By Luis Caraccioli
It’s 12 p.m. on a Saturday and coach Matt Gerlach picks up the phone to call a recruit. Immediately after he sifts through emails to reply to a high profile athlete interested in Hesston College. This is followed by hours of texting connections and searching for potential Larks. This is the endless work that goes on behind the scenes of college recruiting.
According to Athletic Director Chris Nachtigall, approximately 52 percent of students on campus are athletes. Del Hershberger, the vice president of admissions, and the Hesston College admissions counselors, work very closely with those coaches.
“We are shooting for 89 new recruited athletes for next fall,” Hershberger said. “Most of them will be specifically recruited by a coach, and some will have worked with an admissions counselor, and decided later to also play a sport.”
Off-season coaches agree: Recruiting is rewarding, but it’s difficult. Junior college teams have a very quick turnover. Some players leave for other schools, some graduate, and some just lose the love for their sport. In any case, coaches must deal with the task of bringing in just as many, if not more players every year than they have on their offseason rosters.
“Some of those unforeseen things that can happen during the season such as an injury or losing a player make me want to recruit a larger team,” volleyball coach Casey Cole said.
Cole and Todd Lehman, men’s cross country coach, are developing their own recruiting strategies. As new coaches, they bring new perspectives. Cole says she wants at least 15 on her roster, a goal which was not accomplished during the 2019 season when only 10 players stepped onto the court.
Lehman has a hard task in front of him: recruiting an entire women’s team while refining the men’s team for next season. Soccer coaches Gerlach and Byran Kehr field bigger rosters than volleyball or cross country combined.
Kehr tries to bring eight to 10 players every year, but retaining them is a challenge.
“It’s not normal for everyone to return,” Kehr said.
Gerlach has to bring in just as many new Larks.
A soccer roster fields between 20 to 30 players, but coach Matt looks to bring depth to his roster. “I would like to bring in one recruit for each spot I need, but it’s a bunch,” Gerlach said.
Coaches at Hesston College aren’t just looking for great athletes.
“They need to be a good fit for the institution,” Kehr said.
“I don’t love only recruiting for volleyball, because the majority of [students’] time on campus is [spent] away from the sport. They need to want to be here.”
Coaches want to make sure that their recruits have quality in the sport. Cole says she wants players to “buy into” the academic programs too.
“It makes their first year of college a better experience if they like school as much they like their sport,” Cole said.
Recruiting can be a struggle, whether it is a kid who doesn’t communicate well or parents who are so involved in the process that it overwhelms the coach. Coaches have their work cut out for them.
“The hardest thing about Hesston is its two-year private situation,” Gerlach said. “Before you even get a chance to communicate with them you’re already off the table because you’re a two-year program, and that’s the biggest problem with Hesston men’s soccer.”
Money complicates things too. HC doesn’t make its price for incoming students next year’s term until Nov. 1, and this is a disadvantage to coaches as they are not able to make offers to students as early as other schools are. “Institutionally, we are not nimble enough to make financial aid offers as early as we can,” Kehr said.
“Being the first to offer to a student has a lot of advantages,” Kehr said. “But we are working to make it better.”
As for Cole and Lehman, they’re feeling the learning curve.
“I’m still trying to nail out what my philosophies are. It’s the mental aspect of it,” Cole said.
Lehman can relate.
“It’s inexperience. Am I doing enough, or am I doing it right? I have no idea, the whole unknowing thing is scary,” Lehman said.
When they do get it right, it’s pretty rewarding.
“The process is long and hard. Sometimes it’s three years to bring a kid here, but when the process works and its the right kid, that’s joyful,” Gerlach said.
She is still figuring it out, but Cole thinks her happiness in recruitment will be in finding the right players.
“I imagine as I keep going, it’ll be seeing the great girls I’m bringing here, I think it’ll be about those moments,” Cole said.