The coronavirus hit Twin Harbors sports programs hard last spring, none more than two local community college teams in the midst of their best seasons in recent memory.
When the Northwest Athletic Association decided to shut down collegiate sports March 12, it put an end to the seasons of both the Grays Harbor College mens basketball and baseball teams.
Coming off its first winning season in more than a decade, the Chokers mens basketball team was just a few short days from meeting Everett in GHC’s first NWAC tournament appearance since the 2007-08 season before the door was shut on their postseason.
At the same time, the GHC baseball team was in the first month of what was turning out to be a turning-point campaign, as the Chokers were above .500 and playing a competitive brand of baseball heading into league play.
Having turned the page from last spring, the teams’ respective coaches, Matt Vargas (mens basketball) and Mike Bruner (baseball) faced a new set of pandemic-induced challenges over the summer.
They took the time to discuss some of the difficulties COVID-19 has presented to a community college coach trying to create and sustain a successful program on the Harbor.
Question: What are some of the most obvious issues/challenges that the pandemic has created regarding recruiting for the upcoming school year?
Vargas: Let me just start by saying recruiting is never easy, it is just different this year. … There are so many different ways to see kids or learn of kids’ talents that, for me ,it was just interesting to watch how unreliable and irresponsible the communication on every front became. AAU coaches were pushing for events to happen. Tournaments were pushing to make sure they happened. All the while, collegiate institutions were not allowing their staff to travel or — in the case of the NCAA — closing down their viewing periods. There was a bunch of “monkey see, monkey do,” in terms of college reactions. … “Recruiting was only difficult due to the inability to view players live. But I don’t think it is tough to get film on a kid if you really want it. I actually believe our league will be better than ever. So many quality kids were missed and fell into juco and NWAC schools.
Bruner: The uncertainty of the rules, policies and protocols that we would need to follow. We have the NWAC, State of Washington, County Health Department and the GHC institution all establishing guidelines and protocols we were going to have to follow regarding a public health issue that has taken us into uncharted waters. It’s difficult to plan for something in a landscape that is ever-changing and hard to predict. … Not knowing what players would be coming back this season for the extra year of eligibility granted by the NWAC. Also not knowing what players would decide to sit the year out, or want to stay home and be with family until the COVID-19 situation subsides. It was just difficult to know what our positional roster needs were going to be, and that is what dictates our recruiting focus.
Q: Both of your seasons were cut short last spring. How did that affect recruiting efforts?
Vargas: The fact that we won, what, 12 games my first season as head coach. That was more than the previous three years combined. It caused a stir. We followed that up with 16 victories last year, and — like you said — a tournament berth. The buzz was there and it kept growing. Anyone who saw the final three games we played knew we were gelling. We were very confident going into the NWAC tournament. Our recruits knew it. They saw it. So, while they were not a part of it, they come in with something to prove. This epidemic has all our kids hungry. Has it been easy? No. Will it be easy? No. But think about this. Regardless of the sport any kid wearing GHC colors in their season this year has sacrificed a ton to be here. These students give us their heart and souls to play during these jacked-up times. We need to show a lot of respect for them. I think they will all shine. They have heart. I know I am honored to coach my guys and every other coach at GHC feels the same. I am sure of that.
Bruner: We were very excited about the improvements the program had made and the quality of baseball our guys were playing. We had beaten some really good teams and were playing with confidence. We were looking forward to playing in front of our home crowd to show local players and the community that we had turned the corner and are a very competitive baseball program. We also feel that we would have put more games in the win column and made a playoff run. Having a breakout season would have really helped us gain more interest from the quality of players we are working to recruit and sign.
Q: How has the pandemic changed recruiting?
Vargas: Every year, by January, I have a list of about 24 kids to track and develop relationships. I think all coaches use Twitter, text and Snapchat to reach their players. It is how we meet the students on their level. … Again, the pandemic really only hurt the opportunity to see those tiny nuances, like does the kid run off the court during timeouts. Does the kid high-five his teammates? Does the kid make eye contact with his coach? Little things. To me, those little things add up to big things, but I trust the guys who refer players to me.
Bruner: With current senior players on down to freshman getting their eligibility year back, it has created a player log jam. You have to feel for players coming out in the 2020 class because there were fewer roster spots for them to make. One good thing that has made recruiting easier is that there are more quality players looking for opportunities than other years. Also, because much of Washington was shut down for summer leagues and with Grays Harbor entering Phase 3 earlier than many counties, high-level organizations such as the Seattle Premier League started holding games (in Grays Harbor County). So, we had to do a lot less traveling to scout high-quality baseball players in larger numbers. There were actually several college and even professional scouts coming to Grays Harbor to scout games. Usually, we have to be out on the road for the recruiting grind.
Q: What effects has the pandemic had on the athletes you recruit? Has their attitudes/outlooks changed compared to athletes in years past? What’s the feedback you are getting from those recruits?
Vargas: The pandemic and its effects on students/recruits hasn’t shown its full effect. I say this because a lot of young people received bad advice on how to handle their futures. The kids that signed and are going to play this year, whether at GHC or elsewhere, I feel are much better off than those who decided to sit. It is going to be a log jam of seniors, preps, sit-outs, transfers and (junior college) kids vying to get four-year college scholarships. A kid who has numbers against (junior college athletes) and a good GPA will win out every time. … Our recruits are excited to play and grateful because we are getting 24 games in. Plus two scrimmages. … I was golfing at Oaksridge Golf Club. There were about nine baseball players there. They were having a blast. They were talking baseball and just enjoying themselves. It was such a breath of fresh air.
Bruner: It has gone both ways. You have some players whose sophomore seasons were taken from them, and it has created a deeper appreciation for the opportunity to play. Those players are hungry for the 2021 season and very excited for the day that they get to cleat up and compete in games again. There are also players who are pretty down because of the situation, and they are concerned about the fewer number of roster spots and whether there will be a 2021 season. I can tell you this: The COVID-19 situation has definitely affected the psyche of many players who were hoping to be recruited and find a home in a college baseball program in 2020. It has also affected returning players. But ultimately, those who stay as positive as possible and remain mentally tough through the difficult times the situation has presented will come out stronger at the end of this.
Q: What type of feedback/instruction have you received from the administration about rules/procedures/policies you need to follow regarding recruiting?
Vargas: We all are having to adjust in one way or another from this pandemic, and I think if we look at it the right way, it is truly an opportunity to get back to the focusing on the student and their collegiate experience. … We have procedures in place to assist the students in all they will embark upon this year. We have policies and procedures for staff as well. I am very confident this year will evolve into the community seeing the best version of Grays Harbor College that it has seen in quite a while.
Bruner: Our athletic director, Will Rider, has made great efforts and has done his very best to keep the coaches for all programs up to date and abreast of the latest policy and protocol developments. Things can change or be updated daily, so that is not an easy task. Our administration at GHC wants to create the safest possible environment. We are all working together to figure out how to be safe and have our programs function well logistically at the same time.