Comprising 18 percent of Princeton’s undergraduate student body, athletes play a significant role in Princeton’s campus culture, making athletic recruitment a significant part of Princeton’s offers of admission. Recruitment, however, is much less understood than traditional pathways to admissions.
In the wake of the overturning of affirmative action earlier this year, schools have been considering major changes to their admissions process. As these schools tackle these shifts, some have taken aim at Ivy League athletics as one such institution in need of reform.
Through conversations with athletes and a recruiting coach, The Daily Princetonian analyzed athletic recruitment and the competition for roster spots, highlighting the role of the school and team in attracting athletes, as well as the impact of changes to rules in recent years.
How athletes choose Princeton
Student-athletes considering Princeton might have a variety of options while Princeton also has a number of student-athletes to assess, so the school and the athlete have to make their case to the other party simultaneously.
Men’s and women’s basketball Ivy League Rookies of the Year Caden Pierce and Madison St. Rose shared their recruitment stories with the ‘Prince.’ Pierce started every game for the Tigers while he was a first-year in the 2022 season, the year the team headed to the NCAA March Madness Sweet Sixteen round for the first time since 1967. Similarly, St. Rose made 21 starts and helped the Tigers reach the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The recruitment timeline typically begins with first contact sometime after June 15 of the summer before the recruit’s junior year in high school, with a heightened focus during the spring and summer Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) season, according to men’s basketball associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Brett MacConnell.
Pierce, now a sophomore forward, was eligible to talk to coaches on June 15, 2021. According to Pierce, he wanted to put himself on the radar of the coaching staff early, so he sent material on his high school performance to Princeton coaches.
MacConnell closely followed Pierce and his club team as they won the Under Armour Association (UAA) national championship the summer before Pierce’s senior year.
In the offseason, MacConnell’s responsibilities extend beyond the basketball court. He travels across the country to watch high school tournaments, practices, and AAU events, aiming to meet potential recruits and their families.
“That’s about as important as anything we do is getting the right guys in the program,” MacConnell told the ‘Prince.’
Pierce had a number of options as he entered his senior year of high school. Other schools recruiting him included Loyola University Maryland, the University of St. Thomas, as well as other Ivy League schools. Pierce leaned towards Princeton and committed in October of his senior year.
“Obviously, you can’t beat the academics, and the basketball program was the best of any school I was looking at, so I was like, this is a pretty clear choice,” Pierce told the ‘Prince.’
St. Rose, now a sophomore guard, was also compelled by both Princeton’s academic traditions and its storied basketball program.
“It was the academics and athletics that Princeton provided … they have that winning mindset, and I love winning, so who wouldn’t want to join a winning team,” she told the ‘Prince.’
During her sophomore year of high school, St. Rose’s trainer introduced her to Princeton. As a four-star recruit and ranked 46 in her class, St. Rose received interest from a number of schools, including the University of Michigan, her second choice.
St. Rose committed in October of her junior year, earlier than the other Tiger basketball recruits. St. Rose’s high school team, like the Princeton women’s basketball team, has an all-female coaching staff.
“I was really comfortable with that,” St. Rose said about the Tigers, led by Head Coach Carla Berube.
For St. Rose, she also felt as though Berube’s “get stops” motto and defensive focus reflected the brand of basketball that she played in high school.
“It felt like I had the same coach from high school to college,” St. Rose said.
Though she committed to Princeton early on, St. Rose still had to earn her place in the Class of 2026 through admissions. Once committed, the coaching staff advised St. Rose on her academics. “They really made sure that I was taking the right classes and enabling myself to get into the school,” St. Rose said.
Other recruits also commented on the athletic program’s support in getting admitted. Junior attack for men’s lacrosse Braedon Saris committed to Princeton during his first unofficial visit to campus in October of his junior year. After committing, Saris recalled that he and the rest of his recruiting class would meet regularly with the coaching staff over Zoom.
According to Saris, the coaches made sure that Saris and his future classmates were on the right track with their high school credits to be accepted into Princeton and that they were on top of their Princeton applications.
For recruited athletes at Ivy League schools, students are required to achieve a minimum score on the Academic Index (AI) — a measure combining GPA and standardized test scores — to be considered for academic admission. In addition to the AI score, coaches have the opportunity to provide the admissions office with supplemental materials, including written documentation of students’ athletic achievements and character.
Unlike some other schools, Princeton coaches rank their recruited athletes and write statements about their personal qualities, according to an interview then-Dean of Admissions Janet Rapelye did with Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) in 2012. Rankings differ by individual and by sport. As demonstrated by coaches’ investment in their recruits’ academics, academics are an important part of the recruiting process. For senior rower Kalena Blake, she sent regular updates to her coach.
Blake is a managing editor for the ‘Prince’.
“I communicated with coaches every time I had an update to provide,” Blake added. “For example, when I received my quarter grades, and SAT scores … I communicated that all via email and phone calls.”
The school pitches the athlete
For Princeton and other schools, the case they make to potential student-athletes is also an important part of the recruitment process.
For Blake, it was the confidence she gained throughout the recruitment process that pushed her to invest in rowing as she finished high school.
“It was March of my junior spring, and my dad and I went up to Cornell. The coach gave us a tour of the boathouse and sat down with us for about an hour,” Blake wrote to the ‘Prince.’
“My erg score [a standard measure of rowing potential] was not that fast at the time, and I remember being surprised that the coach was so interested in selling the school to me and [I was] thinking ‘Yeah, okay, maybe I can do this.’ It was that spring that my erg score got significantly faster and I picked up medals at big regattas, and I really attribute that in part to these coaches seeing potential in me,” Blake recalled.
According to Blake, her visit to Princeton in September of her senior year of high school sold her on the University.
“There were about 5 other rowers on my visit, two of whom row with me now and are two of my closest friends. I immediately connected with the other athletes on the team and fell in love with the school,” she wrote.
According to MacConnell, official visits play a pivotal role in getting to know potential recruits on a deeper level. MacConnell stresses that these visits go beyond showcasing athletic facilities and fancy buildings. Rather, they provide a genuine insight into the life of a Princeton student-athlete.
“Some programs, they want to send you to New York City; for us, we want it to feel like what a weekend when you’re in college is going to be like; we want you to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into,” MacConnell told the ‘Prince’.
“What you see is what you get: go to practice, play with the guys, hang out with them, go eat with them, go to a class. We’re not trying to trick anybody, we’re not trying to do things we wouldn’t do otherwise … we want kids that want all the things that Princeton’s about, and I think that’s the best way to do it,” he added.
Both the academic and athletic aspects of the Princeton curriculum were persuasive to Blake.
“I felt like everyone on the team was high-achieving both in the classroom and at the boathouse,” she wrote. “I felt like Princeton had the most cohesive boathouse. I think looking back, all those initial judgments I made turned out to be correct.
Similarly to Blake, Pierce was pitched by Princeton coaches on the academic excellence of the university. However, the coaching staff also made sure to highlight the success of the program to Pierce.
“They do have a lot to pitch in terms of the basketball program as well,” Pierce said.
Until his official visit, Pierce said he was not aware of Princeton basketball’s storied history and the cultural renaissance enacted by the late coach Pete Carril, but he quickly learned the unique culture of Princeton basketball.
During a film review with the coaching staff, the coaches showed Pierce clips of his high school highlights alongside clips of similar Princeton players, demonstrating how they envisioned Pierce’s role on the team. According to Pierce, none of the other schools recruiting him did this.
“When they did that, I kind of realized, like, okay they have a goal for me, they have a plan for me, and they really take pride in player development.” he told the ‘Prince.’ “That’s one thing I learned with coach [Mitch] Henderson immediately … and it’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
MacConnell emphasizes the significance of evaluating not just basketball skills but the intangibles as well. As a result, pitching Princeton’s unique environment becomes a central part of the recruiting process.
“We talk a lot about what’s important to us, what makes our culture our culture, the unselfishness, the playing together, the being a hard worker, the grittiness, all of those things that are really important to us,” MacConnell told the ‘Prince.’
“So what that does is it ends up filtering out the wrong guys; if the things that we’re talking about that we think make our culture so special aren’t resonating with you, it’s a good way of filtering out the guys that aren’t a fit,” he added.
Changes to the process in recent years
According to an NCAA rule adopted in 2019, Division I college coaches are now prohibited from contacting potential recruits before the end of their sophomore year of high school. According to first-year forward Ani Kozak on the women’s ice hockey team, before the change, Princeton and other schools were recruiting athletes even younger.
The class that graduated high school in 2023 “was the first class [in which] the majority of athletes were affected by the change in recruitment rules,” Kozak wrote to the ‘Prince.’
“Most of my teammates and a couple of my classmates were recruited by/committed to Princeton while still in middle school,” she added. The ‘Prince’ did not independently verify the recruiting timeline on the women’s ice hockey team.
For Kozak, who grew up playing competitive ice hockey, rules changes and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on recruiting, as contacting college coaches grew even more difficult.
“Recruitment became much more selective as a result of the fifth-year option and [as] some of the prime opportunities for exposure (tournaments, camps, etc.) were canceled,” Kozak wrote.
The “fifth-year option” grants an extra year of eligibility to athletes who had their collegiate seasons canceled because of the pandemic, providing them the opportunity to play out a full four-year college career.
With this option available, college teams — including Princeton — had fewer roster spots to offer new recruits. As a result, athletes in the high school classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023 were competing for fewer D1 roster spots than they would have had just a couple of years prior.
Kozak credited part of her success with making it onto the team on her connection with women’s ice hockey head coach Cara Morey, who had coached Kozak’s club hockey team since she was 13 years old.
“I already had a pre-established relationship with [Morey],” Kozak wrote. “Once the recruitment process began, I attended events where Cara’s assistant coaches were recruiting, and based on my performance, Princeton’s recruitment became more serious.”
Recruiting officials have felt the impact of the pandemic as well. During the pandemic, MacConnell said he had to rely on Zooms and phone calls to get to know his recruits, since campus was closed to visitors. “Meeting in person and getting to know people in person is totally different,” said MacConnell about the return to in-person visits and their importance. “And we think [they are] way more thorough and just a better way to get a feel for everything,” he added.
While many aspects of Princeton’s athletic admissions match the process at other schools, one aspect that distinguishes Princeton athletics from other schools is how Princeton rarely accepts transfers from other schools. As a result, their athletes can build lifelong bonds with their class, growing and developing with them.
“Guys know that when they come here, they’re gonna stay, they’re gonna be developed, there’s not a transfer that’s gonna come take a spot on the depth chart that they didn’t see coming. What you see is what you get with our roster,” MacConnell said.
“You want to come in with a recruiting class, and those are your best friends for the next four years, and they’re your teammates who you share a special bond with. You’re not getting that at most of these schools anymore because guys are coming in and out so much, and I think it’s a really special thing about us,” he added.
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Diego Uribe is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Please send corrections to corrections[at]princeton.edu.