Alexia Thrower has been living on Grays Harbor for almost two years but she still hasn’t gotten used to the climate difference from her hometown of Las Vegas.
“The weather was the biggest change,” she said. “I’m not used to it raining this much or it being cold this long. I’m used to the heat. ”
Thrower, like many of her teammates on this year’s Grays Harbor College Chokers men’s and women’s basketball teams, is an out-of-state recruit who is a long way from home.
There is a wealth of basketball talent along the I-5 corridor, but Grays Harbor has had a hard time accessing this talent pool. Some observers believe that getting talent from the Puget Sound area to relocate to Aberdeen can be next to impossible.
To stay competitive in the Northwest Athletic Conference, both basketball programs put a priority on recruiting out of Nevada and California, particularly the southern parts of both states.
Heading into the 2017-18 campaign, the men’s team had eight players from Las Vegas or the near-by city of Henderson.
Before many of the Vegas-area recruits accepted GHC’s scholarship offer, they likely came in contact with Jordan Altman. Altman is a former GHC coach who recruited the area when he was leading the men’s program and continued to suggest players to target for both basketball programs.
In order to make a move to Aberdeen affordable, many players on both the men’s and women’s teams are offered athletic scholarships. The scholarship, combined with work study and other financial aid, helps ease the burden for players who would have to deal with the cost of out-of-state tuition.
As Altman expands his recruiting services to baseball and even volleyball, the school has begun to pay him with a stipend for his work.
The Nevada influence is also strong on the women’s team. Though the roster is considerably smaller than the 15-man roster that represents the men’s team, the women have four players from Las Vegas and another player from northern Nevada.
The NWAC’s leading women’s scorer, Thrower is playing with some of her high school teammates. Even though she was not surprised to be playing with teammates from her home state, she was pleasantly surprised to see the level of diversity in GHC athletics.
“I didn’t expect for there to be so much diversity on these teams,” she said. “To come here and see the guys team and the softball team, I was like, ‘OK, they’re getting diverse and I like that.’”
Grays Harbor tops the NWAC in players from Nevada.
Five of the nine players on the women’s team hail from Nevada. Pierce is the only other team with a Nevada recruit on the roster and it has only one.
Players from the Silver State are almost as rare in the NWAC on the men’s side. The Choker men started the season with six players from Nevada in a division that only has 10 players total from there.
With Southern California also serving as a big recruiting base for the men’s team, GHC also leads the division in players from outside of the area. Of the 17 players on the Choker roster, 15 of them hail from a city more than a three-hour drive away. South Puget Sound has the second-most well traveled team in the division and only has seven players more than three hours away from its campus.
Grays Harbor men’s basketball head coach Kevin Williamson said that he had an especially hard time getting in-state talent due to the location of the school, but noted that its sometimes easier to convince players from Las Vegas to commit since Nevada’s community colleges do not offer athletics.
“We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere where your recruiting talent will be in Seattle or Tacoma or Olympia. We don’t have those advantages,” he said. “We have to find other players and a lot of them come from Vegas because there is nowhere else for them to go.”
The women are in a similar position and only have two players from the state and one local player —Hoquiam’s Isabel Hernandez — from Grays Harbor County.
Women’s coach Chad Allan always makes in-state recruiting a priority even though it can be a tough sell for Washington recruits.
“I do start local first and let them know my interest first. From there, if they’re not interested I’m looking for those pieces everywhere,” he said. “I make offers to people who are in our area first. If they don’t want to do it, that’s up to them.”
For the men’s team, out-of-state recruitment appears to be the game plan for the foreseeable future.
Williamson is midway through his first year as the Chokers’ head coach. His familiarity with basketball talent in southern Nevada made him an ideal candidate for a job that would involved a lot of recruitment trips to the area.
Williamson was an assistant coach at Dixie State in St. George, Utah. That’s about about a two-hour drive from Southern California. The location played a role in getting Choker standout Cornelius Holifield to commit.
Holifield, like Thrower, isn’t a fan of the rain and misses seeing the sun on the regular basis. He is a big fan of his head coach and cites it as his main reason for attending GHC after playing in a showcase game his senior year in high school.
“I know Coach Kevin is a really smart coach. I did my research on him before I ever came here, and that’s what helped me make my decisions,” he said. “I ended up playing in this all-star game and the guy running it helped me get in contact with him.”
Holifield, and the majority of GHC’s basketball players from outside of the area, cite a level of comfort with the basketball program as their main reason for coming to the Harbor, but living in Aberdeen presents its own challenges.
While a local student-athlete would have the benefit of staying with their parents, these out-of-state students have had to try to feel at home at the Grays Harbor Inn and Suites. The school is hoping to build some on-campus housing in the future but for now, most Choker basketball players are staying in hotel rooms that have been rearranged to create a d0rm room feel.
The living situation is less than ideal — with space being at a premium.
It may be jarring for student-athletes to relocate from their hometowns, but after two years most of them are hoping to relocate again to a four-year school.
Thrower said she knew her basketball career was going to take her away from her hometown.
“I didn’t want to be in Vegas. I didn’t want to stay out there for school,” she aid. “UNLV is cool, UNR is cool, but you just want to go out and experience different stuff and see how people are in different areas. I didn’t plan in staying in Vegas at all.”
Student-athletes typically look to play at colleges closer to home but a big part of GHC’s recruitment strategy is hoping that students who want to transfer to another school in order to continue their careers won’t mind leaving the area where they grew up.
Athletic Director Tom Sutera said GHC’s Las Vegas- area recruiter actively looks for those students athletes who don’t mind a change of scenery or a change of climate.
“A lot of times, when kids get out of high school they don’t want to be at home anymore,” he said. “When we are recruiting other places I hear that these kids from Southern California don’t want to stay in the area. We want to keep our very best here but we’re not going to have all local kids.”
Sutera likes that his programs have recruiting pipelines set up in Southern California and southern Nevada but does not want his teams to miss out any local talent that may be a good fit at GHC.
“In all of our sports we would love to keep the best of the local talent here and then go get what we need to go get,” he said. “They’ve been able to work a lot more on that for volleyball, just getting a few players, not asking for all of them from Vegas.”
Leonard Barnes was one former Choker men’s coach who was able to successfully recruit from Western Washington.
“We had a lot of interest from Grays Harbor and surrounding small towns in Southwest Washington,” said Barnes, who coached GHC more than a decade ago and is now an girls basketball assistant at Montesano. “We even got guys who weren’t your best star players but were impact players in high school and some that wanted to come back home and be a part of it because of the excitement of what was being developed in the program at GHC.”
More so than selling recruits on the prospect of living in Aberdeen, Barnes said he tried to emphasize the family atmosphere and positive energy around the program.
Both GHC teams would like the future of their programs to look similar to the past with a heavier emphasis on local recruits. Players like Grays Harbor’s Russell Tillery represent that.
Unlike many of his teammates that ventured far from home, Portland resident Tillery said coming to a school closer to home was the deciding factor when he committed to GHC.
“There were some other schools, but they were way far away and they were only offering a tryout,” he said. “They were offering half scholarships and stuff like that, but I didn’t want to do all that so I came here.”
The recruitment strategy for basketball won’t change much in the immediate future. The out-of-state recruiter the school has been working with continues to send players from California and Nevada to GHC, while Choker coaches will need to be on the lookout for any local talent to fill out the roster.
Sutera said attendance at games would likely be higher if fans felt more of a connection to players who had grown up in the area, but he believes staying competitive with athletes from outside the Harbor will be just as a big of a draw.
“The challenge is we can’t have all local kids. We’re not going to compete at our level with all local people,” he said. “If we got everyone from around here all the time, then maybe in some sports you could. But for the most part we need to keep the best here and bring in some talent from some other areas.”