Meadowdale’s Fatoumata Jaiteh (right) works the post with Maia Austvold defending during a practice on Feb. 20, 2019, at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Meadowdale’s Fatoumata Jaiteh (right) works the post with Maia Austvold defending during a practice on Feb. 20, 2019, at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Local athletes discuss being recruited during a pandemic

As the signing period opens, college hopefuls have dealt with a recruitment unlike any other.

Earlier this year, King’s High School senior Mia Flor and her parents decided to take a road trip to a destination that probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind for sightseeing near the West Coast.

Flor and her family made a trek through Washington and down to the southeastern corner of Idaho. Their destination was Pocatello, the home of Idaho State University.

It was a chance for Flor, a standout for the King’s girls basketball program, to see the campus of the first NCAA Division I women’s basketball program to offer her a scholarship. After her trip, she knew the Pocatello campus was the right place to continue her education and her basketball career.

“It’s hard committing to play somewhere or thinking about playing somewhere if you’ve never seen the town or anything,” she said. “That was one thing that really influenced my decision. I loved Pocatello, the campus was beautiful and it just felt like the right fit for me.”

Flor didn’t get a chance to meet with coaches during her visit, though, as it came during a recruiting dead period — a time when no in-person contact between coaches and prospective athletes can occur. But it was nonetheless an opportunity to soak in the scenes of Pocatello and get a feel for her future college campus.

In a normal year, Flor would have been able to make a visit to Idaho State, meet with coaches and players and receive in-person interaction that is instrumental in building personal relationships.

But this has been far from a normal year.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the lives of many, and it’s left student-athletes from the class of 2021 with the challenge of navigating an unprecedented recruiting experience that seemed farfetched at the start of the calendar year.

In September, the NCAA’s Division I Council extended the recruiting dead period through the end of 2020.

In an effort to combat the current obstacles brought forth from the pandemic, many athletes have taken virtual campus tours and college coaches have turned to Zoom calls in an effort to create face-to-face interaction with their recruits. Multiple athletes praised those efforts, but Zoom calls and virtual tours just aren’t the same as stepping foot on campus.

“It’s just not how I expected it to go down,” said Claire Gallagher, who is a high school teammate of Flor and is committed to play basketball at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. “I visited over Zoom and really deeply researched the school and the specs of it. But I didn’t actually get to step foot on campus before committing, which psychologically was a little bit difficult because I’m looking at schools all the way on the opposite coast.”

Gallagher’s recruiting process seemed to be over early. She was committed to play at Brown University before the pandemic hit. When the coaching staff was let go in March, Gallagher was forced to reopen her recruitment.

“It was stressful,” Gallagher said. “The rug kind of just got pulled out from under me. Initially when COVID started to hit, I was like, ‘I’m OK. I’m committed.’ But after that it was really hard to reevaluate.”

The realization also hit that the opportunity to showcase her talents on the club basketball scene was uncertain.

“It was definitely really hard because at that point a lot of the spring tournaments had been cancelled, things were starting to shut down,” Gallagher said. “In the long term, I was starting to get more uncertain if summer club basketball would look like it normally would.”

Those spring and summer tournaments are paramount for recruits. It’s an opportunity to shine in front of college scouts and coaches while playing against some of the country’s toughest competition.

“It’s one thing to talk to a coach over the phone or whatever,” said Meadowdale senior Fatoumata Jaiteh, a Northern Arizona University women’s basketball commit, “but it’s another thing to meet them (in person), have them see how you play and see what you got.”

Jaiteh said she started to receive interest from college coaches at the end of her sophomore club basketball season in 2019. That interest turned into a trio of scholarship offers, lamenting the importance of the club basketball season when it comes to recruitment.

Eventually, club teams found their way back on the court this summer by traveling to play in states with less COVID restrictions. Though some opportunities may have been lost, athletes were just happy to get back to competition.

“It felt really good finally being able to get out there with my teammates,” Jaiteh said.

Said Flor: “I had no clue how much I truly missed it until I started playing.”

The affects of the coronavirus pandemic don’t end there. They’ll also be felt on signing day.

With in-person learning seemingly in the distant future for many public high schools, some schools are turning to virtual ceremonies to honor athletes in lieu of the traditional signing day events held at schools for friends and family.

That’s the case at Kamiak. The school has a Zoom meeting scheduled Wednesday at noon to honor its student-athletes who are signing.

“I think schools all over the place that are in full distance learning are really feeling that kind of lack of connection with our kids and not having students in the building,” Kamiak athletics director Sean Monica said. “… For the kids, we really are trying to do everything we possibly can to make them feel like, ‘Alright, we’re still attached to the culture of Kamiak High School and what it means to be a student-athlete here.’”

Monica said a typical signing day would involve coaches, teammates and family gathering the school’s staff room, often times with coffee and cake, to celebrate.

“We’re just trying to find different and new ways to keep kids engaged,” Monica said. “We thought that we should try and do something new and recognize the kids and show them some love and appreciation for their tremendous accomplishments over the course of their high school career.”

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