by Charlie Adams, StokeTheFireWithin.com
I sat down for an extremely insightful conversation with the parents of a young lady who has signed with Division 1 University of San Diego to play college basketball. Over lunch and beyond, Jeff and Patty Buhr took me behind the scenes on how their daughter Caroline ended up connecting with an athletic scholarship at an outstanding school located in paradise, and what college coaches to stand out from others in the recruiting.
“Relief,” was the first word Patty said when we sat down at The Vine restaurant in South Bend to go over their recruiting process. They had put maximum effort into recruiting, and along the way had seen plenty of highs and lows!
Their 12th grade daughter Caroline recently was named to the prestigious Indiana All Star team. She was a 4 year prime performer for PennHigh School, leading them to the 4A state title game this past March. As a sophomore she set a school record by making 64% of her shots. At 6’1″ and athletic and skilled from an early age, she learned that Mid-majors like BallState were interested in her as early as 8th grade. It was after a summer showcase event before 9th grade that the interest increased with Big Ten schools like Penn State and Michigan showing a lot of interest.
Caroline really liked Michigan and their coach Kevin Borseth, but he went back to be coach at Green Bay. Along the way, the Buhr’s would experience multiple occasions of developing relationships with coaching staffs only to see them get let go or take a new position at another school, which was frustrating. They also found it hard at times to know if coaches were up front with them about where Caroline stood on their recruiting lists.
“Iowa was very good at being up front,” said Jeff. “They said, regarding visiting, that they were pretty sure they would offer but they weren’t there yet and they didn’t want us to make the effort to visit and expect an offer when they were not ready to so.”
As the high school years went along, they sometimes found that Caroline would be a back up offer in case a more highly rated player picked another school. Other times she would be the number one target of a school where they really wanted her. They also learned that despite the enthusiasm of what assistant coaches were telling them about probable upcoming scholarship offers, the head coach made the recruiting decisions and sometimes didn’t agree with the assistant’s view of Caroline.
From an early age, Caroline has had an adventurous spirit and dreamed of signing with a California school like PepperdineUniversity (being located right off MalibuBeach was attractive!). She dreamed of becoming an orthodontist, and living on a ranch with her own vineyard. Then the summer before her junior year, a local connection with a Stanford coach put Caroline on Stanford’s radar screen and she was invited to come to their Elite camp. It was a great opportunity and an even greater experience.
“She went in the summer for a long and rather intensive camp”, said Jeff. “I spent some time with the head coach and lead assistant coach and she flat out told me that no doubt Caroline could play at Stanford but they had a number of players in their recruiting hopper. Every school has their needs. They told us they needed two ‘bigs’. If they could get them, they could focus on Caroline. Another thing regarding top academic schools like Stanford is it takes time for the school to sort out which recruits can actually meet their higher academic standards. And if you are lower on their list, you are stuck waiting to see what other recruits fall off the list for whatever reasons, academic, choice, etc.”
“If you are trying to get a scholarship with a top academic school,” said Patty, “you need to do as best you can on the SAT or ACT as early as you can. Some kids test better than others. Caroline is smart, but she doesn’t test that great. She just needed coaching on how to better take these tests. With Caroline we did Sylvan Test Prep for the ACT. We focused on the ACT as we had heard that the ACT is a better test for math/science oriented students, compared to the SAT. Sylvan had her do a practice test to identify areas of weakness, and this really helped her to know what to study to be prepared for the test. She went two to three times a week for a month, and the results were good enough for schools she was considering.”
Being strong in the classroom and on the basketball court helped Caroline attract interest. She also was a very good soccer player. “I think soccer success and being a good athlete in general was her biggest asset,” said Jeff. “Her grades were also a big plus for her in the process, especially for the schools she was interested in.” Once she got her standardized test score up, she could get in just about any school she wanted.
After a strong 10th grade year of high school ball, Caroline was playing in a summer showcase just before her junior year with coaches from Oklahoma State, Michigan, Indiana, Stanford and mid-majors watching her specifically. “They were right there courtside and she was playing SO well,” said Patty. Unfortunately, she tore her ACL on that last Exposure day. It was an injury that cost her almost all of her junior season. She was able to return to play in the final four games of the season, but her minutes were limited as she was not 100% ready to go.
Many schools did not know of her injury so on September 1st of her junior year, the first day college programs could personally write her, she got over 50 letters. “There were many big programs in the bunch,” said Jeff, ” including a hand written letter from the head coach at Stanford, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa State, Cal, Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, and more. I have a picture of the 50 letters all laid out so you can see them together. It was overwhelming and she continued to get 15 to 20 letters a day for a year. ”
However, as programs learned of her injury she received encouraging letters about their continued interest in her, but a lot of their recruiting fell by the wayside. While some major D1s stayed interested, she shifted to more of a mid-major recruit at the D1 level. “At the end of the day,” said Jeff, “it was back to the mid-majors.”
Jeff and Patty said the one positive thing about being injured was that it allowed time for college visits that fall, winter and early spring of her junior year. They sat down with her and made a list of the top 20 schools she was interested in and then the top ten. They visited every one of the top ten. Caroline was pretty picky in what she was looking for at the next level. She wanted to get away from home; her older sisters had gone to college in state. She wanted a strong academic school. Miami of Ohio became a leading contender as their coaches were there for her from the start, even after the injury, and she liked the school. However, in the spring of her junior year, the coaching staff was let go and new relationships had to be developed with the new coaches. The new head coach told them he wanted to see her at a camp and after watching her there he would either offer her, not offer her, or tell her that they just need to “watch her more” that summer.
“No pressure!” said Patty, with a smile.
But she did what they wanted and got a scholarship offer from the new coach. The other thing the head coach said that resonated with them was that he wanted the players he signed to have a passion for playing there and to bleed Miami. That is a good thing because the happiest recruits are the ones that really, really want to play for a school and have many reasons why.
“We really listened to that because while Caroline really liked Miami,” said Jeff, “she had always wanted to go somewhere totally ‘out of the box’ and out of the Midwest. As time went on she wondered if she had that burning passion for being at Miami of Ohio like the coach wanted his recruits to have.”
They had a very good visit to Dayton and appreciated how their coach was very honest in saying there was a local recruit they liked more but that Caroline was next to her on their list. They had only one opening for their Class of 2014 recruits and Patty was concerned it would be difficult being the only player in a grade. Caroline didn’t mind that much, but in the end Dayton wasn’t a fit.
At this point, Miami of Ohio was the leader. Then, the University of Toledo came into play. Their coaches wanted her in the worst way and had kept in close contact since the injury. The Buhr’s took a visit and really liked the atmosphere at the game and the coaching staff. Toledo draws very well and they have many supportive fans. Then the coaches did something that really sold them on Toledo. They encouraged Jeff, Patty and Caroline to go into the post game locker room and ask the players anything about the program, the coaches, the school. Anything.
“So we are in there around these sweaty players in a roundtable discussion where nothing was sacred not to ask,” said Patty. “I left there so impressed the coaches had faith to do that, and the players had all kinds of good things to say about what it was like to play for Toledo and that coaching staff. You could tell they were having fun and were part of a tight program.”
Jeff compared that to visiting a Pac 12 program where the players were very up front that playing at that level was a job and not a whole lot of fun.
“That’s why you take visits,” said Patty. “Being on campus, meeting the staff and the players, and learning about the academics, you can gain so much to help in your decision. The intangibles, little things that you would never think about might come to light on a visit.” Patty emphasized the importance to taking a lot of visits and starting them early in the process.
Toledo, based a lot on how open they were in allowing the Buhr’s to have that locker room candid talk with the players, moved up the list to the top with Miami of Ohio. They kept visiting Northwestern, but they wouldn’t commit to an offer. Green Bay was the very first offer she received as a sophomore. Despite a coaching change, the offer was kept, and although she loved the new coach, the school was not the right fit for what she was looking for.
“Caroline was picky,” said Jeff. “While it was frustrating for us that we couldn’t get some of the programs to be up front with us on where she stood, I’m sure it was frustrating for some of those that really wanted her that she was taking her time and looking to find all the things she wanted in a school and program.”
Caroline developed a strong attraction to an ACC school. One of their assistants really liked her, but the head coach was more hesitant. “They didn’t think she could defend the quick guards they would face in the ACC,” said Jeff. “They wanted her to come to camp and play one on one with one of their top recruits. She did and basically they both scored against each other quite often (Caroline still in knee brace of course). I don’t think she met their test.”
“After the camp,” added Patty, “both the assistant and head coach sent a hand written letter telling her she did great, and the assistant coach said she did ‘what she needed to do’ at the camp. In the end, they had a higher ranked recruit that ended up committing so there was not the need. Also, we figured out that the assistant coach was more excited about her than the head coach who, in the end, makes the decisions.”
The summer before her senior year was Caroline’s final participation at various AAU Exposure Events. After the camp at Miami of Ohio, Miami was the clear leader on her list of schools. Toledo had moved up, based on their visit that spring. After several of the AAU events she had quite a few calls from schools that were interested in offering. “Many Mid-major D-1s let us know that if we would come visit, they would offer,” said Patty. “We were running out of patience, time, and it is expensive to travel far away. We didn’t want to go visit just to rack up another offer, so we told Caroline that unless she had a really strong desire to visit another school, that we just needed to be done and she needed to decide. She had several good options to choose from. The University of Denver was very interested. Jeff and I really liked that school. Their assistant Abby (Waner) Bartolotta had been a superstar player for Duke and she was so personable. It’s a great private school, but Caroline was not drawn enough to it to feel like she had to go visit. Our list of Top 10 and Top 20 schools kept getting revised and whittled down.”
Then, San Diego came into the picture in a way that would eventually look like it was meant to happen.
Caroline’s travel team was playing in a July Showcase. Caroline’s teammate, Jess Alexander, was being heavily recruiting by D2 Saginaw Valley State. Their coach Jamie Pewinski was recruiting Jess hard. She happened to be a friend of Cindy Fisher, the head coach of the University of San Diego.
“They were sitting together because they were friends,” said Jeff. “Coach Fisher said she had some time to kill and was there anyone there she should watch. The coach said, “Yeah, Jess has a teammate named Caroline you should see because she is your style of player.’ On that recommendation she stayed and watched her. She liked what she saw and later called Caroline.”
Miami and Toledo wanted Caroline to commit before the July showcases. The Buhr’s said they wanted to get through the Exposure events and that Caroline would make her decision in early August. “We told them we know you have to make other offers,” said Jeff. “They weren’t happy, but they were willing to be patient and allow us to sort everything out, to ensure that Caroline made the right decision. I tried to be upfront about everything, but with San Diego’s sudden real interest things had changed.”
The Buhr’s sat down and talked about San Diego with Caroline. It was a top 100 academic school. It was in California. It was fairly small, private, has a strong pre-health program, and touts a Top-10 ranking as a “most beautiful campus.” Then Caroline remembered that it was during a class the fall of her junior year, when they were practicing completing college applications, that one of her friends had told her that she should look into the University of San Diego, as his brother was going to school there and he loved it. She realized this was the same school that was recruiting her—the one that her friend had encouraged her to explore nine months earlier. She later learned that yet another friend also had a sibling that was at USD, and they had nothing but good things to say about the school.
Caroline became very interested in San Diego. Everything was coming together. It fit everything, and the coach appeared very interested.
“I called Coach Fisher because I wanted to see just how interested they really were because Caroline was extremely interested,” said Jeff. “Coach was happy to hear from me and said, yes, she was very interested. She was ready to make an offer but needed her to come out for a visit. So now we’re sitting there thinking of ordering plane tickets but not totally sure an offer would be made. The coach did say they had a couple of others they were bringing in but they were more courtesy visits and they would rather have Caroline. It was a visit we needed to take. Caroline was pretty adamant that out of all the schools interested in her that this was the one she really wanted to visit.”
The Buhr’s visited and everything went great. An offer wasn’t made then, but when they were flying back to Indiana Coach Fisher called to make an offer. There were some communication mix ups where they didn’t connect and for awhile the Buhr’s thought San Diego wasn’t interested and Coach Fisher thought Caroline wasn’t interested, but they connected, made the offer and Caroline accepted.
She would be playing at a very good academic University on a full athletic scholarship of $57,000 a year.
During the August visit to San Diego, Coach Fisher told Patty that she had “found Caroline.” Typically it is an assistant that identifies a potential recruit, follows them, and then brings them to the attention of the head coach. “Coach Fisher told me that that she believed that ‘things happen for a reason,’” said Patty. “After all that we had been through, with the injury, the recruiting ups and downs, and then at the end, for USD to come into play at the very end with all that Caroline was looking for in a basketball program and academic school—we shared that same sentiment. It was meant to be. The style of play that USD has was a great match to how Caroline plays and that was why they wanted her. This was important to Caroline in her decision—that they played her type of game. When she accepted to Coach Fisher on the phone, Caroline said Coach Fisher screamed she was so excited. Caroline knew she was really wanted, and this was so huge to all of us.”
“I truly do believe that God had His hand in this process,” said Patty. “From the injury that rocked her from probably a higher D1 school to landing there at USD. This is where she is supposed to be. Caroline is excited about USD and we are too!”
A lot of hard work and effort had gone into Caroline earning this remarkable opportunity. Coaches along the way said what they really liked about her playing for MBA Select AAU program was players from there are known for the high skills set and their work ethic. Caroline had also gained a great deal from playing for a Penn High program that had reached the 4A state title game twice in her high school career. Penn coach Kristi Kaniewski Ulrich runs a first class program known for teaching defensive fundamentals.
Although it took a lot of work and a there was a lot of stress, in the end Caroline found that the right playing level for her was high mid-major, like San Diego. She loves basketball. When she missed most of her junior year season with the knee injury, she realized then how much she missed not only playing in games but she missed the hard practices and running “down and backs.” Playing is something that she will never take for granted again. She will love it at San Diego, but it won’t consume her.
“Caroline has a lot of balance in her life,” said Patty. “She loves playing basketball, but she also wants to be a student and look to the future after she graduates. Some of these college programs were telling us how many players they had put into the WNBA. That’s not even on her radar. She wants to play hard for a solid and reputable women’s basketball program, and in the end graduate with a degree from a school with some prestige.”
When she signed her national letter of intent, Caroline said this: “I liked the school, the people, the coaching staff and players, and on top of that USD represented the type of school I was looking for academically. And I can’t complain about the weather!”
It hasn’t snowed in San Diego since 1967.
Her versatility as a player was a strong positive for the USD coaches. “Caroline’s ability to play inside and outside for us is going to make her a hard matchup for our opponents,” said Coach Fisher. “Caroline’s game is very smooth and she plays at an extremely high level. I am excited to see her on the floor and watch her game develop.”
San Diego is a long way from home, but Jeff put it this way: “Had she picked Miami of Ohio it would have been a 4 1/2 hour drive. San Diego is a 4 hour direct flight from MidwayAirport in Chicago.”
“We can watch all her games on the internet,” said Patty. “Plus we have an excuse to go somewhere warm in the dead of winter!”
I asked them about the growing trend of athletes specializing in one sport, compared to the old days when so many played three or even four. “I don’t think anyone should be pressured to focus on one sport,” said Jeff. “I think multiple sports are better to a point. At some point it can be just too much for everyone, between time and money. I think kids kind of figure this out on their own. It was our girls’ decision to quit soccer, not ours. We told them we would respect their decision and support them no matter what.”
Jeff said that having Caroline in the NCSA Athletic Recruiting Network had been very helpful in educating them on many things involving recruiting, and having a recruiting coach to talk to through the process was valuable.
As our lunchtime visit wound down, they smiled at some of the recruiting memories.
“Green Bay would send her these recruiting letters in the mail,” said Patty, “and they would take various pictures of Caroline off the internet of her playing basketball for Penn, and then they would Photoshop a Green Bay uniform on her instead. This was fun to see, and always caught our attention. At Wake Forest because of her interest in the medical field they had the head of the Biology Department take her to the cadaver classroom and had her put on gloves and handle a human knee, showing her what the ACL ligament was. That was pretty memorable for all of us.”
I asked Patty to sum it all up. “It is not easy by any means to get a scholarship,” said Patty, “especially if you have particular criteria you are looking for. But we met so many interesting people, got to see a lot of schools, and when it all came together it was an amazing journey!”
Charlie Adams is a motivational speaker who works with college coaches and athletes to help develop a set of positive, solution centered and team oriented attitudes. His son Jack was a college cross country runner. His daughter Abby will be a college swimmer starting this Fall, and his youngest daughter Grace plays for Skylar Diggins’ Elite Travel team. Charlie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org