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Recruiting student athletes is a year-round challenge

by Derek Cassoff

Pat Sheahan still remembers his first visit to Montreal as an 18-year-old graduating from high school in Brockville, Ont. A highly-touted football prospect, he had a list of universities eager to acquire his talents, but it was that weekend spent among the bright lights of the big city that ultimately convinced him to come to Concordia.

In addition to a tour of the school's athletic facilities, there was a visit to Mount Royal, a baseball game at Jarry Park and, of course, a sample of Montreal nightlife.

"By the time I left on Sunday, I was sold. I thought this would be a great place to hang out for a few years," he said. Twenty-four years later, Sheahan has yet to leave the city.

Now it is his job, as head coach of the Stingers football team, to convince other high-school athletes to come to Concordia. Competition is fierce, with 24 Canadian university football programs vying for the same talent, each presenting their own compelling case as to why students should choose their school.

"Recruiting is like running your own business. You're constantly selling your program, whether you're at a wedding or talking to someone's nephew," Sheahan said.

"It's like any product that you're trying to sell. You first want to set up a comfortable relationship and learn what the young man's goals are. Then you try to build a match with what your institution and your program can do to help the young man achieve those goals."

"It's really a 12-months-of-the-year process," added Les Lawton, head coach of Concordia's women's hockey team, "and there's a lot of competition, especially from the U.S. schools, who can offer attractive scholarships."

The women's hockey team has enjoyed tremendous on-ice success, winning 15 of the last 19 provincial crowns and the last two national championships. With very few players coming directly from the Montreal area, Lawton knows that his team's fortunes begin at the recruiting stage, in the ability to draw talent from across the country.

In fact, in the last two years alone, the team has had players from every Canadian province but Newfoundland. "A lot of the players want to experience the diversity of Quebec, and they like the idea of playing with kids from across Canada," he said.

With a hectic coaching schedule, Lawton said the most difficult challenge in the recruiting process is finding the time to travel across Canada and see prospective players in action. He and his fellow coaches rely on reports from contacts across the country and often use end-of-season national championships, including the recent Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook, Nfld., as opportunities to scout for talent.

He figures that 80 per cent of the team's past and current players were first spotted at the Canada Games, which are held every four years.

"That's where you have the best under-18 players in the country representing their provinces," he said. "It's a great identification tool for us."

The football recruiters rely on a network of private talent brokers who travel across vast territories on behalf of the universities, identifying top high school and CEGEP prospects. They also host recruiting combines in late fall, after the end of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU) season, where coaches can meet players from a specific area in one quick visit.

"There's certainly a need for this service," Sheahan said. "If we had to reinvent the wheel every year, it would be a disaster."

Ultimately, many factors contribute to a student athlete's decision, the coaches said. "Some look at the academic programs, some at the athletics, and others just want to get away from home," Lawton said. "In the end, though, it's those kids who come for the academics and not just to play sports who will ultimately succeed."

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.