The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith Lady Lions began competing in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Division II in summer 2011. They made it to the Final Four in 2014 and the Elite 8 in 2015. Now, Assistant Coach Tyler Kanelos is focused on recruiting Division I level talent to build on the program’s recent success.
We sat down with Assistant Coach Tyler Kanelos for an interview on topics ranging from college volleyball recruiting advice for aspiring student-athletes, how to get on the radar of college coaches, what clips high school athletes should include in highlight reels, how technology is making it easier for both college coaches and student-athletes to find the right fit, and how a small Division II program in Fort Smith, Arkansas rose to number three in the nation on the 2016 SportsRecruits Interest Scores™ Growth rankings.
Ross Baltimore: UAFS’s popularity among potential recruits has skyrocketed over the past year. To what do you attribute such a huge rise in interest over such a short period of time?
Tyler Kanelos: I think it’s a combination of a few things. Our program is fairly new to the Division II level of NCAA. We spent over a decade as a NJCAA Division I junior college program. So we have a really strong and long tradition – a 20-year history – of winning. We’ve never had a losing season. Our head coach Jane Sargent has over 600 career wins. But the recent success we’ve had, in the 2014 season where we went to the Final Four, and the 2015 season where we went to the Elite 8 – those have really helped boost interest in our program from high level prospects.
The other thing I would say – the initial contact we’ve been making with these kids using SportsRecruits has been a great way to get our foot in the door with top recruits. Also, with the club and club directors. Honestly, I would say that most athletes in any sport enjoy winning, and our program has a very strong winning tradition. So, the history of our program, and access to things like SportsRecruits to make that initial contact and sell our program to high level athletes, are what helped us make that jump.
RB: Consider a scenario. Let’s say you’re looking at 10 kids and you’re further along in the process of evaluating and recruiting them. Of those 10 student-athletes, how many initial conversations were initiated by you reaching out to the student-athlete, and how many of the initial conversations were initiated by the student-athletes reaching out to you?
TK: I’d honestly say, maybe 7 out of 10 by us. We’re Division II. I would put us up there as one of the best. We were a top 25 team almost every week last year, and like I said, we’ve been to the Final Four and Elite 8 the last few years. But we’re recruiting Division I talent. We want our program to continue to get better, and the kids that we’re losing out on are kids that are going to the Division I level. So, to answer your question specifically, for our top 10 prospects, we’re probably making the initial contact on 7 of them because we want to seek out the top level talent.
We’ve had plenty of times where good prospects, good players have fallen into our laps, and a lot of that has been because of SportsRecruits, you know? We put our product out there on the web, people get to see us, people look into our program, and they contact us; that’s an easy way to do it. Just because we’re trying to get those kids that we’re okay with getting rejected by. But I would say that most of the time we’re making the contact with the kids we really want.
RB: What college volleyball recruiting advice do you have? How do you get yourself out there?
TK: For us, being on websites like SportsRecruits is a big deal, because it’s just so easy to have access to everybody. The internet has really changed the game. We get hundreds of emails every week, and we find a lot of talented kids that way. We recruit actively just like anyone else, but honestly, the internet has enabled us to supplement that a lot more. SportsRecruits has really made things easy for us.
RB: How do you evaluate talent?
TK: We look at a few things. We’re looking at athleticism. Athleticism is one of the big things, just because we’re confident that we can take an athlete that may not be a very polished volleyball player yet, and turn them into that. You can’t teach athleticism or height. We’re also looking for smart volleyball players. Even if you’re not a great athlete, if you can do things on the court that other people can’t do, because you know the game or you’re a student of the game, or you’re a smart player; We’ll look for kids like that. They make the entire level of our program a lot better. Those are the kids that you’re very confident with in the game, because you know that they’re not going to make mindless errors, they know how to play the game and you know they’re going to be consistent the whole way.
RB: So, you’re looking for athleticism, you’re looking for someone who can play the game intelligently. But, how do you spot it? How much of it is done watching them on the court in person, and how much of that can be done over the internet on video? How much of that can be gleaned from off-court interactions?
TK: We always like to have a little video. We’ve never taken anybody onto our program based on video alone, but it’s honestly a good way for us to see them and make that initial evaluation. And then, you need to have stats like vertical touch or block touch, or things like that, because it gives us an idea of how high you jump. For those people, we see them on film, we’re in contact, and we’re in a deep conversation with them. Then, we’ll go out and watch them play.
For Division II, we’re at a real advantage, because we can bring a recruit in for tryouts, so basically they can come in and practice with our team and we can get an evaluation of them in our gym, using our techniques, in our system. For them, they can see how we run practice, they can see the level of play in our gym, they can see our facilities, they can kind of live life as a UAFS Lady Lion for a day. That really helps us get a sure idea of what the player can do.
The last thing they do with us is that tryout or that practice, so we can see what we need to see in a more controlled environment.
RB: That tryout is held for an individual player with current players who are on your program now? Or do you do prospect days where you bring in a bunch of prospects at the same time to play together?
TK: I’ve done both, but it’s usually best to have recruits play with our team now. I’ll give you an example. We’re the number one defensive team in the country. We had the most digs per set in NCAA DII this season. So, for us, if you’re a hitter and you come in and you play against our defense, and you can score on them, we know you can score against the rest of our conference, region, and most of the teams in the country. It gives us a very good gauge if you come in and play as well or better than players who are already on our team. So, we almost always stick our team out there.
RB: What are you most excited about with regards to your program?
TK: Personally, since I got here, one thing I really wanted to do was to improve the overall level of our program, from top to bottom. From the best player on the court to the last player off the bench. I think the past few years, our program has been a little top heavy. Our best two or three players are some of the best players in the country, and then the last two or three players off our bench still need a few years to develop. I think we’ve made really good strides in that area. The people that are already on the team right now are making huge improvements, and we’re really excited about the talent of the recruiting class that we have coming in for this fall. That’ll be something that will really improve in the foreseeable future.
RB: Much of the recruiting process has moved online. This has had a majorly positive impact for student-athletes, because they have more collegiate options and a better chance at finding a great fit, they aren’t as constrained by geography and can get exposure if they’re proactive. It’s democratized the recruiting landscape from the perspective of the student-athlete. The shift to online recruiting has benefited many colleges as well. How has UAFS taken advantage of the digital recruiting revolution?
TK: We’ve taken advantage of it in a few ways. Obviously, the initial contact has been very easy, it’s much easier to get our program in front of kids using SportsRecruits and using the internet and things like that.
You mentioned geography. I think that’s maybe the biggest thing for us. I don’t think most of the general population would consider Arkansas a huge tourist destination (laughs), so a lot of recruits are a bit unsure of what a visit to Fort Smith would be like. The reality is that Fort Smith is the second largest city in Arkansas, we’ve got almost 100,000 people in our city, and UAFS has a gorgeous campus. We’ve been able to use SportsRecruits to bridge the gap of the notion that, ‘Who wants to come to Arkansas?’ Maybe that is the notion, I don’t know. But we’ve been able to engage in conversations with our top recruits from all over the place, and then bring them to campus. We’re very confident that if we get a kid on campus, that we can sell our program and we can sell Fort Smith, and we’re going to have a good shot to get them. Geography has really, really taken shape in a new way.
RB: If it was 10 years ago, what would the process have been like? Was it just a lot less likely that you were going to be able to attract talent from different parts of the country?
TK: When I was going through the recruiting process as a player, there weren’t many options of websites like SportsRecruits. It was kind of just: get some film together, send a bunch of emails, and when I would take visits, I would just get in the car with my parents and drive to visit five schools on the way to one, then visit five schools on the way back. I don’t think the process went as quickly as it does now.
We have a kid that’s committed for this fall from Minnesota. We’ve never had a kid from Minnesota before. It was just something where we saw her video on SportsRecruits, we liked it, we talked to her, talked to her parents, and they decided to fly down and check it out. She loved it, and committed pretty quickly. That’s something that probably doesn’t happen without the internet, and without SportsRecruits specifically.
RB: How much time typically elapses between when a player gets on your radar and when you send them an offer letter? How long is that timeline?
TK: We usually start identifying talent at the sophomore level. We follow those athletes throughout the rest of their high school and club careers. As I said earlier, we’re recruiting against Division I. That’s our goal. We want to make our program a pseudo-Division I program, where we could compete at that level if we had to. The DI recruiting timeline is a little bit longer, and it ends a little bit earlier than ours, so we have to move ours up a little bit.
We try to bring in sophomores and juniors who are on our short list to our camp, so we can evaluate them in our gym using our system and techniques. Still, we’ve had contact with sophomores who are looking to make a commitment in the near future, and we’ve also started recruiting and signed a senior in January. So, I think the timeline depends a little bit on the recruit as well.
RB: So what can a student-athlete do to get on your radar?
TK: For anybody that’s interested in our program, I’d encourage them to come to our elite camp in June. Camps are a major aspect of recruiting that are a little overlooked. When we think about recruiting, we tend to talk about going to tournaments and watching kids or emailing them, but at camp you can play in our gym, you can learn the things that we teach and that our girls do in a match. We ended up signing four recruits that came to our 2016 camp, so it’s not just something where we’re blowing smoke and telling people to come to our camps so we can make money or something like that. You’re going to get evaluated, you’re going to have a chance to, maybe at the end of the camp, get a scholarship offer. It’s definitely the best place to be evaluated by us. And you can also kind of live life like a UA Fort Smith Lady Lion for a few days.
RB: What is your biggest recruiting pet peeve?
TK: I really only have one: when we get an initial email and there’s no video. Good or bad film is not the deciding factor of whether or not somebody can play here. We’ve never made a decision to bring a player into our program just on film. But, it’s very hard to get to a general idea of how somebody can fit into our program without it. I’m all about getting to know you on a personal level, but I don’t think time needs to be wasted on anybody’s end.
If you’re a fit for us, I can see that in a minute of video if that’s all you have. If you’re not a fit for us, I can also see that in a minute of video. Putting film in your message is a great way to get a coach’s attention.
RB: You said you can evaluate an athlete with a minute of video if that’s all they have. What do you want to see in that 60 seconds of video?
TK: We’re looking for two things: athleticism and high-level volleyball players. If you’re an athlete, and you’re jumping over people and blocking people and hitting the ball really well at a really high point, obviously we can tell all of that in a minute, as long as you put your video in a good order.
For the more technical volleyball players who are not necessarily raw athletes, we’re looking for technique. I always tell recruits this: We may teach things one way at UAFS, and you may have learned things a different way with your club or in high school. That’s ok. We want to see that you can do what you’re trained to do, and do it well. We may not agree with the way you’re doing it, but if you do it well, I can appreciate it, because that means you’ve taken input from your coaches and turned it into repeatable, solid techniques.
About Tyler Kanelos
For more information, visit Coach Kanelos’ official bio.