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THE RECRUITING GAME: Identifying the right fit (08/10)

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That's the challenge for prep athletes like E'town's Erin Boley

By Ryan O'Gara

It’s Thursday evening, less than 48 hours since Erin Boley returned from Nike Elite Basketball National Championships in Augusta, Ga. — one of the top tournaments on the summer AAU circuit.

In a conference room at The News-Enterprise, her phone is resting on a table with the screen facing down — a rare break for a device about to get a lot of use in the near future.

On this night, Boley has a phone call set up with Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. Earlier in the week, she spoke with coaches from each of the other six schools on her list — Kentucky, Louisville, Notre Dame, Tennessee, UConn and Vanderbilt.

Tuesday was not only the last of her eight days in Augusta — it was the end of the viewing period for high school players, meaning coaches can talk to recruits by phone, but only through a third party like a coach.

High school is less than a week away from starting again, but the Elizabethtown junior is already all business. With her dad, Scott, essentially serving as her manager, they are already in the process of setting up in-home visits, which start Sept. 9.

It’s all part of the dizzying recruiting process for high-profile recruits. Former John Hardin football player Matt Elam’s recruitment received national attention last year and ended with a commitment to Kentucky. Now, it’s Boley’s turn to step into the spotlight.

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Boley can remember where she was when she got her first offer: sitting in the parking lot before a softball game, waiting for her teammates. It was from Western Kentucky, and she was in eighth grade. She started getting recruiting letters in seventh grade and saved all of them at first.

At the time, schools didn’t realize Boley would blossom into a 6-foot-2 forward and one of the premier prospects in the country — ESPN’s HoopGurlz ranked her the No. 8 player in the Class of 2016 — but it was a pretty good gamble.

Less than three years later, Boley has too many offers to count — between 50 and 60, she says. When she first started getting offers, she printed up logos of them and kept them in chronological order. She doesn’t do that anymore.

“It’s crazy. It’s hard to believe sometimes, but it’s also a good thing,” Boley said. “It makes me feel good about myself. It’s a little flattering.”

Before the home visits, she can get unlimited calls, texts, emails and mail starting Sept. 1. And that means right at midnight, Boley’s phone probably won’t stop buzzing for quite some time.

The process really gets going with the home visits. Louisville coach Jeff Walz wants to have breakfast with the Boley family the morning of Sept. 9 to make sure he gets to make the first impression. Others take the opposite approach.

“We’ve had a few people say they want to be the last one because then you can tell them that’s where you’re going,” Scott said. “It’s reverse psychology. They want to be first or last.”

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When David Tapley started Kentucky Premier five years ago, he had two things in mind: Take care of kids in Kentucky and take care of their parents. He didn’t see any of the top girls’ players in Kentucky playing on the national stage, and as a result, they weren’t being seen as much as they should.

Tapley got Boley to join the program the first year, and it’s taken off from there. When Elite’s top team, which features Boley and Elizabethtown senior Reauna Cleaver, takes the floor, there can be several hundred coaches in attendance. The program has had 70 kids go on to play Division-I.

A normal day for Tapley consists of anywhere from 20-50 phone calls from college coaches. Sometimes, they have lists of 20-25 players from his program they want to talk with. Tapley’s reputation among college coaches has grown so much, college coaches call him about players from other programs. He’s become an important middle man in the recruiting process.

“For instance,” Tapley said, “if (Louisville coach) Jeff Walz calls and says ‘What about this kid?’ If I know the kid isn’t very good, I’ll say ‘Are you nuts? Come on, you’re better than that.’”

The reason coaches trust Tapley’s opinion so much is that he’s always honest with them. If a player isn’t good enough to play at a given level, he’s going to be up front with the coach. This way, Tapley’s word carries value. When one of his players is deserving to play at a big school, Tapley vouches for them and coaches listen.

Tapley has numerous stories about how his influence landed girls a scholarship. He has relationships with many of the head coaches and lead recruiters in women’s college basketball, and therefore a lot of power — even if that’s not how he sees it.

“I don’t look at it like that,” Tapley said. “Somebody said that to me once and I told him we’re in it for kids. If I’m in it for the power, I become an idiot like so many others. There is some power, though. I can agree with that.”

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Last fall, it was as if the Lady Panthers were holding their own scouting combine. Coaches flocked to Elizabethtown to see not only Boley, but teammates and Division-I prospects Darien Huff and Cleaver as well.

Sometimes there would be as many as 40-50 coaches at these individual workouts run by Lady Panthers coach Tim Mudd, who would typically make them more challenging to fit in as much work as possible in the limited time the coaches get to observe his players.

“I always generally tell kids that such and such coach is coming tomorrow,” Mudd said, “but last year was such a large group that they got so used to working out in front of the coaches that they knew someone would always be there.”

Mudd tries to emphasize to his players that recruiting is a business and coaches’ livelihoods depend on being able to get good players. There’s probably no one who has come to realize how much of a business it is as much as Mudd, who coaches use as a middle man like they do Tapley.

“The big thing is when you have athletes being recruited, it’s time consuming,” Mudd said. “But I’ve always looked at it as part of it. I’d much rather have it this way than not have anyone call. I’m very fortunate to have these types of players in the program who have developed enough to play at the next level.”

The national powers like UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford typically go through Tapley. But the local schools, like Kentucky and Louisville, value establishing a relationship with Mudd in hopes he’ll funnel more of his players there in the future.

All of the schools on Boley’s list had coaches there during the two-week period, but it wasn’t just them. Boley’s recruitment has given her teammates the chance to showcase themselves in front of schools like Butler, Cincinnati, LSU, Memphis and many more.

“A lot of times you’ll get college coaches to come watch kids, and then they see someone else they like,” Mudd said. “I’ve seen a lot of kids get scholarships who were coming to watch someone and see someone else for first time.”

When the next wave starts to get recruited more heavily — like sophomore guard Jada Stinson — they’ll be more comfortable performing in front of coaches. Oddly enough, it’s the younger girls who the coaches aren’t interested in that are the most nervous and awe-struck when someone like Geno Auriemma walks through the door.

Above all, a coach’s job is to advise. Mudd spent 3 hours one day this past week talking with Boley, and all the veteran coach wants to do is share his past experiences with a family going through the process for the first time.

When Elam was debating between Kentucky, Alabama and Notre Dame, John Hardin coach Chad Lewis was with him every step of the way. Lewis accompanied Elam on all of his visits, which led to spending most weekends away from his family. And that’s on top of the long hours it takes during the week to run a team. Elam took four unofficial visits to Alabama alone.

“The biggest demand for me was time away from my family,” Lewis said. “My wife was very understanding. My kids were like ‘You’re going again to wherever?’ But at the same time, I may never get that opportunity again — to go visit the Alabamas, the Notre Dames, all the schools that I actually had a chance to see on the inside and see how the program actually was run. That was a really neat experience.”

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When Boley initially made her list public July 1, she was getting ready to start an AAU practice. One of her coaches was basically serving as her secretary as she already had three coaches who wanted to talk to her about it. Coaches were calling Tapley to find out why they weren’t on the list.

Boley didn’t make the list for attention, but rather to narrow her focus and lessen her load come September. With so many offers, she couldn’t keep fielding requests from schools she had no interest in attending. What she didn’t expect was that after she made her list, some schools not on it weren’t deterred. Duke, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma — to name a few — continued to pursue her as if the list didn’t exist.

“Lists don’t mean anything. Until you commit, (coaches) won’t stop,” Tapley said. “Even when you commit, they still won’t stop. Once you sign your national letter of intent, they’ll finally leave you alone.”

And coaches will find any way around the rules. Coaches aren’t allowed to mail recruits directly until next month, so when Boley was named Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, they sent Mudd letters with ‘Congrats to Erin’ on them. Mudd, of course, would show Boley and the letter’s purpose was served.

Some of the interactions can be pretty cool. Walz sent a text to Mudd a few years ago that said, “We’re about to run out onto the floor for the Final Four, and we want Erin to know we’re thinking of her.” Last month when former Louisville player Shoni Schimmel was the MVP of the WNBA All-Star game, Walz texted, “Did Erin watch Shoni in the WNBA All-Star game? We produce pros. Is Erin next?”

Other occurrences have surprised her, too. When Elizabethtown was playing in Florida last season, Tapley texted Scott during one of the games to tell her that Erin picked up an offer from TCU — a school the Boleys had never talked to nor even knew was interested in Erin.

“That happens all the time,” Tapley said. “For example, really good mid majors will say, ‘If Erin Boley wants to come here, she has a scholarship.’ That blew Scott away. Scott will say she doesn’t have an offer, and I’m like, ‘Scott, come on!’”

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Perhaps the most challenging part of the process is figuring out coaches.

Who can you trust? Everyone puts on their best face during a recruiting visit, but what are they really like behind closed doors? Both Mudd and Tapley acknowledged there are college coaches out there who might not have the player’s best interest in mind. Some coaches will negative recruit, meaning they speak poorly of other schools in order to make their school look better. Surprisingly, it’s not just lesser programs which partake — even some national powers will engage.

Boley has taken so many unofficial visits and observed so many college practices she feels like she has a good handle on it — but she can never be sure. Boley has a great relationship with one Tennessee assistant coach because the coach has recruited Boley from the beginning, all the way back when the coach was an assistant for Kentucky.

“Some people like that, I can trust,” Boley said. “But I don’t know about head coaches sometimes. Sometimes I have to take word from other people, like my Premier coaches and Coach Mudd. I have to take it from their adult standpoint because sometimes I can’t see it.”

Boley has visited all of her schools unofficially and every school looks great on the surface. But how does a recruit really read between the lines, past the fancy tours of facilities and past players and coaches hyping the school to no end?

“I would say the biggest thing is the relationship with the coach,” said Ivy Brown, the former LaRue County player who won Miss Basketball last season and is now playing at Western Kentucky. “You’re going to be with them four years so you have to be able to trust them, go through whatever with them.”

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Boley can handle people joking with her about how much greater Louisville is than Kentucky, or vice versa. She can handle people telling her that passing up a prestigious academic institution like Stanford would be insane, or that she’d almost surely win a national title if she went to UConn.

That’s not really pressure. Pressure is eventually having to tell six of these coaches ‘no.’ It’s something she’s dreading.

“It felt like you were breaking up with somebody when (Matt) made his decision because I developed relationships with these coaches, and Matt did too,” Lewis said. “It was hard for Matt to tell Alabama ‘no’ because that was his second choice. He didn’t want them to feel like he strung them along, because he didn’t. Relationships are developed when it goes for that long period of time.”

The schools that can tell they probably aren’t in the top two or three have started to get snippy, Scott said, and are starting to apply a little pressure. Elam had set a date to announce his decision, but that didn’t stop Notre Dame from essentially giving him an ultimatum and demanding an answer weeks before his decision date. They wanted to know if Elam would be coming because if not, they had to move on to other recruits.

The same might happen to Boley.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those schools force her hand on where she wants to go,” Lewis said.

Scott joked that by publicly saying ‘yes’ to one school, wouldn’t that be like saying ‘no’ to the six others? Erin quickly squashed that idea.

“There will be some that deserve a call from me saying ‘thank you,’” she said. “I just want to thank them for the time and money they put in to recruiting me.”

Does she already have an idea who the ‘yes’ will be?

“There’s an order in my head, but I haven’t put it out there,” Boley said.

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It’s a few minutes after 8 p.m., and Boley finally turns her phone over and checks her messages. She finds out the call with VanDerveer is set for 8, so she’s a little late.

“I need to call her,” she says with a hint of urgency in her voice. Before she’s even out the door, she has VanDerveer on the line.

Boley had planned to take her five official visits in the spring and probably make a decision next summer, but it’s looking more and more like she’ll verbally commit before her junior season begins in December. The Lady Panthers are serious contenders to win a state title this season after losing in the final last year, and Boley wants to enjoy playing with her friends. The recruiting process has worn her down.

“I think it’s looking more like (committing) earlier because of the high school season,” Boley said. “I don’t know, I might — it’s possible. Sometimes I think it would be nice to get it done and have nothing to worry about during basketball season.”

For now, Boley keeps grinding along, each day a little closer to the madness finally ending.

Ryan O’Gara can be reached at 270-505-1754 or rogara@thenewsenterprise.com.