Nat Clark smiles after being introduced as Husson University's head football coach in 2019. He is among the state's small-college coaches who are using social media in their recruitment of student-athletes because of limitations caused by COVID-19. (Monty Rand Photography) Credit: Courtesy of Monty Rand Photography

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Recruiting is a monumental challenge in college sports, one that ultimately dictates how successful a school’s program is going to be.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging for Maine’s small-college coaches, who are doing what they can to land the recruits they are pursuing.

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Coaches who normally go on their recruiting trips during the spring have been forced to stay put, and student-athletes also have not been able to visit schools.

That means those interactions are happening on the phone and through social media.

The recruiting landscape has changed but there have been some positives, according to coaches.

Craig Dagan, who recently completed his 19th season as the head women’s basketball coach at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, said because most parents are working from home, he is speaking with them more often using social media.

“It has made a really big difference,” Dagan said. “The parents have been involved much earlier in the process.”

Fletcher Brown, the fourth-year women’s basketball coach at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, has had a similar experience.

“Since the parents have a little more down time, they’re more involved now,” Brown said. “The family is spending more time sitting around the table talking about it.”

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The stay-at-home restrictions have significantly impacted Brown. The San Francisco native always flies to California at the end of March to attend basketball showcases and evaluate players.

He said most Fort Kent coaches make one long recruiting trip each year.

“I had my plane ticket and had booked the hotel rooms. I had to change everything at the last minute,” Brown said.

“It’s a bummer. It means I have to rely even more on social media,” he said.

Nine of the 13 players on the university’s roster this season were from California. Brown has been taking advantage of the internet, social media, FaceTime and Zoom for a while.

Dagan said the COVID-19 pandemic has not hampered Maine Maritime’s recruiting.

“Things have been going great. I don’t know how to explain it. Because a lot of the bigger schools don’t have as much access to the players now, a lot of players are slipping through the cracks [and winding up at smaller schools],” he said.

Nat Clark, the second-year head football coach at Husson University in Bangor, said because it’s spring football season was canceled, it has enabled him and his coaching staff to spend much more time recruiting.

“We’ve been able to reach out to more kids,” Clark said. “We have virtual spring football meetings with the kids a couple of times a week.

“It’s not the same. I’d rather be coaching them face to face. But this is the best we can do and we’re doing a lot of recruiting.”

Warren Caruso, who just concluded his 26th season as the Husson men’s basketball head coach, said he has been fortunate to stay on schedule with recruiting.

“This will have a greater effect on our next class,” said Caruso, who pointed out that spring and summer AAU basketball showcases provide coaches with a great opportunity to evaluate players.

Those showcases are in jeopardy.

“You have a large number of athletes in one location competing at a high level,” Caruso said.

He said there is no substitute for on-campus visits, during which recruits get a quality, first-hand look at what Husson has to offer.

“But everyone else is in the same position,” Caruso said. “So you’ve got to do a better job from a virtual standpoint.”

The coaches have virtual tours to show their recruits to provide a look and feel for their schools and what they have to offer.

“Sometimes our school is at a disadvantage when it comes to resources, the size of the school and the location. But the deck isn’t so stacked [against us] any more,” Brown said.

Clark said Husson football is getting an earlier start on next year’s recruiting class.

Recruits for next fall were scheduled to visit in March and make their decision in April. Because they weren’t able to visit, Clark said the level of communication has intensified.

Caruso said the COVID-19 complications have resulted in a couple of recruits delaying their decisions about next fall.

“People are a little bit hesitant to commit because there is so much uncertainty,” Brown said.

Watch: How does COVID-19 spread?

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