By Grace Mowery
For potential college athletes looking to don a Cedarville jersey and dominate in the name of Jesus, recruiting is a long and often surprising journey.
Recruiting usually begins with a coach’s interest in a player. Jason Smith, the women’s head basketball coach, moved to Cedarville in 2021 and soon started recruiting players for his new school. When he transitioned from Bryan College to Cedarville, he started searching for athletes with Division I talent willing to play Division II basketball at Cedarville.
“[You look for the] highest level of basketball player that can fit into your coaching style and coaching philosophy and that fits for the university,” Smith said.
To find potential recruits, Smith establishes relationships with high school basketball coaches and AAU coaches who coach athletes in summer ball, travel ball and tournaments. Cedarville coaches attend these events and watch the hundreds of players in tournament games to observe a player they already knew about or to discover new players.
Men’s head basketball coach Pat Estepp often targets Christian high school teams in the hopes that these schools will have Division II level athletes who share Cedarville’s values.
“Obviously when it comes to wanting an education like Cedarville offers and wanting to be in a Christian college, that’s a priority for us,” Estepp said. “We want kids who are bought into our mission. It won’t make sense to them if we’re talking about using basketball as an act of worship and they don’t even know what that means.”
Lauryn Leslie, a sophomore center fielder and second baseman on the softball team, put her spiritual growth first when she chose Cedarville’s athletic program over a Division I school. She recognized that she needed to attend tournaments for Division I and II schools to notice her. However, since tournaments usually fall on the weekend and require travel, she and her family preferred not to miss church every week. Because of this, Leslie searched for potential schools on her own.
As she looked for schools that matched her values, the Cleveland, Ohio, native found a Christian school close to home: Cedarville University.
After a player finds Cedarville or coaches discover an athlete, Cedarville coaches will start building a relationship with the student. They will contact the high school or AAU coach for an evaluation and attend a game. If they like what they see, they will contact the student about a campus visit.
When recruits visit officially, they attend chapel, tour campus, eat lunch with coaches and current players, meet with Career Services and a department advisor and spend the night with the team. Estepp also likes to eat breakfast with recruits the next morning before they leave campus.
Leslie emphasized how her official visit acquainted her with the school and Cedarville’s coaches.
“I was actually going to play tennis for the school, and Coach Alan Edlund was like, ‘Yeah, you’re completely qualified to play for my team. You can try out your senior year,’” Leslie said.
However, as Edlund learned more about her abilities, he recommended that she consider trying out for softball first, showing his concern for her as a player and an individual.
After an athlete comes for an official visit, the coaches decide how they would like to proceed. If the athlete impressed the coaches, they may offer him or her a spot and a scholarship on a Cedarville team.
Not all athletes connect with Cedarville this way, however. Both Smith and Estepp emphasized how transfer students and the transfer portal have affected recruiting in sports. Smith believes the NCAA’s evolution of the transfer portal, which has made transferring an easier process than in the past, marks the biggest recent change in recruiting. However, Smith prefers not to rely on the transfer portal.
“We really love to hone in on high school kids and have them here for four years to develop them spiritually, emotionally and academically,” Smith said.
“We don’t live in the transfer portal,” Estepp said, but he noted that he will recruit through the portal to deepen his lineup or to stagger the graduating years of players on his team. “Especially in a year like this where we lose five seniors, we don’t necessarily want to bring in five freshmen and start over.”
Sophomore Emily Hansen, a former center back on Cedarville’s soccer team, began her collegiate play at another school. Cedarville recruited Hansen in high school, but she chose another college and played soccer her freshman year there. When she decided she needed a change, she contacted Coach Jonathan Meade and expressed her desire to transfer to Cedarville.
“Cedarville has always been a top choice for me because they are unashamed of the gospel, and they always proclaim that,” Hansen said. “And I felt like their beliefs lined up more with what I was looking for in a school.”
Meade knew about Hansen’s caliber of play from high school, and he agreed that she could join the team.
While athletes like Hansen and Leslie reached out to a Cedarville coach first, others, like Joelle Petek, chose Cedarville as a school before exploring its athletic programs.
Petek knew about Cedarville because her parents both graduated from the university, and her dad is a trustee.
“I wasn’t looking to play tennis,” Petek said, “but Coach Edlund heard that I was coming through the grapevine from my dad.”
Petek didn’t believe she could play tennis at the Division II level, but Edlund researched Petek’s stats in high school and invited her to attend conditioning with the current team. Although most recruits will practice with the current team, she did not have that opportunity on her visit. Edlund still offered her a scholarship.
As Leslie, Hansen and Petek can attest, the recruitment process looks different for each recruit and might become an unsettling or uncomfortable time. Nevertheless, Leslie kept her focus heavenward as she prepared for her future.
“Because Cedarville is a Christ-centered college, many of the players reach out to [coaches] personally because it’s Cedarville first and softball second,” Leslie said.
“Growing up, I always wanted to play DI softball. Cedarville literally changed my heart. Now I get to play with people that also love the Lord, and we get to be a light.”
Grace Mowery is a junior English major and sports writer for Cedars. She loves reading historical novels, watching football and baseball, and going on spontaneous ice cream runs with her friends.