USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the recruiting process. This isn’t about where just the top five-star athletes are headed but rather a guide to the process and the pitfalls for student-athletes nationwide from Playced.com. This week’s article is written by Ross Hawley, the president of the company. Playced.com is an industry leader in college recruiting. Their technology based recruiting service identifies the right colleges for potential recruits to pursue and provides a recruiting system that is second to none for student-athletes of all talent levels and ages.
What does Louisiana State University mean to college baseball? Do me a favor; ask any high school kid in the country to name a few schools he dreams of playing college baseball for someday. Feel free to ask any player. Phoenix to Chicago and Atlanta all the way up to Pittsburgh, from any high school in the country; where do you want to play? Well, I’d be willing to bet my next paycheck that almost every single one of those players would answer with three letters in a hurry. Simply put, that’s what LSU means to college baseball.
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This week, I was honored to speak with Tiger skipper and ABCA (American Baseball Coaches Association) Hall of Famer, Paul Mainieri. In his 30-plus years of coaching at St. Thomas, the Air Force Academy, Notre Dame and LSU, Coach Mainieri’s had an amazing impact on the game of baseball and the young men he has coached. Probably, more of an impact than he’ll ever know.
From what it takes to play for LSU, to his advice on committing, here is what Coach Mainieri had to say.
Q: What age do you start paying attention to prospective student-athletes?
A: Recruiting has really evolved into a situation that I’m not all that happy about. We’re having to recruit guys as early as the time they’re entering high school, now. It’s something that seems to start earlier and earlier each year. As I mentioned, I’m not thrilled about that, but it’s kind of a runaway train and if you don’t jump on board, you get left behind.
At this level of college baseball, so many players are making commitments by their sophomore year of high school, certainly by their junior year, which means you have to start tracking them as early as freshmen year. Even a decade ago, when we had the No. 1 ranked recruiting class my first year at LSU, we weren’t recruiting guys until the summer before their senior year. So, this is a fairly new phenomenon we’re seeing in college recruiting.
Q: What’s something every high school athlete needs to know about the recruiting process?
A: If I’m a high school athlete going through this process, I would want to know the trustworthiness of the coach. At LSU, and every school I’ve coached before, I’ve taken a great deal of pride in the trust that the players have in me as a coach. They know that I will always tell them the truth, no matter the circumstances. For example, if I’m a 10th grader asking a college coach how he projects me in his program four years from now and he responds by telling me that I’ll be the starting shortstop as a freshman, that’s probably not very truthful. Listen, I can’t even tell you what my lineup is going to look like in 2018! How in the world can I project who’s going to be in the starting lineup three years down the road when I don’t even know what players will be on my roster?
In all my years of coaching, I’ve never guaranteed a player a starting job, while I was recruiting him. The only thing I’ve guaranteed him is the opportunity to win that job. And, he’ll become the starter if he deserved it and he earned it, in comparison to the other players we have on the roster that year. I strongly encourage every athlete going through this process to gauge the sincerity and honesty of the coaches that are recruiting them. You can do that by asking questions and listening to what they’re really telling you.
Q: What does it take to be noticed and recruited by LSU?
A: You’ve got to have a good amount of skill, first and foremost. We really like recruiting and filling our roster with guys that can do multiple things well. They’re athletes. If you’re a position player, we’re looking for guys that can square the baseball up, play with excellent defensive skill and run the bases well. We like the guys that have the physical skills and the instincts to match. If you’re a pitcher, we’re looking for the “strike already” guy. Velocity is obviously a big factor in recruiting any pitcher, but if you have velocity without command, you’re not going to pitch a whole lot of innings at LSU. You have to be able to throw the ball over the plate to have any degree of effectiveness. So, there’s got to be the skill factor, first.
The second thing that we look for is a player who exhibits a true love for playing the game. A lot of kids will tell you that they love to play, but when you go out and watch them, it’s pretty evident that they don’t. They’re virtually walking on and off the field. They’re not hustling. In the later innings of the game, they’re not paying as much attention as they were earlier in the game. Those are the kinds of things we’re paying attention to. You know, if I see a player not running hard on the easy outs, not taking big turns on a routine fly ball or not backing up bases, I’m eliminating that player from consideration for playing at LSU. You’ve got to project a genuine love for playing the game if you want to be a Tiger.
The last piece we’re looking for, and probably the most important, is how well a young man performs in the classroom. We’re going to be more apt to recruiting the kids that are good students in high school, than the ones that aren’t. Because the commitment and dedication it takes to be a good student in high school translates very well at the collegiate level. If you were to ask most student-athletes if they enjoyed school, I would guess that most would say they probably don’t. They just know it’s something they have to do. So, if a young man makes a commitment to perform academically, then it shows he’s willing to make sacrifices and he carries the work ethic required to be successful at this level.
Q: Talk to me about your recruiting philosophy.
The culture that we’ve created here is truly about the players. I tell all our guys all the time that this isn’t about me or our other coaches, this is all about you, the players. But as coaches, we have the responsibility to establish an environment and a philosophy about how we’re going to play the game. And that starts with recruiting.
I think we have a much different philosophy on recruiting than many other programs in that we tell recruits how difficult it’s going to be to play at LSU. It’s not going to be easy and we won’t lie to you saying it will be. We’re recruiting the best of the best and it’s going to be difficult for you to succeed here. Just to get playing time or get innings, you’re going to have to compete internally against some of the best players in the country. It’s going to be hard for you to win a starting job. And when you finally do win that playing time, you’re going be competing against the best players in the country, particularly in the SEC, that didn’t come to LSU, and against the best teams in the country that aren’t named LSU.
My message to the young man wanting to play here is that you can’t be afraid of challenges. In fact, you’ve got to be able to embrace challenges. The idea of being an LSU baseball player is a great idea. The tradition, the stage, playing in Alex Box Stadium in front of the biggest crowds in college baseball. It’s all such a great idea. But, the reality of being a baseball player at LSU is that it’s very challenging. It’s difficult. This is not a comfortable environment for a player not willing to challenge himself. You shouldn’t come to LSU unless you want to see how good you really are.
Q: What advice do you have for a recruit when making a college commitment?
A: Everybody sees the world through their own perspective. This is especially true when it comes to deciding what school will make you the happiest. I can’t accurately tell you what that is for yourself. You have to figure that out on your own. But my personal experiences tell me that the players you are going to play with, and the coaches that you’re going to play for, will have more to do with your happiness and contentment than any of the ancillary things. The reality is that once you start matriculating every day, you’ll start taking the things you thought were important for granted. The uniforms, the big stadiums, whatever it is, that stuff won’t be as big of a deal as you thought it would be. What makes the biggest impact on your happiness will be what you’re getting out of the program. Are you being treated fairly? Are you being coached in a good way? Do you enjoy being with your teammates? Those are the things you really need to take a look at.