By Andrew Yourell, Sports Editor
The Wildcats ended their season on Saturday, April 4 by placing sixth in the NCAA Morgantown Regional. For the gymnasts, it means a chance to rest, recuperate and deal with the myriad aches and pains sustained over the course of a long season.
For associate head coach Ed Datti, it means a ramped up recruiting effort. The goal is simple—find the gymnastic talent that has made UNH a perennial Top-25 team in the nation. But the process of recruiting young women to come compete is much more complicated.
“Recruiting has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. We’re recruiting earlier and earlier and earlier. We’ve already got commitments out for sophomore class,” Datti said, “and we’ve actually made offers to freshmen in high school.”
“Gymnastics is a sport where the bottom line is, we’re basically recruiting kids before they reach puberty,” he continued.
Most high school students don’t start to seriously look at colleges and universities until they’re in their junior and senior years. But for freshman gymnast Casey Lauter, and many other gymnasts, the process began much earlier.
“I first started, I think, looking for colleges in like, eighth grade. And the summer after eighth grade, I came to my first college gymnastics camp, which was actually here,” Lauter said. The freshman recently tied with junior teammate Kelsey Aucoin for sixth place on beam at the NCAA Morgantown Regional, with a score of 9.875.
The nature of the sport doesn’t help college coaches who go recruiting. Injuries took their toll on the ‘Cats’ roster at the end of this season, but injuries are also a major issue for potential recruits prior to getting to UNH.
“My recruiting process was kind of halted, because in tenth grade I tore my Achilles, and I didn’t know how long it was going to take me to get back,” Lauter said.
“When I was coming back, I was competing at regionals, and Ed was actually there,” the freshman continued. “He gave me a call…and that was when he offered me. And I kind of knew that this is where I wanted to be, because I’d been here a few times before, and you just kind of get the feeling that you’re in the right place.”
Datti acknowledged that the process has several variables, but said that part of the reason UNH has had such success stems from the reputation that he and UNH head coach Gail Goodspeed have worked hard to create.
“There are programs out there that would back out on a kid like that,” Datti said. “We know she’s going to, it’s something she can recover from, so we stuck to our guns with her and we’re going continue to honor that scholarship offer, and we’ve done that.”
The coaches rely heavily on private, United States Artistic Gymnastics club teams in their recruiting process, and the club coaches are a big influence on prospective athletes. With UNH, Datti says, clubs know what they’re getting.
“We’re competing against the Penn States, the Michigan States, a lot of Big 10 schools, SEC schools, North Carolina, NC State, the teams in our conference, so I mean, those schools have that athletic reputation that UNH doesn’t have,” he said. “What we do have is an academic reputation. So we try and sell that quite a bit.”
According to Datti, the sell is pretty easy—UNH is a niche school, with a beautiful campus, and a reputation for graduating student-athletes in a timely manner.
Also helping is the coaches’ personal reputations. Goodspeed and Datti have been coaching at UNH for over 30 years, and have failed to make it to the NCAA Regionals only twice in that time. Goodspeed has been honored as Northeast Region Coach of the Year six times, most recently at the end of this season, and Datti has been awarded the NCAA Regional Coach of the Year nine times.
“We have a very, very good reputation of treating our kids well, graduating them on time,” he said. “We’re not yellers and screamers or anything like that, you know? Our kids have a good experience here. And clubs know that. So if they have an athlete that they’re advising, UNH’s name comes up quite often.”
Coaching played a big part in wooing junior Kelsey Aucoin, who, along with Lauter, earned a sixth-place finish at the Morgantown meet. Unlike most of the team, who hail from the Northeast’s regions six and seven, Aucoin came to Durham from Texas.
“She’s [Goodspeed] had a successful program over all the year’s and we’ve only missed regionals twice in her [35 years of coaching] So that’s pretty awesome to see that she’s able to keep up a solid team through all those years,” Aucoin said.
“I set up a few visits, and mine were kind of like, sporadic, like, Michigan, and Ohio, and just like testing it out and seeing where I would fit best in a program. And Ed had actually come down to my gym recruiting,” she continued.
Injuries were a factor in Aucoin’s recruiting process, as well.
“I ended up committing the summer after my junior year, and in between this time, other people were kind of sketchy about committing with me because I’d had a bunch of injuries,” Aucoin said. “Ed had seen me grow past them. And so he was like, ‘I trust that you can kind of deal with an injury. I believe you can push hard and help our team.’ So that kind of made me feel good about myself, and I felt like I could actually grow in this program, and actually contribute to the team. So I committed right before senior year.”
The coaching stability, and the reputation that the Wildcat coaches have worked hard to create have played a major role in gymnastics recruiting. Despite a recruiting process with a number of variables, Goodspeed and Datti have created a perennially successful program, and their honest approach combined with UNH’s academic excellence make the Wildcat program an easy sell.
“There are no guarantees; we tell all our athletes that,” Datti said. But they’ve shown a willingness to take a chance on student-athletes who mesh well with the program, and they’ve proven that, in a world where colleges use up athletes and then toss them to the curb, at least in Durham, the coaches care.