Northern Exposure

April 26, 2015

How does a small college at the top of Maine land recruits from all over the world? By working hard to find its niche.

The following article appears in the April/May 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

By Bill Ashby

Bill Ashby is Athletic Director and Head Men’s Soccer Coach at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. He was named the Garth Pleasant Honorary Athletic Director of the Year by the United States Collegiate Athletic Association for 2013-14. As a head coach, he has compiled a record of 369-171-24 over 30 years, and is the winningest coach at Maine Maritime Academy, University of Mary, and Brescia University. He can be reached at: bill.ashby@maine.edu.

No matter what level your squads compete at or how successful they are, recruiting student-athletes to your college teams is a formidable challenge. Not only is it tough to find students who will be a good fit at your institution, selling them on your school can be a drawn-out battle.

Here at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, some might say our recruiting obstacles reach new heights. We are located in the upper-most northern crown of the state, where the winter months bring extremely cold weather and the nearest city—Bangor—is three-and-a-half hours away. To visit UMFK, a U.S. high school student-athlete must pass every university and college between them and us.

Yet we boast winning teams and successful graduates. Our women’s soccer squad has posted a 147-19-5 record over the past nine years and won four of the last five USCAA (United States Collegiate Athletic Association) national championships. Men’s soccer has a nine-year record of 162-13-6 with one USCAA national championship, and our women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball teams have regularly been ranked in the top 10 and appeared in USCAA national tournaments.

How do we do it? The iconic proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” may be most apt for us. We have come up with new ideas for selling our school, uncovered different recruiting paths, and tapped into what today’s student-athlete is looking for. We also partner with the admissions office to reach enrollment goals.

Our geographical location and the shrinking population demographics among Maine high school students are the big hurdles we face, but our desire to produce successful teams and student-athletes who contribute to the university motivates us to overcome them. The challenge has inspired us to offer a distinctive product and find unique recruiting solutions.

As one of our current student-athletes, Jessany Munoz from Yreka, Calif., says, “UMFK has been a great fit for me. I have been able to continue playing volleyball in college, reduce my cost of attendance, and prepare myself to move on to graduate school, hopefully as a volleyball graduate assistant coach.”

CROSSING BORDERS

“Location, location, location” is the number-one rule in real estate, and often in college recruiting, too. UMFK’s location on the Saint John River, which serves as the border with Canada in our part of the country, could certainly be seen as a huge disadvantage in attracting highly successful student-athletes, so we’ve tried to turn it in our favor.

Traditionally, Fort Kent is seen in one of two ways. People either view it as America’s “first mile,” since it is the beginning of U.S. Route 1 (which runs 2,369 miles to Key West, Fla.), or as the last mile of the road. We like to think of UMFK as neither the beginning nor the end, but rather the center of an extraordinary opportunity to serve the educational needs of all students, no matter where they come from.

One of the most important things we did is to understand who might see our location as undesirable. Unfortunately, northern Maine is viewed with some hesitation by student-athletes in the state. As much as we focus on and continue to reach out to them, high school athletes from the southern part of Maine are rarely interested in traveling five hours north to go to college. That has led us to look outside our state—and national—borders.

Although UMFK is in the sparse “North Maine Woods,” we are not that far from two major Canadian population centers. Quebec City and Montreal are just over a three- and five-hour drive from UMFK. A little research made us realize this presented a great opportunity for international recruiting.

Within the education system used in the Province of Quebec, students finish their high school education at grade 11, after which they are required to attend a pre-university college (CEGEP) before being accepted to a university. However, the system sometimes creates a bottleneck, with more CEGEP graduates than the province’s system can satisfy. We found that there were many accomplished student-athletes in Quebec who were having difficulty getting into a Canadian university to study and play their sport.

In reaching out to these student-athletes, we have created a win-win situation. Many of them welcomed the chance to come to UMFK and experience an American university. In particular, our men’s and women’s soccer and men’s basketball teams have been very successful in attracting student-athletes from Quebec. In the past five years, more than 30 Canadians have represented UMFK and helped push our teams to national level success in the NAIA and USCAA.

We have also had success looking clear across the United States to California, where the cost of attendance at four-year universities has been rising. We have found many junior college graduates there are in limbo, able to afford junior college, but priced out of four-year schools.

Two years ago, UMFK Assistant Athletic Director Lucas Levesque, who serves as our Athletic Recruiting Coordinator and Head Women’s Soccer Coach, reached out to several California junior college coaches to inquire about the possibility of recruiting their student-athletes, and he was greeted warmly. They were eager to place their graduating students and realized UMFK could be a good option. We have been able to keep tuition at UMFK relatively low and found many California kids were not deterred by our cold climate—they saw it as an exciting adventure and a way to experience something new.

When needs met opportunity, the continental divide between our two states quickly shrank. Currently, 25 student-athletes from California are on our teams: seven each in women’s soccer, volleyball, and basketball, and four in men’s basketball.

In fact, the influx of California junior college student-athletes was a catalyst for the revival of UMFK women’s volleyball. In 2012, we struggled to field a women’s squad. Thanks to efforts recruiting junior college volleyball players from the West, the UMFK team roster is now 70 percent Californian.

Not only have those players brought numbers to the volleyball program, they added experience, which led to success. In the past two seasons, the squad has posted a 36-7 record. The volleyball players from California have also been successful in the classroom, with a GPA above 3.6.

While we concentrate recruiting efforts in Canada and California, we have had success reaching out to student-athletes across the U.S. and overseas. Overall, on this year’s rosters, 86 percent of our student-athletes reside outside Maine. We boast students from Croatia, Greece, China, England, Spain, Serbia, Montenegro, Scotland, Jamaica, South Africa, Haiti and the states of Illinois, California, New York, Connecticut, and Florida. We try to not leave any stone unturned.

BETTER PLANNING

Recruiting in distant places has also prompted us to rethink our strategies. Our traditional practice in regional recruiting was to take several short trips to evaluate student-athletes, many of which were cold calls or shots in the dark, and the odds of returning with good prospects was hit or miss. In addition, since UMFK is comparable to many other colleges and universities within New England, the opportunity to distinguish ourselves was limited.

When we began recruiting long-distance, it forced us to do more pre-planning, pre-evaluating, and relationship-building. We also realized the importance of our sales pitch—while we had trouble standing out in the crowd of other Maine schools when talking to students in our region, this was not the case in California and Canada. There are many students today interested in a different experience. This approach has proven very successful and provided a better return on our investment.

For example, when recruiting in California, Coach Levesque first establishes contacts with coaches and athletic directors there. He explains what UMFK has to offer and the experience our campus provides. He then prescreens student-athletes for academic and athletic talent for all UMFK teams.

Once he has identified qualified potential student-athletes, Coach Levesque will reach out and make personal contact with each recruit and enlighten them about our academic majors and sports. He will also ask for recent game film to further vet talent. If the student meets our academic and athletic standards and we offer the program of study he or she desires, Coach Levesque will schedule a time to see them play as well as meet with them and their family.

Coach Levesque makes one trip to California each year, in the fall, and is sometimes accompanied by one or two other UMFK coaches. He will spend 10 to 14 days meeting with 15 to 20 vetted student-athletes and their families. He and the other coaches will watch as many games and tournaments as possible to identify other potential recruits and further evaluate ones previously identified. We are looking to add a second trip in the spring to connect with additional basketball players.

“Selling what UMFK has to offer in California is enjoyable,” says Coach Levesque. “It is rewarding to walk into a student’s home knowing I can talk about UMFK’s worthy education at a great price and the chance to play on a top team.”

One thing that has helped a lot is that UMFK sends an admissions counselor along on the athletic department’s recruiting trip. This person will meet with the students and their families, evaluate academic transcripts, and walk the students step-by-step through UMFK’s application process. The counselor will also arrange meetings with junior college transfer officers and try to build relationships between the state’s junior colleges and our university. The personal touch works well with the athletic recruit and establishes a connection within the junior colleges that should pay further dividends in the near future in the recruitment of non-athlete students.

Our procedures for recruiting in foreign countries are similar to the way we tackle California, although we sometimes use international scouting agencies in the initial stage of vetting the student-athlete. Many of these agencies provide academic information, written athletic evaluation of skills, and video analysis of the student-athlete.

SELLING OUR STRENGTHS

All of this legwork would mean nothing if we did not do a great job relaying UMFK’s strengths. Our coaches know we have a unique and wonderful product to sell, from both an academic and athletic standpoint. We have found there are four main factors today’s student-athletes are looking at when evaluating their options.

Cost of Attendance: The University of Maine system has identified that the state’s high schools will have a declining number of graduates for the next several years. Our school’s attempt to address this drop was to reduce the cost of our education to international and out-of-state students by 40 percent, bringing it to $9,900 for two semesters with a 36 credit maximum. The cost for room and board was kept at a reasonable rate as well. The prospect of gaining 36 credit hours of study for a total of under $18,000, including room and board, has proven to be extremely attractive.

We also talk to recruits about scholarship opportunities. Our athletic scholarship budget totals just under $200,000, split among our five sports. The school also has established three levels of academic scholarships. Depending on a student’s grade point average, class rank and SAT/ACT scores, they can qualify for a $2,500, $3,500, or $5,000 academic scholarship.

Once academic and athletic awards are combined with our affordable cost of attendance, our campus starts to look very appealing. Location, distance, and the chilly climate of northern Maine quickly become less important factors in a student-athlete’s school choice.

Academic Offerings: UMFK has numerous academic options for its students, and our coaches are well-versed on them. We have a renowned nursing program and signature areas of study in business and finance, education, public safety, and forestry. UMFK graduates, especially in nursing, are highly sought after by employers throughout the Northeast.

Athletic Success: Although UMFK is not as well known as those schools in NCAA Division I, we offer student-athletes a highly-trained coaching staff and a commitment to be successful on a national stage. And we consistently schedule contests with teams at all three NCAA levels, as well as from Canada. We can easily quantify our outstanding coaching as recent student-athlete Matt Dunn now plays for the New York City FC in MLS and Kimika Forbes is the starting goalkeeper for Trinidad and Tobago’s national team.

School-Sports Balance: UMFK believes it has struck the right balance between academics and athletics, and we tout this to recruits. We understand one aspect cannot be successful without the other. UMFK athletic administrators and coaches work closely with faculty members to provide a commitment to academics. Often, our faculty, the coach, and the student-athlete work in conjunction to achieve academic goals. UMFK student-athletes consistently outperform the average GPA of the school’s non-athletes.

BEYOND THE BASICS

On top of selling our affordability, academics, and sports success, we use one more important talking point. We have a unique and wonderful culture at UMFK that our coaches relay to recruits.

To start, the community members of Fort Kent love the University, its students, and especially UMFK student-athletes. Our sporting events are heavily attended by locals who take a personal interest in our teams. Whenever one of our squads has success, the town rejoices with us.

A common occurrence is for UMFK athletes to be congratulated by fans in the supermarket or on the sidewalks of Fort Kent, which can be a surprise for them. Many international and out-of-state athletes find themselves “adopted” by a Fort Kent family. They provide guidance to Californians in how to manage the cold and snow and lessons in skiing and show-shoeing. Life-long bonds are often formed between UMFK students and the Fort Kent locals, providing student-athletes with a sense of community that translates to their teams. In the recruiting process we try to paint the picture of what the people of Fort Kent are like.

Another unique aspect of the town is its mix of French and English languages. Originally settled by the French Acadians, Fort Kent is culturally linked to the French language and over 60 percent of residents and a large number of employees at UMFK speak French. French-speaking students from Quebec can comfortably converse with professors, administrators, staff, and employees of local stores and restaurants in their native language during their process of advancing their English. The ability to gradually learn English in a non-threatening, low-pressure educational environment is comforting and often a “deal-closer” for our French-Canadian students.

“This school is a great place for French-speaking students,” says Montreal native and 2014 USCAA National Women’s Soccer Player of the Year Katherine Ferland. “I was able to speak it until I became more comfortable with English. Playing soccer really helped me with English, and being able to express myself with my professors in my first language gave me confidence in my classes.”

UMFK coaches have found today’s student-athletes are searching for an affordable, quality education that leads to a good job or opportunity for graduate school. They are also looking for excellent coaching, competitive scheduling, and national playoff opportunities. And they desire coaches who invest time and guidance in their education. We are proud to provide that to all our student-athletes, and proud to tout it to recruits.

 

SIDEBAR: SUCCESS STORY

One aspect of our recruiting that we are most proud of at UMFK is finding junior college student-athletes who are academically motivated and athletically talented but are having trouble moving on to a four-year school. One example is Kimika Forbes, a soccer goalkeeper originally from Trinidad and Tobago who was getting an associate’s degree from Monroe Community College.

Kimika is a successful athlete and a good student, but she needed help gaining access to a senior university. At the time, we had a student-athlete from Trinidad and Tobago on our men’s team and our Head Women’s Soccer Coach and Athletic Recruiting Coordinator Lucas Levesque was recruiting Kimika’s sister. That led him to his future standout goalie.

Kimika joined our campus two years ago, and it proved a great fit. She led UMFK to the 2013 USCAA national championship and is a dean’s list student in education who will finish her degree this spring.

In addition, during Kimika’s time at UMFK she was chosen to represent her country as its number-one goalkeeper in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches. We were particularly proud to watch her on the world stage against USA, when she pulled off continuous world-class saves. CONCACAF News reported Kimika’s performance as “spectacular, ridiculous, big-time, and special.”

She’s also been an outstanding student for us here in the North Maine Woods. As UMFK President Wilson G. Hess says, “Kimika is an extraordinary athlete. She seems to have carved out a path to greatness while she was at UMFK—as an athlete, as a student, and as a person. Her success shows why students come from around the world to our campus in pursuit of their future.”

 

SIDEBAR: ONE TEAM

The UMFK athletic department is small in comparison to many others in the New England region. The late arrival of spring in northern Maine makes offering spring outdoor sports difficult, so we focus our efforts on men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball. The department has only four full-time employees who all wear multiple hats.

A small staff might be seen as a negative, but it has produced an environment where coaches of different sports work in cooperation. A true team atmosphere has developed within the UMFK athletic department and it has helped all our programs to become successful.

We especially work in collaboration when it comes to recruiting. For instance, our men’s and women’s soccer coaches will scout and evaluate potential players for each other’s programs, as will the men’s and women’s basketball staffs.

In addition, the women’s sports teams at UMFK have been very successful in helping each other. Soccer, basketball, and volleyball regularly recruit dual-sport athletes. We all enjoy working together to maximize resources and make each team stronger.

 

 

 

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