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High schools | basketball

For high school juniors, a crucial and unusual recruiting year calls for creativity

Kenzie Matulonis, pictured playing with the Bay State Jaguars, is hopeful to play division 1 basketball following her career with Bridgewater-Raynham High School.
Kenzie Matulonis, pictured playing with the Bay State Jaguars, is hopeful to play division 1 basketball following her career with Bridgewater-Raynham High School.Brittany Graham (custom credit)/Courtesy

The potential cancellation of the AAU basketball season due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a deflating blow for all, but in particular for juniors who aspire to play Division 1 basketball following their 2021 graduation.

Programs across the state are conducting workouts via Zoom and providing copious amounts of video highlights to college coaches. But those efforts are not enough to replace the exposure on the recruiting trail gleaned from participating in tournaments.

“The junior year is vitally important for these kids as their progression into a college setting occurs,” said Dan Olson, director of ESPN HoopGurlz. “As college coaches fine-tune their recruiting process, they heavily rely on the [summer] recruiting periods to build their team for the future.”

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A delay or cancellation of the AAU season hurts players in all classes. Most seniors, though, have already signed. Sophomores and freshmen are early in the process. It’s crunch time for juniors, in which the spring and summer pre-senior year is critically important.

“It’s really just a time for opportunity, a time for kids who don’t have the offers they want to explode,” said Tyler Whitney-Sidney, a junior guard from Somerville who plays at the Brooks School in North Andover and for Rivals on the AAU circuit and has offers from nearly a dozen schools, including Providence, Richmond, and Murray State. “You look forward to junior year being your breakout year. It’s definitely disappointing, but I’m just working out to stay ready hopefully for the summer.”

Somerville resident Tyler Whitney-Sidney competes for Rivals on the AAU circuit. The Brooks junior hoped to increase his recruiting stock this summer.
Somerville resident Tyler Whitney-Sidney competes for Rivals on the AAU circuit. The Brooks junior hoped to increase his recruiting stock this summer.Courtesy

For players such as Bridgewater-Raynham junior guard Kenzie Matulonis and St. Mary’s junior forward Maiya Bergdorf, the road is especially tricky. With just a couple of Division 1 offers each, Matulonis and Bergdorf had hoped to increase their stock this summer.

“I was waiting to go to these April and May live tournaments, so it’s hard, but it’s kind of just a waiting game now to see if we’ll have July, whether I should commit now or wait,” said Matulonis, who plays for the Bay State Jaguars and has offers from New Hampshire and UMass Lowell. “I talk about it every day with my parents, coach and stuff, what I should do? It’s scary to wait and see when other people are going to commit.”

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Bergdorf transferred from Belmont to St. Mary’s this year. She plays for MCW Starz and has offers from Sacred Heart, Long Beach State, and Merrimack. She’s embraced the ample amount of phone calls and daily texts with coaches as the main source of recruiting right now.

“I feel like any 2021 person, any athlete, if they have any offers they’re just going to want to take it right away,” Bergdorf said. “I was quick to think that, too, but I still have options and they’re good options. I can take my time.”

Pictured here with MCW Starz, Bergdorf hoped to get in her final AAU season this summer.
Pictured here with MCW Starz, Bergdorf hoped to get in her final AAU season this summer.Courtesy (custom credit)/Courtesy

Newton North girls’ coach Mo Hamel, who also coaches the Mass Huskies, said the AAU program is among those pitching to college coaches via video and phone conversations. It’s the only option. She said most kids have an idea of where they stand, but miss the opportunity to improve their stock.

“The thing that’s huge is from sophomore to junior year you're looking at a kid and saying ‘I saw you last year and you got on my list, did you make any jumps or improvements?’ That’s going to be what kids aren’t able to show off,” Hamel said.

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For now, AAU is suspended until April 15. All in-person recruiting activities, such as official, unofficial and home visits are also off the table until May 31. It’s more than likely, given the reality of the situation, the AAU season will be delayed much longer.

Events like the Nike-sponsored Elite Youth Basketball League Peach Jam, scheduled for July 8-12 in North Augusta, S.C., are among the golden opportunities of evaluation for mid- and high-major boys’ basketball recruits.

“We knew the spring was not going to happen, that was already known,” said Brimmer & May boys’ coach Tom Nelson, who coaches the Rivals AAU team. “You’re just hoping we could get to some type of evaluation period in July and hoping they could change something to the calendar in August.”

Because of this year’s pandemic, and the cancellation weekend tournament dates last summer as a fallout of the college basketball corruption case that prompted the NCAA to change the recruiting calendar, this class is “one of the most undervalued classes in a long time,” Nelson said.

Some players are undeterred by all this, including Acton-Boxborough forward Shea Doherty.

“I’ve talked to many schools and I will find the right place when the time comes, maybe I’ll take a postgrad or something. It’s not that bad,” said Doherty, who played for BABC and now Middlesex Magic and has an offer from Bryant. “I’ve talked to some kids who are nervous about not playing this spring because you’re not going to have the same looks playing in the [Dual County League].”

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Acton-Boxboro junior Shea Doherty was hoping to play his first season with Middlesex Magic this summer after competing with BABC.
Acton-Boxboro junior Shea Doherty was hoping to play his first season with Middlesex Magic this summer after competing with BABC.Courtesy (custom credit)/Courtesy

Olson, the ESPN HoopGurlz director, said there more than 400 girls in the NCAA Division 1 transfer portal, which also affects juniors with a handful of offers as coaches give preferred consideration to players already in college. The transfers, Olson said, are “proven commodities.”

According to Verbal Commits, there are more than 500 players in the men’s transfer portal. No matter what, the 2021 class is not going to allow a shortened or canceled AAU season to get them down.

“I’m not going to let this take away from what could’ve been,” Whitney-Sidney said.


Greg Levinsky can be reached at greg.levinsky@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregLevinsky.