Already Next Season: Creative measures in athletics recruiting

The nationwide measures put in place to halt the spread of COVID-19 have produced challenges to every department on the MBU campus. For the MBU athletic coaches who devote much of their time traveling to recruit potential student-athletes, those challenges required new strategies and outside-the-box thinking. Just as the university itself has risen to the occasion, so have MBU’s coaches, adapting and succeeding in a new normal.

(left-right) Tom Byrnes, director of MBU athletics; Christy Shelton, head softball coach and associate athletics director; Scott Hearn, head baseball coach

“As with everything we’re doing in athletics, the coaches have had to be more creative in recruiting,” said Tom Byrnes, director of MBU athletics. “During the pandemic, we lost not only campus visits by recruits, but our ability to travel to games, camps, and clinics to see those recruits in action. Our coaches have had to do a lot of adjusting on the fly and be even more active in direct communication, but they’ve done it all with amazing results. And that’s wonderful, because these and similar strategies will likely continue into the future.”

A major aspect of any sports program is how individual players fit into both a larger team and a coach’s philosophy. Talent alone is never enough. Personality, attitude, and camaraderie play a crucial role in every program’s success. That principle takes on an even greater role at Mary Baldwin, where the promise of forging close-knit relationships becomes a deciding factor for many students. With changes in how coaches could safely recruit, evaluating high school seniors became more difficult, as was predicting how those seniors would fit into the MBU model. Yet Byrnes is confident that the 2020–21 recruiting class is filled not only with high-caliber athletes, but high-caliber women and men.

“From the discussions I’ve had with our coaches, we are building programs that will elevate the level of play by bringing more depth to our rosters,” he said. “As starters or reserves, we’ll have more veteran players and recruits ready and available to contribute both to the team’s success and their own individual success in the classroom.”

Evidence for Byrnes’s confidence can be found in the recruiting efforts of the head coaches who  helm the two MBU teams that were most directly affected by the suspension of in-seat classes last spring — coaches who are not only gearing up for the coming season, but preparing as if that season is already here.

Men’s baseball — a diamond in the rough

The MBU men’s baseball team celebrates a run scored against the Eastern Mennonite Developmental Team on Feb. 16.

“Right now,” said Scott Hearn, head men’s baseball coach, “I’ll be excited just to get on the field and compete with our guys every day.”

The MBU men’s baseball team suffered a heartbreaking and sudden end to their inaugural season after playing only eight games. Yet far from staying down, Hearn and his players are using the loss of nearly seven weeks of their season as fuel to make an even greater impact in 2021, moving from a club sport to a varsity team in the USA South Athletic Conference.  

“It’s definitely been an unusual start to the recruiting season,” Hearn said. “I’ve relied heavily on emails with video from prospects and high school coaches. Many of the travel baseball teams are posting virtual workouts over social media or websites, so I’ve been watching those as much as possible. That gives us a good starting point to be able to narrow down the players we want to evaluate in person later this summer.”

Baseball recruiting usually starts 16 months out with a concentrated effort from May through September. Almost a month and a half into the current recruiting season, Hearn is on schedule to begin in-person events. He and his assistant coaches have had virtual conversations with prospects over Google Meet, and expects the recruiting events to run into the winter months, giving him more time to evaluate players.

“With the guys we have returning and the players coming in,” he said, “we have a lot of talent. I’m excited to see how our new guys grow and how our returners continue to grow. The main focus for this year’s recruiting class is on starting and relief pitching. We have talented guys and we’ve brought in some good players.”

Hearn’s work and the team’s efforts are honed to a singular goal: get back on the diamond, and give these players a full season to prove themselves.

“The goal every day for the baseball program is to be as competitive as possible,” said Hearn. “I know right now we have a team and a coaching staff that is extremely excited about getting back to campus, getting back to work, and achieving our individual and team goals.”

Women’s softball — continuing an upward trend

The MBU softball team comes together after a doubleheader against Covenant on Feb. 29

“It’s hard to describe how everyone felt when the season was stripped away from us,” said Christy Shelton, who serves as head coach of the MBU women’s softball team and associate athletics director. “We didn’t get to see the preparation and hard work that this year’s team put in. But we knew it was a bigger picture than just softball. It makes all of us appreciate what we have been given and doesn’t allow for us to take anything for granted. Softball is just a game we love to play and coach.”       

For Shelton, certain aspects of her recruiting style didn’t have to change at all. Texting, emailing, and calling prospects has long been a part of her coaching style, cementing early the mentoring relationships that make her a favorite among her players. 

“Having those conversations and talking with other coaches and tournament directors gets MBU’s name out,” she said. “It’s all about what we have to offer both academically and for softball, and that allows them to communicate with me about possible prospects that could be a good fit for MBU.”

As with Hearn, Shelton has leveraged technology to bridge the gap that the coronavirus pandemic has created. Zoom meetings with tournament or travel team coaches have become second nature. Many teams in states that opened up earlier than Virginia have been live-streaming their games, allowing Shelton to watch prospects on the field. Her efforts have paid dividends. The Fighting Squirrels softball team will welcome nine incoming first years, all from very good travel ball organizations and all very good academically. And also with Hearn, Shelton is driven by the goal of getting back on the field. 

“We only graduated one player,” she said, “so we have the rest of the team back, plus the incoming recruiting class. We’re ready to start preparing in the fall. We’ll need to integrate everyone so that we have good team chemistry, but overall we’re all excited as coaches, and we’re ready to compete in the USA South.” 

While the status of the coming year’s athletics schedule is yet to be determined, Mary Baldwin continues to work closely with the USA South Athletic Conference to adopt all necessary precautions to keep student-athletes, coaches, and fans safe. With strict guidelines to come and the help of an entire campus community, next spring may well bring the words so many long to hear:

“Play ball.”