Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
Springtime means that coaches are busy recruiting the next classes of Viking student athletes. Berry’s coaches overcome the unique challenges entailed by recruiting for their sports and for a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III school to bring in one-third of Berry’s student body.
While recruiting players for Berry’s sports teams is a continual process, it changes depending on the sport, the specific demand of the year and the type of high school athlete involved. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly three years ago, it has also created variables like class size that affect recruiting.
Several of Berry’s athletic programs, like basketball, soccer and volleyball, are club sports, meaning that while a high school student might be playing them for their school, they are also likely playing with a club year-round.
The recruiting timeline for club sports is moved up by almost a year, starting in an athlete’s sophomore or junior year, according to Luke Syverson, head coach of men’s and women’s head track and field.
Tony Kunczewski is head coach of Vikings football, said that the increased number of applicants to Berry in the three admissions cycles since the pandemic began has moved the recruiting timeline up earlier for both club and non-club sports.
“The school only has a certain number of beds, so that affects us all,” Kunczewski said.
Another variable created by the pandemic are the number of Berry athletes playing more than four years. Typically, D-III student athletes could only get approval to play an extra year if they had a medical injury. In Spring 2020, the NCAA allowed an extra year to all Division III athletes at the time, according to recruiting company Next College Student Athletes.
Berry’s class of 2024, most of whom are current juniors, are the last athletes to be allowed this extra year. Syverson said that at five of his track and field athletes have committed to taking a fifth year. This decreases the number of high schoolers that coaches are seeking to recruit.
Isolation due to the pandemic also caused more students to submit film and reach out to college coaches, according to junior volleyball team member Jazzy Innis, benefiting small private schools like Berry that are often limited to recruiting to nearby locations because of relatively small travel budgets.
A wider reach can impact a program, Syverson said, because sports are sometimes more popular in one area of the country than another. Track and field enjoys more popularity in California, Texas and the upper Midwest, while Georgia is prime recruiting territory for football.
In addition to location, each sport faces other unique recruiting challenges. Syverson said that while dual-season sports are typically trickier because coaches must arrange visits around practices and games during the entire school year, track and field is easier because finish times objectively measure a player’s performance, while other sports like football and basketball require first-hand observation through film or visits.
“With track, ‘the stopwatch doesn’t lie,’ is what we typically say,” Syverson said.
Track and field, as the largest women’s team and second largest sports program on campus with 85 athletes between both genders, brings in around 25 athletes per recruiting class. Football brings in around 45 students each year.
Kunczewski said that he and his assistant coaches tightly manage recruitment for the largest program on campus by each overseeing a geographic area, and then assigning potential players to their position coach. Kunczewski said that receiving too many recruits can be just as detrimental to his team as receiving too few.
“If our culture is about building relationships with our guys, we can’t have too many players on our team because it’s tough to build relationships with everybody,” Kunczewski said. “If we want to be who we say we want to be, we have to manage those numbers.”
Being a D-III school can also affects the recruiting process for all schools. As most athletes prefer to play for scholarships, the recruiting timeline for DIII schools is affected by the decisions of Division I and Division II schools. The Transfer Portal, created by the NCAA in fall 2018, also further delays the timeline for high school recruits, although Kunczewski said that transferring athletes is not the preferred route for Berry.
“In general, our philosophy is we want to develop a guy over four years,” Kunczewski said. “When you go to the transfer portal, that’s a typically quick fix.”
Mason Robison, a junior thrower on the track and field team who initially decided to play for D-I school Western Carolina University, transferred to Berry before the spring of his sophomore year because he realized that despite the loss of scholarships with “transferring down,” he was not making as much progress in his sport as he would in Syverson’s coaching environment at Berry.
Jazzy Innis, the junior volleyball team member, said that she will elect not to take a fifth year because she would have to pursue her master’s degree at another school, and she would not want to play for any team other than the Vikings.
“We’re all going to Berry because we want to get a good education, we all want to keep playing the sports that we love,” Innis said. “It makes it a little more fun and shows that everyone wants to be here, not just to get a free education.”