Athletics uses unconventional methods to recruit players

Becca Coleman / Sun Star Reporter
April 12, 2011

With a fourth of UAF’s student athletes expected to graduate and move on, coaches are putting their full efforts into recruiting new players to take their places. National letters of intent have been mailed out to future Nanooks and are expected to return before the end of April.

Many UAF athletes have gone on to play at the professional or semi-professional level, or in the Olympics. Most recently, senior Bryant Molle and junior Joe Sova signed hockey contracts with the Alaska Aces and New Jersey Devils, respectively, and senior Parrish West was named the Division II Player of the Year for men’s basketball. UAF faces some hurdles when it comes to convincing star athletes to come play for them.

“You’ve got to get people up here because Alaska is perceived as igloos and penguins, but they need to experience how beautiful and wonderful it is,” said Mallory Larranaga, volleyball assistant coach.

Once misconceptions about the weather have been cleared, coaches agree that the campus visit is one of the most important aspects of recruiting. The campus visit allows recruits to see the campus, sit in on classes and meet the team and coaches.

“The people up here are genuinely nice, and the team was really outgoing and friendly,” said junior Karlee Skalla, a volleyball player who transferred to UAF from Orange Coast College in Southern California.

“I was originally enrolled in another school and wasn’t going to swim, but I really connected with the girls I met here,” said senior Courtney Miller, a swimmer. “I fell in love with the team, and eventually, Fairbanks.”

“Recruiting is about relationship building,” said hockey head coach Dallas Ferguson. “You have to get to know them and their family. They have to be comfortable with the team, coaches and community. And you have to find out if their value system meets our value system.” NCAA rules state that schools are only allowed one phone call per week with a recruit, and can bring him or her to the school for one campus visit, so coaches know that they need to make their contact count.

“I wanted the opportunity to play in the CCHA and Division I hockey,” said junior Carlo Finucci, a hockey player. “But I felt comfortable moving here because the people I met were so nice.”

UAF is in a competitive hockey conference and has successfully placed players in the pros. Men’s basketball also provides opportunities for players to pursue their athletic goals, as coach Clemon Johnson played in the NBA for 10 years, and assistant coach Eric Stang played internationally.

Hindered by its location and cold weather – “I can’t compete with white, sandy beaches,” said swim coach Scott Lemley – UAF has to sell the Fairbanks experience by other means.

“Everywhere has pros and cons,” Stang said. “We have a high academic reputation.” Of UAF’s 133 student athletes of the 2010-11 season, 92 had GPAs of 3.0 or higher. When recruiting players, he doesn’t hide Fairbanks’ notoriously cold winters, but reminds athletes that the worst of the weather is during sports season, when teams travel.

All coaches pride themselves on the academic performance of their athletes, so they emphasize the quality of education that UAF offers.

“UAF is a good school,” said volleyball head coach Phil Shoemaker. “All of our degree programs are accredited, and some are world-class.”

“Our goal is to follow through with what we promise,” Lemley said. “We’ll give them a four-year degree.”

The NCAA requires certain academic standards, so coaches look at players’ scholastic achievements.

“For us to be competitive, we need to have true student athletes,” Stang said. “They are students first, athletes second. We need guys who are motivated to go to class when it’s minus 40.”

Stang acknowledges that education, relationships with teammates and the quality of the athletic program are not the only influences of a recruit choosing a school. “My cousin went on a campus visit and saw a girl that he fell head over heels for, so he ended up going there,” he said. “I don’t know if he ever got a chance to date the girl, but he went there anyway.” Stang mentioned another situation where a few recruits who were dazzled by the local fast food options. “They were like, ‘Whoa, you guys have KFC here?’”

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