New NCAA eligibility rules, pandemic causing major volleyball recruiting dilemmas

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volleyball recruiting dilemma 11/13/2020-Sunshine volleyball club
The Sunshine Volleyball Club was one of many that recognized its players signing with colleges this week/Sunshine Instagram
“I understand that the NCAA has to make the tough decisions trying to do the right thing, but the NCAA is not paying for this at the end of the day.” — Sam Wolinski of My Recruiting Solutions

Wednesday was national signing day.

A day for dreams.

Hundreds of high school volleyball players signed their national letters of intent. Many had ceremonies, posted pictures on social media, and couldn’t be more excited about what lies ahead in their respective NCAA volleyball (and, hopefully, educational) futures.

But while the class of 2021 players who signed early have high hopes, those happy social media posts are just the tip of the recruiting iceberg.

Dreams? 

It’s about to become a nightmare.

There are two major factors, and for the purpose of this story, we will stick to indoor volleyball, although NCAA beach has its own dilemmas.

First, the NCAA has granted everyone who plays in 2020-21 a free school year in terms of eligibility. In other words, a senior at State U. can come back in 2021-22 and, if the school chooses, can be given another year on scholarship. It can be as a senior again, or perhaps as a graduate student.

“It’s a tough situation,” Purdue coach Dave Shondell said. “I was surprised that the NCAA made that decision so early.”

Regardless, he added, the NCAA “can’t go back on that now because we’ve stopped recruiting in that class (of 2022), and some of the kids we were on had to back off of and have decided to go to other schools.”

And he added this to the equation: “You can’t continually have fifth-year seniors and not have any recruits.”

No wonder a coach like Bradley’s Carol Price-Torok said simply, “I’m in limbo.”

Or, as Houston Juniors recruiting coordinator Kara Pratt said, “There are a lot of what-ifs. I’m trying to gather as much information as I can.”

Coaches have to decide on all the players currently in their programs, but in the short term especially the seniors. Do you want them back? Do you have a scholarship for them? Can your program afford them and the recruits to whom you’ve promised scholarships? 

More than one mid-major coach told us they’re hoping their schools will fund both returning seniors and incoming freshmen, but can’t be optimistic.

“Roster sizes are a big deal right now,” said Sam Wolinski of My Recruiting Solutions. “How many should you keep? How many shouldn’t you keep? Recruiting budgets are going to get slashed to no end, as we all know.“ 

And then there’s recruiting itself. 

The NCAA has not allowed coaches to go out and recruit (in volleyball that primarily means attending club tournaments) since March. The ban has been extended a few times, and is expected to last until April 2021.

In other words, the players who are not so-called blue-chippers can’t be seen in person by college coaches.

“The big picture here is the loss of total scholarship opportunities for incoming student athletes,” Washington coach Keegan Cook said. “Each current collegiate athlete who extends their career means one less potential student-athlete offered in the class of 2022.

“You essentially have two classes of athletes competing for the same limited pool of scholarships.”

As a clarifier, if a senior in a college program decides to return, that player won’t count against the NCAA Division I scholarship limit of 12 per team in 2021. However, a senior transfer to a different school will count against that program’s 12 scholarships. 

You would think that the very best players coming out of high school, the ones who make lists like the VolleyballMag.com Fab 50 and who go to the schools that annually compete for a national championship, would be fine. 

But there are plenty of high school players who don’t get signed until late in the spring of their senior years in high school. In the case of the class of 2021, it’s put everyone in limbo.

“Fingers and toes crossed that things go off in the spring,” Wolinski said. “That’s another piece of the puzzle.”

For many players and families, money is a factor. The cold truth is a lot players — often spurred on by their parents — see club volleyball as a means to end in the form of a college volleyball scholarship.

One coach told us a player said simply they were going to “Whoever gives us the money.” The coach subsequently added, “And she’ll be miserable.”

Kara Pratt is the director for Houston Juniors, a club that provides colleges with some of the best players in the nation.

“The seniors, who have a sense of urgency, those are the kids who end up committing without actually seeing or stepping foot on campus because of the pandemic,” Pratt said. “Patience is something that I continue to say.”

College coaches couldn’t go out recruiting last winter until mid-February. Just a month later the NCAA shut them down.

“We were right in the middle of recruiting 2022 athletes and had already made offers and then the rule comes out and I’m looking at our roster and thinking, there are some players in our junior class we’d like to have play again,” Shondell said with a laugh. 

“Certainly one, definitely, if not two. You think what’s Grace Cleveland gonna look like in her fifth year? She may look like one of the best players in the country, and so if she wants to play, yeah, she’s going to take a scholarship away from somebody you were recruiting in that junior class. There’s no doubt about it. 

“And it’s not just the junior class. Take the sophomore class, it’s the same. What are they going to look like as fifth-year seniors? It’s a unique situation and it’s one you’d better get ahead of the game on and if you’re a recruit, you’d better be asking questions. When people are making offers, you need to make sure those are legitimate offers. Because you don’t want to accept a verbal offer and then have that coach come back and say that so and so is going to play again and we need you to walk on for a year.”

That’s why Wolinski and her partner Kara Hill “have been super busy. We’ve picked up more clients, because they don’t know what to do or how to go about it.”

Wolinski, the former head coach at both Rhodes College and Eastern Illinois and a former assistant coach at Mississippi State, has told players and their families to “just be patient and let’s see what happens,” but we all know how that works.

“Coaches just don’t know,” Wolinski said. “They just have so many unknowns about DI, the dead period. Kids are trying to get on campuses and see them for themselves, so we are encouraging them. We’ve been telling them, ‘Look, if you can get on a campus on your own right now, you’ve got to go see it.’ ”

Another part of the equation is the NCAA transfer portal. It will likely be bursting at the seams next month. 

Seniors will graduate and want to play one more season at another school while working on a different degree. Because there is now no penalty for transferring, it doesn’t have to be seniors. One coach said it will be “like the wild West.”

“You’re going to have schools with good kids say we don’t have the money,” Memphis coach Sean Burdette said, “and that player for their fifth year or last year decides to transfer somewhere that does have that money. People are going to land some pretty darn good players.” 

If nothing else, a sport already punctuated by free agency with a remarkable number of transfers each year — almost every team that has played for the NCAA title the past decade, for example has had key transfers — will likely see more.

While there are plenty of players already in the transfer portal, there is one well-documented example. 

Texas senior Ashley Shook, one of the most sought-after setters coming out of high school, graduates next month. Shook has played sparingly for Texas the past few years, and, with the blessings of the program, is in the portal while playing this fall. So Shook is playing for Texas this fall Big 12 season, will get to practice with another team in the spring, and then have another season after that as a graduate transfer.

The situation is different, of course, on different levels. A team in the Big Ten or Pac-12 will look at things differently than a mid-major.

Loyola Marymount coach Aaron Mansfield said if it comes down to saving a scholarship “for kids that are unknown, that we’re recruiting and we don’t know if we’re going to get, so honestly it was a pretty easy decision for us to go with the first option of wanting to keep the kids that we have in our program here for longer.”

But the money might not be there.

“So we had to have some hard conversations, which is part of the job and it’s not fun,” Mansfield said. “But you know, being candid and honest with our players is something that we pride ourselves on and they know we love them. They also had to find out that when it comes to your fifth year, at this point we don’t have money. And so it kind of was a case-by-case scenario. But we were able to keep the majority of our players for their fifth year.”

“We’re in a unique situation,” said Bradley’s Price-Torok, whose three seniors will graduate at the end of this semester. “So they, unfortunately, will not be playing this spring. It has obviously stressed us out the other way with lower numbers, so for next year I feel like we’re OK for the ’21 class with the kids we already had committed, but the ’22 class and someone who could be a fifth-year senior, do we hold off, does that person even want to play? They’re sophomores right now, they don’t know if they want to play their fifth year. It’s definitely thrown a wrinkle into things. 

“Just trying to gauge where some of the ‘22s are at and being in limbo with kids who could go Power 5 are really interested in us still and I think they’re not really sure what’s going on with the bigger schools has actually helped us stay on them a little longer. They’re waiting to pull the trigger to commit, so we’ve been able to get to know them more as a staff.”

What about trickle down? 

For a variety of reasons, could prep players once thought to be a recruit at a certain level take offers at so-called lesser or smaller programs? And could there be a domino effect throughout where Division II, NAIA, and junior-college programs — which give full scholarships — get players they weren’t expecting?

“Absolutely,” Wolinski said. “And the other thing I’ve seen through this is there are a lot of kids not sure of how far they want to go from home because of COVID. 

“That is a big piece of the puzzle because people are just nervous. This has taken a toll on all of us, but when I talk to our kids, the first thing I ask is ‘How are you?’ And they’re like, ‘Can I be honest? It sucks right now.’ A lot of that is playing in. We’ve had kids who were open to going anywhere and now some not so much. We have kids all over the country, Canadian kids, a kid from Chile, and it’s like, ‘What do I do right now? Do I want to stay closer? Do I want to go? I don’t know.”

And what about colleges changing their minds and telling a recruit a scholarship is no longer available.

“A secondary and unacceptable problem is the communication of this issue to the athletes on both sides of their careers,” Washington’s Cook said. “That responsibility falls on the collegiate coaches and I strongly challenge my peers to do better. We all need to have the difficult conversations with potential recruits and do right by our current collegiate athletes.”

Doing right is certainly something to consider.

“The biggest thing we’re finding out is the lack of communication from college coaches to recruits that they may not have that scholarship they promised a while back,” Burdette of Memphis said.

“Recruits that we’ve talked to have said, ‘I never thought of that.’ Or, ‘I have this offer and they haven’t circled back around.’ 

“So I think that’s one thing. And then if we have this fall season (in the spring) you’re going to see a lot of disparity with teams that may carry over a large group of seniors. Say you have six seniors who all want to come back and the school either finds funding for it or the kids choose to pay on their own. And essentially you could have 18 scholarship players in a case like that going against a roster of only 12 scholarships.”

The last word, before we get to the junior colleges, goes to Pratt of Houston Juniors.

About those players in the class of 2022, well, “The class of ’22 has gone through hell and back,” Pratt said. “That’s the class that got cut short (by the NCAA) during their freshman years and oh, by the way, (were told) you cannot have any direct correspondence until June 15 of your junior year.

“Well, then the pandemic happened and no one’s been on campus and no one’s had visits and you see all these kids making commitments and the kids who committed prior to (the rule change), have the coaches had that conversation with those athletes? Whether there’s going to be money in ’22 for them if kids in that classification currently on rosters choose to stay?

“A lot of people I’ve talked to at different levels in Division I have had conversations.

“There are a lot of coaches who have not had those conversations. So for the ’22 class, the first thing I ask my kids is to have the conversation and ask if there is money, and if there isn’t money, would there be money in ’23. And in conversations I’ve had with other recruiting coordinators is almost the going rate is walk on in ’22 and scholarship in ’23.”

***

All of this creates just as much, if not more, of a dilemma for junior colleges. The two-year schools are both recruiting high school athletes while simultaneously helping place players with NCAA schools.  

Jim Dietz is the longtime coach at Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois.

“One high school senior,” Dietz said, “told me, ‘The whole process is so weird. I don’t have any video and we aren’t playing until spring and colleges are playing in spring, so how do I get seen? Do I take an offer now or wait? I just don’t want to screw up.’ “

He said another player told him,“I just want to find a place and get it all over with. I wanted to enjoy the process, but with trying to do school at home, pressure to quit high school to play club, I just need it over with because I’m ready to just cry sometimes.”  

Bob Vilsoet, the coach at Harper College, a two-year school in Illinois, said,“My recruiting hasn’t changed. Recruits know the situation and I have good ties in the club community. I think the situation has hurt the other sports here more than us with the uncertainty. Kids are thinking about a year from now, wanting to make sure they wind up someplace where they’ll get the opportunity to take the court.”

Perhaps, but junior colleges have to look ahead, too, to getting their players to the next level.

“When the pandemic hit and things shutdown, it affected our (2019-20) sophomores,” said Jennifer Ei, the longtime coach at Johnson County Community College in Kansas just outside Kansas City. “Money just vanished at most of the schools they were looking for. I think most coaches felt this could be an extended problem, so I started working with my 2021 graduates on contacting schools earlier in the process, that we wanted to be pro-active, especially with the NJCAA decision now to play competitively in spring.”

One JC coach put it more succinctly.

“Kids got screwed,” though later adding, “someone was going to get cut out of this but I don’t think the NCAA put much thought in it with adding eligibility. This was for the benefit of rich schools and football teams.”

Ei, however, was more optimistic for the kids’ sake.

“This hasn’t really affected NAIA programs. Since they aren’t adding extra eligibility, they have plenty of room for athletes and I think they are taking advantage of the situation as well as they reach out to jucos, knowing the NCAA has a logjam.”

Vilsoet’s team has a different issue.  

His school, in the suburbs of Chicago, has banned indoor teams from practicing.  

“We haven’t been permitted to touch a ball and we won’t be allowed until the competitive season begins in January,” Vilsoet said. “We never had a chance to start our spring season, so my kids haven’t had an organized practice since November, 2019.  

“That makes it rough and with the schools I’ve been in touch with. It feels like they are looking at having fewer spots available for fall of 2021.”

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