A personal touch for recruits

Using a pen-and-paper approach to recruiting has worked for Minnesota women’s soccer and they have no plans of changing their tactics as they have paid dividends.

Assistant coach Kate Cortis spearheads the recruiting effort for the Gophers and believes that a hand-written note goes a long way.

“We’ll have mail communication with recruits three times a week – very, very personalized, unique mail communication,” Cortis said. “That is probably totally old-school, but I believe in the power of a hand-written note. I think that it’s proven successful for us. That will always be a pillar of the way we recruit, just constant personal communication.”

Although e-mail might be a more prodigious means of communication in this day and age, snail mail has proven a very effective means of bringing in top recruits as coach Mikki Denney Wright and Cortis landed one of the highest-ranked classes in school history two years ago.

That class ranked 13th nationally according to Soccer Buzz magazine, and included five top 100 recruits.

Junior Lindsey Schwartz, an Iowa native, became one of the first recruits Denney Wright and her staff pursued in 2004. Schwartz said the personal letters helped make her decision.

“I talked to them a lot and they sent me the best personal letters,” Schwartz said. “They were the most personable people.”

An unofficial visit also helped Schwartz decide on the Gophers because of the atmosphere.

“Minnesota was my first visit and they had the best stadium,” Schwartz said. “They all took the time to show me around campus.”

Once recruits come on an unofficial visit, Cortis makes it a point to ensure players have a memorable experience.

“We spend an extraordinary amount of time with recruits on campus, especially when they’re younger because the only contact you can have with them is unofficial visits,” Cortis said. “Once kids step foot on campus, they usually have great experiences and they seriously consider our program because they realize the resources here and the support and that they’re going to develop as players here.”

For Minnesota soccer, recruiting begins early and rarely ceases as coaches dedicate themselves tirelessly to pursuing potential stars.

The team’s staff makes recruiting a priority and travels around the country to watch players in tournaments nearly every weekend during the offseason.

Cortis says the staff travels to tournaments every three weeks to scout the best players in the nation.

“We spend a lot of time watching all the top players in the country play. We go after those players all the time,” she said.

The Gophers staff pursues players from all over the country, but they also have a strong pool of players to draw from in Minnesota and the Midwest.

The current roster features 16 Minnesota players and only one from outside the Midwest region.

“We have an affinity for players from the Upper Midwest. Our roster will always have a majority of Upper Midwest kids and Minnesota kids on it,” Cortis said.

Cortis said the recruiting process begins very early for her staff as they identify the best 13-year-old players in the state.

The coaches start monitoring the progress of players at age 13, but serious recruitment begins once a player reaches high school.

“Sophomore year is when we’re starting to bring kids to campus,” Cortis said. “People at the Division I level are making offers to kids usually their sophomore or junior year. Usually they commit the summer of their junior year.”

Cortis and the other coaches have a vast population in their backyard as Minnesota boasts one of the largest youth soccer programs in the country. The best players typically join a club team, much like an all-star team, and many like Cortis become actively involved with club teams.

“Mikki and I are on the Minnesota Olympic Development staff so we have a chance to work with these young players in the state, which is great for recruiting,” she said.

In addition to working with the ODP Cortis coaches a club team, which makes soccer recruiting unique. In other sports, college coaches are not allowed to coach club teams, but they can in soccer.

The situation seems like a major recruiting violation since coaches cannot have contact with recruits, but Cortis explains that it is allowable, coaches just cannot discuss collegiate soccer with players.

“If you’re a coach of a team those don’t count as contacts, you’re just their coach. You can’t actively recruit them,” Cortis said. “Whenever we were recruiting kids that I coached I didn’t talk to them about the University of Minnesota. If they wanted to talk about their opportunities with the University of Minnesota they would talk to coach Mikki. I don’t think it’s ethical to coach a kid just so you can recruit them.”

One of the first recruiting objectives for Denney Wright and Cortis when they arrived at Minnesota in 2004 was attracting club players.

They did well by using that tactic as they landed three players from the same club team. Junior Kaitlin Wagner came from the St. Croix Elite, a team that won four consecutive state championships.

Juniors Carlie Edwards and Clare Grimwood also played on the St. Croix Elite and decided to join Wagner in playing for the Gophers.

“They (Denney Wright and Cortis) were just coming in and they contacted my club team,” Wagner said. “They came to training sessions for my club team.”

At that time Wagner wasn’t interested in playing for Minnesota because the program did not retain the best kids in the state, she said.

But Denney Wright and Cortis persuaded Wagner to stay home and help transform a program that had struggled recently.

“What I liked was the challenge to get better,” Wagner said. “I thought it would be cool to be part of the turn around.”

The involvement of players already on the team helped convince Wagner that wearing the maroon and gold would be a good thing. On nearly every visit a player on the team came along with coaches and introduced Wagner into the program, Wagner said.

Denney Wright and Cortis continue to utilize current players as ambassadors of the program when recruits come to visit. Often times a recruit will stay overnight with the players in the dorms and the players will take them on a tour of campus.

“That’s one of the two biggest components that make us special. One is the time and commitment coach Mikki makes as a head coach to spending with recruits. Two is our players’ ability to talk about our program,” Cortis said. “Our players’ ability to communicate the pillars of our culture is incredible. It always impresses me when our players can give a recruiting speech. That’s what’s most powerful for recruits because they’re asking ‘would I like to play on the field with her? Would she accept me?’ I think that’s a big part of the women’s recruiting game.”

Success has come for Cortis and the staff as the roster has three Ms. Soccer (the best girl’s soccer player in Minnesota) award winners through the unyielding effort to retain top in-state and Midwest recruits, and a little help from United States Postal Service.