USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe Lecessi is a former college athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
Cross country season is in full swing. Around the country, student-athletes are logging hundreds of miles in practice and racing through fields and forests to set new personal bests and win meets. With the D1 and D2 National Letter of Intent signing period starting November 14, many student-athletes are visiting college campuses and meeting with coaches to determine the right athletic and academic fit. As you run in high school competitions and look ahead to what’s next, here are five keys to a successful cross country recruiting process.
Don’t downplay academics
Cross country and track and field are equivalency sports at the NCAA D1 and D2 levels, which means coaches are given a set number of scholarships—12.6 for men and 18 for women—to spread across as many athletes as they want. While a few programs are cross country only, most schools with cross country and track and field programs split the same pot of recruiting money. Most scholarship opportunities are partial, and Michael Scott, Chair of USA Track & Field Long Distance Running Division recommends students look for ways to combine academic aid with an athletic scholarship.
“Find a school that matches up your athletic and academic interests,” says Scott. “I can’t emphasize that enough.” Scott, an athletic academic advisor at the University of Rhode Island, acknowledges that racking up the miles at a college cross country program takes a real physical toll.
“You’re most likely going pro at something other than athletics,” he says. “If you’re dealing with persistent injuries, you might decide to move on and focus on the academic side of things.”
Bridge the college gap with the right training regimen
The transition from high school to college can be grueling. For men, the course distance increases from 5k in high school to 8k during the college season and 10k for regional and national championships at the end of the year. For women, the distance increases from 5k to 6k. Cross country programs put their athletes through rigorous strength training and require them to run as much as 100 miles a week. As you prepare for your freshman year of college, the right training regimen can make all the difference.
“Get guidance from coaches and train consistently over the summer to prepare for the college level distances,” Scott says. “If you’re not doing strength training already, consider adding it to your routine to ward off injuries and keep your body healthy.”
Scott also recommends that student-athletes start expressing an interest in college programs during their junior year. Hoping to get recruited by a particular program? Reach out to get on their radar.
“Don’t wait for coaches to send you an email or give you a call,” he says. “They might think you’re not interested because they haven’t heard from you or they might not be focused on recruiting that part of the country. And even if they don’t offer you a scholarship right away, spots may open up because someone transfers or gets hurt. For any number of reasons, there may still be money lying around and the school may be able to offer you a scholarship.”
READ MORE: How to contact college coaches
“When you’re racing top competition, it’s important to prepare and perform as well as you can to impress the coaches by proving you can compete when it matters,” Scott says. “Let your feet do the talking.”
And if an injury is hampering your performance, be upfront about it and let coaches know how your recovery process is going.
“It’s always good to let the coaches know what’s going on,” Scott says. “At a glance, they may see you’re not running as well as the year before. Explain your fitness background and outline the steps you’re taking to get back to full health.”
In general, distance runners take longer to bloom. College rosters are full of men and women who weren’t star athletes in high school but kept working hard and improving their times. If your dream is to run for a top D1 program right out of high school, a walk-on opportunity could be your path to a roster spot and a scholarship.
“If you’re trying to make a top team, unless you’re a national champion or recorded one of the best times in the country, consider exploring walk-on opportunities and working your way to earning a scholarship,” Scott says. “However, walk-on athletes may have to compete in a time trial at the beginning of the year to earn a spot on the team. Whereas scholarship athletes and preferred walk-ons already have a spot.”
Find the right fit
Every college cross country program is different. When deciding on a school, learn as much as you can about the coach’s personality and training philosophy.
“Some programs are really demanding and require high mileage,” notes Scott. “Athletes with an injury history might not thrive at a school like that. It’s so important to be communicating with college coaches so you understand their expectations and know what kind of training the team will be doing when you show up on campus.”
In many cases, colleges redshirt freshmen to give them an extra year to build strength and stamina.
“Some programs require 100 miles a week, but they’re probably not having their athletes do that week one of freshman year,” Scott says. “They use that first year to get athletes used to the training volume and get mileage under their belts.”