How athletes become Lions: Inside the recruitment process


Ava Salti

Junior guard Ava Saltii

By Leo Kagan, Assistant Sports Editor

Collegiate athletics are an exclusive club—in every NCAA-recognized sport, only a fraction of those thousands of high school athletes across the country continue their sports into college. 

Even at Emerson, a Div. III liberal arts college where athletics are not a primary draw for attendance like they are at neighboring institutions such as Northeastern or BU, the athletes are among the most elite in the country.

But Emerson, despite recent successes such as the women’s soccer team’s NEWMAC championship, has not been known as a sports school—often, academics and the arts are prioritized over athletics. 

So who comprises that super-exclusive club that contains not only some of the country’s best athletes but also those students interested in attending Emerson College? 

A never-ending cycle

The process of recruitment varies for each of Emerson’s programs. Coaches are typically more focused on their college team’s success than they are on recruitment, so a lot of the process happens during the offseason. 

For women’s basketball head coach Bill Gould, summer is when he can get out and start recruiting at wider-scale tournaments, and when the contacting stage begins. 

Gould said his process depends on whether the player he’s scouting is a rising junior or senior, per NCAA regulations. 

“For rising seniors, I’m sending a text letting them know that we’re really interested in recruiting,” he said. “If they’re okay with the city, and our majors, then we might want to try to get them on campus in the fall. They come in, they stay with our team, [then] decide whether they can picture themselves as an Emerson student.” 

Gould said that he is more active in communicating with prospective athletes in the fall, in an effort to introduce them to the Emerson culture. He gives them some space in the winter—while both high school and collegiate seasons are going on—but in the spring, he is making his last appeals for athletes to join the Lions family as they make their college decisions.

Gould insists that the recruitment cycle overlaps and never truly ends. 

“People don’t realize that it is a nonstop, 12-month job,” he said. “Right now I’m still recruiting the 2023 high school class [as] they’re making their final decisions. And I’m already talking to a whole bunch of 2024 kids.” 

Gould added that the structured, regimented nature of the regular season strongly contrasts the blurriness of the recruitment process. 

“The season has a start and an end,” he said. “With recruiting there’s no such thing because even when one class finally finishes, you’re already started up with the next class. It’s just a never-ending cycle.”

Looking out West

Gould is at a local high school basketball tournament, watching some of the best players in Massachusetts compete against one another, when he spots a player he likes. As he writes down her number, he looks to his left. A dozen college coaches from NEWMAC and NESCAC schools are jotting down her number too. A dozen more New England-area coaches are doing the same to his right. 

This is the key dilemma for recruiting locally in New England—there’s a whole lot of competition. Gould said the problem is exacerbated by Emerson’s narrow and unusual range of majors. 

“If you’re noticing that a player stands out, so does everybody else in this area,” he said. “Everybody’s now recruiting that kid, and because we’re a unique school, we have to get really lucky when it comes to local kids.”

Women’s soccer head coach David Suvak also struggled to recruit local talent when he was hired. His solution? Expand the reach of his recruiting. 

“I was primarily focused on local tournaments and I found that I was losing every single battle,” he said. “The education that we offer here was a little bit different than what New England kids were looking for.”

In order to start winning the recruitment battle, many Emerson coaches have decided to look out West. 

Gould said the West Coast can be particularly fruitful for recruitment because he sticks out as the head coach of a Massachusetts program. 

“I might be at a tournament and look at a player, and be [from] the only school on the East Coast at that game or at that tournament,” he said. “So if I contact the kid, I’m gonna be unique. I might get some interest level just because I’m a little different. Right away, I’m going to pique her interest. Whereas when I’m one of 50 schools from New England, it’s harder to stand out.”

Gould added that the New England area can be so competitive that he doesn’t bother sending mass emails or trying to contact every eligible player in the region. 

“It’s an inefficient use of resources to try to reach out to all of those kids [from New England]. If they want to come to Emerson, they’re going to contact me.”

Winnowing down

Putting out feelers on the West Coast is one thing, but actually whittling down a list of potentially hundreds of athletes to four or five is another task altogether. Gould said he looks for two components when identifying the best candidates to become Lions: academic drive and ease in an urban environment. 

“I’ve found in my experience on the women’s side [that] women come here because they want it academically, and they also play basketball,” he said. “The other part is they have to be comfortable with a city school.” 

The latter attribute is one that Gould said made recruiting in the COVID-19 era particularly difficult since prospective student-athletes could not tour the campus or participate in overnight stays with current team members. 

“Unless that kid knew for sure they were comfortable with the city school, then that hurt us,” he said.

These kinds of conversations, Suvak said, help him determine which players are the best fit for Emerson—not just academically or athletically, but also in terms of character. 

“We [get] to know them and their families, and we [know] that they’re the right kind of character fit for us,” he said. “The chemistry and the culture of our team is very good […] That’s the edge that we have, that we have a group of players that just want to work for each other and try to win as many games as possible.”

Scouting for character can be difficult, Suvak added, but typically comes through communication styles and attitudes. 

“It’s just having a conversation and feeling the way they communicate,” he said. “Is it more friendly? Are they more family-oriented? Are they thinking that they want a good balance between education and soccer? All those things connect.” 

The player perspective

The recruitment process for a coaching staff is complex, multilayered, and time consuming. As Gould said, it’s a grind that never really ends. But for student athletes looking to find their school of choice, being recruited is a very different experience. 

Take for example men’s basketball first-year point guard Jacob Armant, who found Emerson after scouting alum and Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti ‘00 on LinkedIn. 

“I found he went to Emerson,” Armant said. “And then I found the five people that worked under him also went to Emerson College. So I was like, ‘Let me check out Emerson College,’ and I was really impressed by what I saw.”

What drew Armant to Emerson in particular—and away from other college offers—was the ability to have an enriching experience both athletically and academically. 

“[I was] always thinking, ‘Do I want to sacrifice a great academic experience for a great athletic experience?’ And what drove me to Emerson is that I didn’t have to do that. I could get the best of both worlds.”

Women’s soccer senior midfielder Cali Bruce found another unique path to Emerson—she was only introduced to the college after twice visiting D-I neighbor Boston University. Overwhelmed by the sheer size of BU’s campus and student population, Bruce felt that Emerson might be a better fit for her. 

She said she recalls most distinctly the pressure she was facing at the time: to make the right call on a big life decision. 

“College recruitment was really hard for me,” she said. “My sophomore year, I went on a few unofficial visits, but I never really felt good enough. I was experiencing a lot of self doubt throughout the recruiting process. It’s really overwhelming having to make such a big decision about your future when you’re […] in high school. You don’t necessarily know you’re making the right choice.”

Bruce, who played 56 games as a Lion and earned an All-American selection in December, feels more confident in her game four years after committing to Emerson. But she also said she looks back on her recruitment experience and remembers how difficult it was to make such a big decision. 

“It’s overwhelming and a lot of pressure seeing your teammates committing to big schools at such a young age,” she said. “I remember freshman year of high school, my best friend committed to Duke and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I doing? How am I gonna do this?’”

Women’s basketball junior guard Ava Salti, a Long Island native, underwent the same process Bruce did, with an added wrinkle—the pandemic kept her off campuses while she searched for her collegiate home. 

“It was my senior year of high school, and we’re going through this whole college selection process and the world is shut down,” Salti said. “I committed without ever being [at Emerson]. It was crazy.”

It was a difficult decision, but a conversation with now-team captain Chelsea Gibbons helped ease any concerns Salti had about committing. 

“She was honest—she made everything sound excellent, but that was the truth,” Salti said. “That was my favorite part, talking to her. You talk to [someone] on the phone and you don’t realize at that moment as a recruit, if you do come here, the impact that that person could have on your life. That is a very special part of it, realizing your future right at that moment.”

Bruce added that ultimately, the recruitment process is about student athletes finding a place where they can pursue their lifelong passions—even if just for a few more years. 

“Being able to go somewhere and play a sport that you love is a very fortunate situation,” she said. “I hope that people can see that it’s hard to have your identity tied to something and then have to make a life-altering and life-shaping decision at a young age based on that thing. It’s a lot more complicated and emotionally draining than it might seem.” 

“People, whether they are theater or film students or whatever, [are] trying to find a place where we can do what we love and be accepted,” she added. “I hope it can forge a little bit of empathy and understanding and connection with others from that.”