An inside look at the women's basketball recruiting process

by Lili Stern | 2/25/19 2:30am

evan-morgan-1

Women's basketball head coach Belle Koclanes has high academic expectations for students she recruits to Dartmouth.

by Evan Morgan / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

The Dartmouth women’s basketball coaching staff calls it the ABCD approach. Academics, basketball, cost, and Dartmouth: the mutual selling points between a recruit and the coaching staff that have to be in check to bring a student-athlete to Dartmouth. 

Across the NCAA, there are recruiting regulations and standards that must be met to gain admittance to a college or university in order to play sports. However, Ivy League recruiting is a whole different ballgame. High academic standards, high level basketball and the absence of the opportunity to earn an athletic scholarship significantly narrows the pool of Ivy League prospects; Dartmouth’s remote location, small student body and relative anonymity compared to other schools in the league are additional hurdles in trying to bring top-tier athletes to Hanover. 

To compete with other Ivy League and NCAA schools in the recruiting process, head coach Belle Koclanes and her staff travel around the country to find high-quality high school basketball players. The search for potential new members of the Dartmouth women’s basketball program is so time-demanding that two years ago, Koclanes brought in a former assistant coach at the University of Southern California, Taja Edwards, to focus specifically on recruiting.

“When I came in, [Koclanes] really emphasized that recruiting was this whole big other monster that needed to be tamed, and it really is,” Edwards said. “It’s nonstop, 365, 24/7.”

When Edwards says it’s nonstop, she isn’t kidding — even now, in the thick of conference play, as many as three out of the staff’s four coaches will be on the road recruiting at the same time. When the coaches hit the road, they’re watching tournaments to discover new players, following players that they already had their eyes on and trying to seal the deal with athletes who have Dartmouth toward the top of their lists. However, the first stage of recruiting is exponentially different in the Ivy League from the rest of the NCAA.

This is why, in any conversation with a potential recruit, the first thing Koclanes and her staff talks about is “the A” — academics. The athletics department gives Koclanes a certain number of admissions slots each year for recruits. However, even if a high school basketball player earns one of these slots, Koclanes cannot guarantee admission to Dartmouth. While other NCAA conferences can make an official offer, Ivy League coaches can only offer support in the admissions process. In other words, Koclanes can help, but the recruit has to get in on her own.

Admission to Dartmouth is no easy feat, for students nor for student-athletes. Dartmouth’s admissions office uses each recruit’s academic profile, including test scores, GPA and other measures of a student’s academic success in the context of their academic challenge, to calculate an Academic Index for that athlete. Each athlete has to earn an Ivy League-mandated minimum AI to be considered for admission, and each recruiting class has to have an average AI that typically hovers between 15-20 points above the floor, according to Koclanes. If a recruit does not meet these academic requirements by the end of her junior year of high school, the admissions office will not grant preliminary support for that athlete’s application, and Koclanes cannot offer her support through the application process.

With that said, most of the time, when the Dartmouth women’s basketball staff watches a high schooler play basketball for the first time, they don’t know her academic profile. They’re judging solely based on her basketball abilities; a situation that, according to Edwards, takes some pressure off.

“I can never go to a game and look at a kid and be like, ‘She’s got a 4.0. She’s got a 3.5. She’s got two Cs. She looks like she’s got two As.’ I’d be being biased,” she said. “When you just solely recruit basketball, that kind of eases the anxiety of having to think about transcripts.”

Current Dartmouth women’s basketball players had the threat of rejection to Dartmouth and other Ivy League schools looming over their heads as they progressed through the recruiting process and high school in general, and as a result, academics were always on their minds. In fact, for Paula Lenart ’20, a forward from Romania, the Ivy League’s high standard for a score on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (a widely used English proficiency exam for international students) led to a rejection from Dartmouth the first time around. However, the mutual attraction between Lenart and Dartmouth women’s basketball made her continue the recruiting process.

“At first I didn’t get accepted, but I really wanted to come and [the coaches] wanted me too, so they said, ‘Would you think about doing a post-graduate year in America to help you prepare with your English?’ and I [said yes],” Lenart said.

So, after she received her diploma in Europe, she did a fifth year of school at Northfield Mount Herman, a boarding school in New Hampshire. When she applied for admission to the Class of 2020, she was accepted, and now plays a formidable role as a starter and the team’s leading rebounder.

Katie Douglas ’22, who hails from Blair Academy in New Jersey, a high school with a highly competitive women’s basketball program that also produced Cy Lippold ’19, said that she had to think about academics more than her teammates who were being recruited outside of the Ivy League.

According to Koclanes and Edwards, one of the main selling points for the Ivy League is simply that it’s the Ivy League; if an athlete comes to play at Dartmouth, and can keep up with the schoolwork and the basketball, she will graduate with a prestigious degree. This sell held significant weight for Douglas during her recruiting process, in which her top four schools were Dartmouth, Brown University, Cornell University and Yale University.

“My goal was to use basketball to get into a school that could give me the best opportunity after college, so mainly I was looking at Ivy League schools,” Douglas said. “There’s a much higher expectation here academically compared to other conferences, and that’s kind of something you give up because you get the Ivy League on your resume. It definitely requires a lot more work, but it’s definitely something that will pay off in the long run.”

In addition to having high academic expectations, the Dartmouth women’s basketball program holds high expectations of its student athletes as competitors as well. In a conference that has recently been landing ESPN three, four and five-star recruits with some consistency, basketball talent is not compromised by the requirement of academic excellence.

When Koclanes and her staff evaluate a recruit, yet another acronym guides them: CORE. The C stands for character, the O for offensive skill set, the R for relentlessness — which evaluates defense, rebounding and playing style — and the E for excellence both in academia and basketball. And when the coaches are on the road recruiting, they watch for everything.

“You have to fit our CORE for us to recruit you,” Koclanes said. “Nothing is more important than that character piece. Are you respectful, do you have a great attitude, are you prepared?”

However, if a Dartmouth recruit has the academic and basketball pieces set in place, there is still one major hurdle: cost. The Ivy League does not issue athletic scholarships, which can deter athletes and their families from playing sports at Ivy League institutions. While Ivy League schools do issue need-based financial aid, an education at Dartmouth is only guaranteed to require no loans for a student if her family’s total income does not exceed $100,000 per year. Thus, the families whose incomes fall above that number but below a number where they can comfortably pay tuition have to decide if the experience is worth the price. According to Koclanes, a family’s financial situation often plays the biggest role in its decision on whether or not its daughter can play basketball at an Ivy League school.

A system called Ivy League matching mitigates the disparity in financial aid available among schools in the Ivy League. The program makes it such that if a recruit is considering multiple Ivy League schools, and one offers more financial aid than the others, then the others can get extra funding to bring down the cost of that student’s education and knock down the financial barrier that inhibits choice within the Ivy League.

While this rule evens the financial playing field in the Ivy League, some schools within the conference have advantages in recruiting athletes nonetheless. While schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University can draw from more densely populated surrounding locations, and while Harvard University and Yale have name recognition and clout beyond Dartmouth’s scope, Dartmouth’s size and location, among other factors, are its downfalls in the recruiting process within the Ivy League.

“It’s been hard,” Koclanes said. “And to be quite honest, part of our recruiting plan is to try not to recruit Ivy League kids. To try to diversify the landscape here, because we know that if a kid is set on the Ivy League, and Harvard is in the mix … if Harvard calls, it’s hard to say no to Harvard. Everyone understands that.”

However, because so few athletes meet the academic and athletic standards required of Ivy League basketball players, according to Edwards, she and the other coaches have to be creative in their recruiting to find athletes not being recruited by other Ivy League schools. Sometimes this means looking outside of the U.S., and other times it means traveling to uncharted recruiting territory within it.

According to Koclanes, however, it doesn’t take a superstar to win an Ivy League championship; instead, it takes the right culture and community. That is where the D of ABCD comes in: the hard sell for Dartmouth. The coaches emphasize the community, the “DWB family,” the quarter system and the freedom to study abroad or take an off term it permits, and the opportunity to help the 17-time Ivy League champions get back on the map. For Douglas, the sell worked. 

“I feel like we have one of the best team dynamics in the league,” she said. “And the coaching staff ultimately sold me — I feel like they were the ones that would best prepare me not only for basketball, but also for life in general. And that was really important for me, and also for my parents.”

Edwards has faith that the attraction that Douglas felt toward the team, coaching staff and community will continue to be a drawing point for high-level recruits — and that, as a result, Dartmouth women’s basketball has nowhere to go but up.

“We have to keep finding what makes us unique, and why DWB is so special,” she said. “We know what we’re doing here, we know that we develop our players, we know that our culture is the best it can be at this moment in time. We trust that we’re giving it the best that we can.”