back and watch it whenever it’s convenient for them. ... Players are sending us links to their games and it’s easy to go back and watch those games. In a live recruiting event, when we’re traveling, we don’t get to do that.

RK: Oh, so games wouldn’t normally be on-demand like that at all?

SD: Never. Not with soccer. It’s gonna be interesting to see how all of these tournaments evolve. And how does it change recruiting? How does it change travel?

RK: Yeah, I was going to ask you, what lasting effects on recruiting do you see resulting from the pandemic?

SD: I think it’s gonna depend on where COVID is at, where the world is in the pandemic, honestly. I think our entire staff firmly believes in the eye test. You can like a kid on video and you go out and watch them play and you can think, ‘Wow, that kid is not as athletic as I thought she is.’ Or you can look at it and go, ‘Man, that kid is so much better than I thought she was.’ So I think there’s nothing that will ever replace being able to visually see a kid because we’re not a statistic-based sport where we just look at numbers and stats. So I think the cloud-based version (of watching games) will make it easier as budgets are restricted, but I don’t think moving forward that we’ll ever want to have to make decisions on kids without physically seeing them.

RK: You’ve had some commitments lately from some players out east. Were those recruits even able to visit campus before they committed? Is it like a blind commitment?

SD: So basically we have been able to have phone conversations with players. We’ve been able to have Zoom conversations with players. We’ve had a lot of conversations with high school coaches, club coaches, high school counselors, just trying to make sure that we, one, not only just like what we’re seeing in video. I’ve even gone so far as to call a couple of my friends who coach in college and say, ‘Hey, this kid from Mississippi or this kid from Alabama, why did you recruit them? If you did, why? If you didn’t, why not?’ So we really tried to uncover as many stones as we can to learn as much about the three players that we’ve added to our ‘21 class that we haven’t physically seen play.

RK: How do you sell the Arizona campus when you’re not allowed to host recruits on visits?

SD: Well, that’s the awesome thing about the internet. There’s so much stuff on YouTube. We’ve created presentations that provide prospective student-athletes with what our locker rooms look like. There’s a virtual tour that already had. There’s some YouTube videos that show a tailgate down Main Gate. Like there’s so much stuff available. Between what’s available on YouTube right now and what we’ve been able to create as a staff, I feel like kids can get a pretty good idea of what campus looks like and they can get to know the coaches as well.

We have done some Zoom (interviews) with some of our players and [recruits] for them to get to know some of the players on our team. But I think the thing that really is missing with that is you can address all of those pieces, but we’ve got such an amazing support staff on campus. I feel like that’s a big selling point of who we are and what we’re able to do at Arizona. And when we can’t get them in front of our strength coach or nutritionist or academic people, they’re not walking into buildings and seeing how wonderful all of our facilities are, I think that we’re relying a lot on the relationships that we’re able to create with kids.

RK: So you said you’ve talked to club coaches and high school counselors, how different is that from when things are normal?

SD: I think typically when we talk to their club coaches, we talk to the kid, we want to get to know their kids. Tony is really great about involving the parents in the recruiting process because we feel like it’s important to have the parents’ support and understand what it is that we’re trying to do in Arizona so that we’re all on the same page as we walk into the fall of ‘21. But I think the different thing for me is typically we’re recruiting against people. So I would never pick up the phone and call a college coach and say, why are you recruiting this kid? Or are you? Why do you like her? Why don’t you like her? Do you know who she is? And so I’ve had to rely on some friends and then also trust our evaluation of players, knowing that we recruit very specific identities for our team. And I think based on that, we’ve all been doing it long enough. Kyle from a playing perspective, Tony and myself coaching long enough in the women’s game that we’ve all got a pretty good eye test for what we like and what we think would be successful at Arizona.”

RK: What kinds of players are you targeting right now? I remember the last time I talked to you, you said athleticism was a priority.

SD: I think that’s still a big piece. We’re playing against the big dogs and we have to be as athletic if not more athletic than them. And we always identify: Can this player defend the best forward at Stanford? Can this player defend the best forward at North Carolina? And that’s always the gauge that we look at in identifying players. But everything that we do is twofold. It’s what does a player do really well, what is their elite quality that helps us win? For every player that’s a little bit different. And then the second piece of that is, do they fit what we want to do? Do they buy into what the vision is for the program and how we want to win?

If you’re looking for something that’s easy, if you don’t want to be coached hard, Arizona is not the place for you. And so we’ve had some really honest conversations with kids.

RK: How do you plan to balance recruiting and coaching now that the regular season is in the spring?

SD: I think we’re just hoping that by the time the summer gets here, we’re able to get on the road and recruit a little bit and we’re hoping that things open up. For us, our focus is on the ‘23 class. So those kids are all sophomores in high school right now. And again, we can’t talk to them until June. So we hope that we’ve gotten good video evaluation, we can go out and watch them play. And so the overlap will just be like trying to watch games, virtually. I think it actually would be harder if we had events on the weekend.

Like, say there was no dead period and now we had to go to Florida. I don’t want to miss the Washington, Washington State games because there’s an event that we need to go evaluate players. So I think it’s going to work itself out. I think it’s gonna be OK. We’re hard workers and we’ll just grind it out and find a way to get it done.