Wheaton College baseball coach Eric Podbelski talks about his baseball program, his recruiting efforts and his success building one of the Top Division III programs in the area.
The Wheaton baseball program was started in 1996 and since then hasn’t looked back. In a few short years Podbelski built Wheaton’s program into on of the top programs in the country, compiling a record of 55-221-5, one of the highest winning percentages among active NCAA D3 coaches. In 2015, Wheaton won its 16th NEWMAC regular season title…
How many States do you actively recruit in?
We cover most of the six New England States, but focus in on some key regions within those States. There is a great deal of talent in Massachusetts alone as well as Connecticut where baseball is very popular at the high school level. We also do a lot of recruiting in the Southern Maine area where we feel the baseball talent there is actually under-recruited. Vermont is a little difficult because of the shorter season and spread out area. We have also expanded our efforts into New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but I think we are going to slowly cut back our area so we can see less kids more often, instead of traveling a greater distance and maybe seeing a kid play one time.
We also attend an invitation-only Stanford Baseball Camp for one week to evaluate over 200 players.
Do you find a lot of high school players who just want to play D1 or think they can play D1
Yes, many players and parents see D1 as the be all to end all and as a stepping stone to the majors. Some kids maybe got a letter or a phone call from a Division I coach and all of a sudden think they are being recruited or think they are Division I material. As a very successful Division III player and coach, part of my job involves educating parents and students that Division III baseball is very competitive, especially with the talent and participation in New England and not to rule out any school just because they are not Division 1. I hate to see players go to a Division I school and never really get a shot to play when they could have had a successful career at another school they may have overlooked because it wasn’t Division I
What skills in particular are you looking for in players
Aside of the obvious baseball skills of hitting, throwing, fielding, I really look for intangibles in kids. Are they good teammates, do they hustle on and off the field, are they supportive of their teammates, do they complain a lot, how do they perform in important games that mean something not to just them but to the team and the school. These are things I can only learn by attending games, so my staff and I go to as many games as possible. The things I like to look for cannot always bee seen in a video or at a showcase.
What are some important recruiting concepts that parents and students you meet with don’t have a grasp of?
Again, many parents and students think they are DI material or have to play DI to be successful and they end up overlooking not only great baseball programs but great academic institutions.
Has the growth of the Internet had any effect on your job?
Not really, I don’t trust anything but my own eyes and it’s very important for me to see a player play in meaningful games to see if he would be a good fit for our program. We do have a player profile form on our baseball website that students can fill out online, but for me I still need to evaluate that player by seeing him play.
There have always been recruiting services, but in the last several years the number of online services has really grown. Do you use any of these services to search for athletes?
I personally do not and I would not recruit a player based on an online profile especially in baseball where numbers are so intangible. Just because a player hit .300 does not make that player a .300 hitter. I know our track and field coach can search for players online with certain track times but those are much more tangible statistics. A 10 second 100 Meter time is just that, it can be measured. Baseball is much different.
How many high school games do you or your coaching staff get to each year?
Because our season ends in May usually, and high schools still have a lot of games left, we get to see many games and most of our free time is spent going to games and watching players. In some cases I will send out one of my assistant coaches to see a game in lieu of attending practice that day. On our day off we will all go to see a game or games.
Do you go see players play summer ball?
Yes, I try and get to as many games as possible to see kids that I am aware of or actively recruiting, that’s why it is important to include a schedule in your recruiting package, because If I have time I will go to a game.
Do you think Division III athletic programs often get overlooked because they are not able to offer athletic scholarship aid?
Yes, over the last several years I have seen a trend in baseball where showcases, camps and private instruction has become much more prevalent and this is pressuring parents and students to get the maximum return on their efforts and in some cases they don’t see a Division III program as being the return they are looking for. There are some people I can persuade to think differently but many parents and kids are holding out for that scholarship to some DI university.
How can you get players to commit to your program without being able to offer them scholarships?
I think the success of our program speaks for itself and the fact that I guarantee a spot on the team for one year regardless of performance if I have actively recruited you and asked you to come to our school to play on the baseball team. There is always an education process with every potential recruit and their parents to open theirs eyes to programs that are not Division I. Early decision helps as well, but I do not like to push that because sometimes it causes a student to commit to a program before they are really ready to decide.
What percentage of your players receive some financial aid?
I would say over 75% of our players receive some type of financial aid.
Do you run any summer camps?
No, perhaps in the future, but I would rather spend my time working on my recruiting efforts and going to games to see players actually play.
Do you find many parents and students who started the recruiting process too late?
There are some but I think there is a better education process now than there used to be so parents and students are more aware of what they need to do and when, and are more aware of what is at stake if they wait around.
Do you receive a lot of video’s from players?
What do you like to see on Videos?
Things specific to your position. Some tee work or soft-toss and live BP. It is also important to change angles, so if you are hitting, maybe one angle from the pitcher, one from catcher and one from the side. Ideally, I would like some offensive and defensive drills shot from different angles and some game tape. I would say about 10-15 minutes of footage would be more than adequate but length depends on what is being shown. If you want to show off your speed by stealing second base, I don’t really have time to watch 7 pitches before that and a meeting at the pitchers mound, but I recognize that not everyone has access to editing equipment.
Do you have any programs in place to help incoming freshman adjust to the college environment?
Incoming freshman go through different workshops in freshman orientation that the school provides. Players also live with another player so that helps a little as well. I also meet with all my players to see how they are doing and arrange study halls if need be. The upperclassmen are also very supportive of freshman so that helps out as well.
Do you attend Baseball showcases and what are your thoughts on these?
I probably attend 15-20 showcases a year including things like Bay State Games and the Brockton Invitational. I don’t usually attend indoor showcases because they are usually in the winter when kids are not even in baseball mode and often times they end up looking worse. Outdoor showcases allow me to see a lot of players quickly but I never use those as a final way to evaluate talent. Many kids at showcases put a smile on their face and hustle their butt off, then you see them 4 months later at a high school game, walking on and off the field, moping around and generally not being a good teammate. Bay State games gives me the chance to see many good players and I usually attend all 4 days of competition when other coaches have gone home. I like to see how the kids in the final games act because they have something important to play for.
Do you find a lot of high school coaches willing to assist their players in their recruiting efforts?
Some are very accessible, others don’t want to be bothered. If they don’t want to help or don’t know how to help their players, at the least I wish they would make more of an effort to find other people that can help their players.
At the peak of your recruiting efforts, how many players might you be evaluating?
We send letters and surveys out to between 400-500 kids and from that we get maybe 300 back. From there we can cross off some kids due to grades and test scores, but if we are unsure, we like to follow up with their school and guidance counselor. Once we have done that and evaluated the surveys, we get a list of maybe 100 kids that we really go after and then make phone calls and invite them to see the school.
Do you think parents and players realize that the spring season of their senior year is too late to have an impact on their recruiting efforts.
Well, in some cases I can use the spring to evaluate two players I may be looking at for the same position. Sometimes a player does not develop till their senior year, so it is good to see them again if you haven’t seen them since they were a junior. All that aside, its important that students start the recruiting process early. The deposit date for Wheaton is May 1st, so its not like players have all spring to decide.
Some people say a students ability to communicate with a coach shows a certain level of maturity, do you think its better if the student or the coach/parent makes first contact with you?
Many parents are like agents and they end up trying to sell their son to a program and don’t have a clear understanding of what the recruiting process is about. I would much rather hear from a player but I can tell you most of my calls are from parents and I can also tell you that there is an inherent distrust of parents amongst college coaches. They aren’t bad people, its just hard for them to be impartial when it comes to their children.
What is your fall season like?
We have practice for 5 weeks and go 6 days a week. The NCAA has recently cut off-season practice time down from 6 weeks.
How many players do you usually have at tryouts in the fall?
I do things a little differently. If you have been recruited by our staff and asked to come to our school to play baseball, we guarantee you a spot on the team for at least one year regardless of performance unless there are disciplinary problems at any time. In this case I have a good idea of who is going to be on our team for the coming year.
What about Walk-on’s?
We have a one day walk-on tryout that is separate from team practice and usually involves about 15-20 players. Anyone that we keep from this walk-on day will practice with the varsity for the remaining 41/2 weeks of practice and then I will make additional cuts at the end of our fall season.
How many games do you play in the spring?
We play 40 regular season games plus our conference championship, plus any post-season games we qualify for.
Have you had any players go on to play professionally?
Since our program is only 5 years old, no, but we have a few players that we feel have a chance to continue their baseball careers at the professional level.
Do you play any Division I or II teams?
With our conference games and the many other DIII teams in New England, it is hard to fit additional games in. From a DI standpoint, there is not much of an incentive for them to play us because they lose points on their power index rating, and if they lose the game which is a distinct possibility, it doesn’t look good either for their program.
Do you take a spring trip?
Yes, we go to Homestead Florida, which is in the Miami area. We play 10 games in 9 days mostly against other cold weather teams on their spring trips but also against teams that are located down there.
Do you communicate with other coaches when it comes to players you are recruiting?
Well, we are often after the same players so in those cases not really, but often times there are players who are over-qualified or under-qualified academically and often we will see other coaches and discuss players that are not within our reach but may be within the reach of another school, and that goes both ways, I will tell other coaches about players they should check out and they will tell me about players that I should check out.
Eric, you have been more than helpful today, I would like to wrap up the interview by asking you what you think parents and students should do as a first step to get their recruiting efforts underway?
I would say there are three important things they should do. The first would be to try and evaluate your talent level accurately. No one is happy when you overshoot and you should evaluate each program on an individual basis rather than just thinking DI is where you have to be to be successful. it is more important to get into a program you can be successful at both athletically and academically.
Second. Kids should take a more pro-active role in their recruiting efforts and their efforts to contact coaches. They should be sending out letters telling us who they are, where they are, and what they do. They should include references and articles that are highlighted and schedules, because If I have time I will drive to see a game.
Third. Make sure you are on your best behavior during games. I need to get out and see every player play in real games that are important to not only the player, but to the team. How you act in a game is as important as how you play. I look for kids that are great teammates, that hustle, that support their teammates in winning situations and losing situations, kids who are not complaining and sulking on the field.
Many players think they can just show off at a few showcases and then they are all set. In my case, that is not good enough and I cannot get a true sense of a player until I have seem them play in meaningful high school games. So how you act on the field is very important to me and to other coaches as well and you never know when I will show up at a game. If I have time I am at a game and I am not only watching the player I was there to see but 20 other players as well that may be potential recruits.