Austin Emile was a chess player before he took up soccer. To him, the pitch was like a chessboard, and he and his teammates were the pieces working in harmony toward victory. Then, the coronavirus pandemic came, and Emile was out of moves.
Within days, his high school was closed. The tournaments where he planned to show off his skills to college coaches were canceled, and so were the summer talent identification camps he was supposed to attend. In April, U.S. Soccer ended operations of its Development Academy program, where Emile was part of an elite club team.
Then, on May 1, his grandfather, Thomas Conrad Emile, died after a bout with Covid-19.
Now, Emile’s soccer career is confined to a slab of concrete adjacent to his apartment building in the north Bronx in New York. He doesn’t venture into a park because his mother, Kim, has a compromised immune system, which makes her more susceptible to the virus. While dribbling and shooting on the cement, Emile thinks about the goals that college coaches might never see him score.
“I was in the heart of my recruiting,” said Emile, 16, a junior at Ethical Culture Fieldston School. “There were coaches coming to my tournaments to see me play. I was excited to visit a couple of campuses. Now, I’ve lost a lot. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, youth sports generated more than $15 billion annually and created the “tourna-cation circuit,” as it is known, with scholarship hunters and college coaches intersecting at destination events where players could showcase their skills. With those events canceled, the industry has tanked and the college recruiting ecosystem has also been upended, especially for the nonrevenue sports like soccer and lacrosse at Division II and Division III universities. In Division I, potential top recruits are identified as early as freshman year and tracked.
Virtual campus tours have replaced on-site visits. Live talent analysis from sidelines, often shoulder-to-shoulder with college coaches, have ceded to hours of analyzing game tape. Meet the recruit and parents in their living room? Only through a Zoom call.
No matter how creative coaches have become and how persistent student-athletes are, both sides know that significant opportunities for better teams and futures are being lost.
“The story here is how hard this is going to impact high school juniors,” said Dennis Bohn, the men’s soccer coach at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. “There are kids that are going to miss getting scholarships or lose financial aid and roster spots. Some people are going to lose the opportunity to go to school altogether.”
Even before the pandemic, much of the recruiting process had moved online. Digital platforms, like Next College Student Athlete, help coaches see game video, résumés and academic transcripts from student-athletes. In April, 15,000 college coaches and 502,000 athlete profiles were viewed, according to the company, setting a single-month record for activity.
Many athletes take the initiative to market themselves and email coaches links to their social media sites, with highlights not only of their athletic exploits but also windows into their personality and interests. Emile, for example, tries to email at least five coaches a day.
Nothing, however, beats a coach seeing a recruit up close on a basketball court, soccer field or in a swimming pool.
In March, after the National Club Swimming Association spring championships in Orlando were canceled, Jimmy Tierney, the swimming and diving coach at McKendree University, realized how dependent he was on the spring and summer circuits.
“I was supposed to meet some of my recruits there for the first time,” said Tierney, who started the program at McKendree, in Lebanon, Ill., after 21 years as the women’s swimming and diving coach at Northwestern University. “Even though you have tape and times, you want to see their technique in the water. Out of it, you want to see how they walk and talk. You want to talk to coaches about reputations. You want to know what you are getting for four years.”
That recruiting is going digital may be necessary, but it is not nearly as efficient. Zach Ward, the men’s soccer coach at Haverford College, said working tournaments and camps and conducting on-site visits yield a quicker and better assessment of the student-athlete than watching tape and conducting video chats. Usually, this time of year, Ward has a database of 150 rising seniors and potential recruits; instead he now he has a third as many.
“I’m behind because there’s only so much you can do with tape — nobody sends you their lowlights,” Ward said. “If nothing changes, I’m going to have to trust my gut a little bit. You take a chance on some guys and do everything you can for the athlete.”
Even student-athletes who have exceptional talent and put in the effort to attract college coaches have been unsettled by the prospect of a summer without showcases.
Last spring and summer, Tommy Zipprich attended soccer camps at Georgetown, Tufts, Harvard, Dartmouth, Middlebury and Amherst after strong performances in tournaments in the spring of his sophomore year. He visited multiple schools in the fall and stayed in touch with about 15 coaches, many of whom intended to scout him in mid-March at the National League tournament in Las Vegas.
When the event was canceled, Zipprich’s list got a little shorter.
“I was lucky enough to get ahead of the process,” said Zipprich, who will be a senior at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, Ill. “There are some schools that backed off a little because they didn’t get to see me play, and there are schools that I didn’t get to see.”
In a normal year, Zipprich would be having final discussions with a small number of schools and close to making his final decision. This is not a normal year and Zipprich’s college future remains up in the air.
The lesson for younger student-athletes is to get in the recruiting pipeline early. Emma Rose, a rising sophomore at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, N.Y. told her parents that she was serious about playing basketball at the college level.
So, for $3,840, the Roses hired the Next College Student Athlete to guide them over their daughter’s high school career — not only to edit her highlight packages and provide a recruiting coach, but to prep her for standardized college tests and put her in touch with as many schools as possible so Emma can find the one that is right for her athletic dreams. “I’m getting a dozen emails a day from coaches,” said Emma Rose. “By the time, we get to my junior year, they will know who I am and what I can do.”
On that slab of Bronx concrete, Emile has already ruined one soccer ball and is halfway through to ruining another as he copes with the loss of his grandfather and the path to his future that he once thought was sure-footed. The college coaches he speaks with offer encouraging words but no firm offers.
“There’s some things you can’t plan for and this was one of them,” Emile said. “All I can do for now is stay sharp, in shape and keep the faith.”