EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a four-part series on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on college sports recruiting.
When the spread of the new coronavirus this month forced either the cancellation or postponement of organized sports throughout the country, athletes hoping for college opportunities were one of the groups affected.
When it comes to recruiting, though, they weren't alone in having their plans changed.
The disruption in competition also affects coaches trying to evaluate those same college prospects.
Where Tennessee high schools are concerned, basketball was hit particularly hard because championships had yet to be decided for six of 10 classifications for the TSSAA. Although the boys' and girls' state tournaments for private schools were completed, the public school girls' tournaments were in progress in Murfreesboro, where the public school boys' tournaments were days away from starting when the TSSAA announced it was suspending the basketball postseason.
Such events bring additional exposure for the players involved, and while the TSSAA has reiterated its intentions to complete the tournaments if possible, there's a chance that opportunity is gone.
Cleveland's boys are the only Chattanooga-area prep basketball team that has not completed its season, with the top-ranked Blue Raiders one of the eight qualifiers for the Class AAA bracket. A state tournament would give college coaches at smaller schools — most of which don't have the budget to do the type of summer recruiting a lot of NCAA programs do — one last chance to evaluate potential late bloomers, such as Cleveland senior Morrell Schramm.
With the National Junior College Athletic Association having canceled its championship events for basketball — as well as all of its spring sports competition — no such hope exists for the athletes who will miss their final moments to impress scouts. Chattanooga State's women qualified for the national tournament that was set to begin March 17, and though the Lady Tigers' roster had only freshmen in 2019-20, each would have had a chance to get on a four-year school's radar before next season.
Schramm spent the first three seasons of his high school career at East Hamilton, where the powerful 6-foot-3 wing was a solid piece of a 23-win team in 2018-19. His recruiting hadn't really taken off yet, and the tournament's postponement is at least a hindrance to that process.
"We are holding on to any hope we can," Schramm, who recently announced an offer from in-state NCAA Division II program Tusculum, told the Times Free Press recently. "We have put in so much work, and we were so ready for the state tournament. I am confident in my team. We are a family and scary when we play together."
Small schools, big problem
Smaller schools, such as nearby NAIA Division II members Tennessee Wesleyan University and Bryan College, especially benefit from prep state tournaments and regional tournaments for junior colleges when it comes to evaluating basketball prospects.
TWU men's coach Ray Stone, whose Bulldogs went from eight wins in his first season to 15 this past, doesn't have the budget to send coaches all around in search of players. He recruited last summer without a full-time assistant coach and usually has to rely on established relationships with high school coaches.
Sixteen of Bryan's 18 varsity players are from the state of Tennessee. Twenty-one of the 23 varsity players at TWU are from within a five-hour radius. Compare that to the Tennessee Volunteers, with only three of their 12 scholarship players from the state, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men, whose lone in-state scholarship player is freshman Grant Ledford from Knoxville.
NAIA Division II members have only six full scholarships to give — as opposed to 15 in NJCAA, 13 in NCAA Division I, 11 in NAIA Division I and 10 in NCAA Division II — so Stone and his TWU staff already had to be more particular.
Some of his recruiting has come from play dates, which amount to an opportunity to try out for college coaches. Such events also give Stone an opportunity to show off the campus to those prospective athletes.
"Now is a time where we do a lot of hands-on, face-to-face recruiting and going to different tournaments," Stone said. "That's kind of taken away from us right now, so you constantly have to rely on calling these kids, reaching out to them through social media, staying in touch with them and making sure paperwork and all that kind of stuff is turned in.
"It just takes away the face-to-face part of it."
The NCAA hasn't alluded to any changes to its recruiting calendar, which has a signing period that lasts from April 15 to May 20 for high school seniors or prospects from junior colleges. After that, roster additions would have to come from transfers, and with no real opportunity in the immediate future to evaluate prospects because of the lack of in-person contact, every one at every level is waiting to see what's next.
"Showing them around, letting them meet some of the guys, that's the most crucial part of recruiting," Stone said. "Not just them liking the coaches or liking your team, but they need to have a visual like, 'Hey, this is where I may be staying,' or, 'This is where class is going to be,' so I think that's a really crucial point because I had a few visits set up and I have to postpone them for whenever we can.
"That's one of the biggest things, not being able to have the foot traffic on campus to show your schools off."