(Photo via UNOH’s baseball website, seen here)
For National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) programs, recruiting elite high school prospects is a near impossibility. Of Baseball America’s top 300 draft prospects for 2018, none are the products of NAIA schools. Given the prestige associated with playing Division I athletics, it is unsurprising that top prep talent often finds its way to more well-known programs. In the face of this challenge, the University of Northwestern Ohio has taken a creative approach to the recruiting process, searching foreign countries for undervalued international talent.
Northwestern Ohio lists 48 players for the 2018 season. 18 of those players are from outside the United States, with countries of origin ranging from Canada to the Dominican Republic to Belgium. (Players from Puerto Rico are classified as international for this analysis.) That is not intentional, says UNOH head coach Kory Hartman, but it is reflective of a willingness to go outside the box to find talent. “The kids in Ohio that we need to sign are the kids that are going to Ohio State, Kent State or Wright State, and we just don’t have the ability to sign those student-athletes,” said Hartman, referring to three in-state Division I programs. “Do I want local kids? Absolutely. Would I sign high school, local kids that have the same tools? Yeah, but I just can’t do it. We have not had the success that we’ve had going after kids from different countries or from out-of-state.”
To Hartman’s point, international talent comprises the backbone of his current roster. Of the nine Racers with at least 100 plate appearances this year, six are from outside the mainland United States, as is the team’s leader in innings pitched. Hartman opined that those players’ backgrounds make them less likely to care about a school’s name value, more amenable to playing for NAIA schools. “They don’t know Ohio State, Kent State. They just care about what it’s going to cost them to go to school and whether they’re going to have an opportunity to move on,” he said. “Sometimes, international players don’t really care about the [name value], they just want to make sure that they can afford the school. They’re given the opportunity to play at a high level and they have a chance to be exposed [professionally].”
In Hartman’s opinion, his difficulties recruiting locally reflect a lack of awareness of the NAIA’s virtues. He pointed out that many American high school players would rather attend “very average, even sub-average” Division I programs before considering an NAIA school. Despite this, as he was quick to point out, the NAIA has had some recent success against big-name programs. UNOH’s conference rival Lawrence Tech, for instance, beat Michigan 8-3 on March 14, while another conference foe, Indiana Tech, pushed Miami (Ohio) into extra innings just last week. This is not just a case of NAIA teams taking advantage of downtrodden Division I programs. Michigan has reeled off 20 consecutive wins, including 11 against Big Ten Conference opponents, since that Lawrence Tech loss, which remains the Wolverines’ most recent defeat. Miami is ten games above .500 and tied for first place in the Mid-American Conference.
Hartman hopes that that competitiveness will narrow the reputation gap between lower-tier Division I schools and the NAIA. “If you go back and you look at the history of NAIA baseball at the platform we’re talking about- the top schools – those programs are as good, if not better, than most lower or mid-major Division I schools in the country,” he said. “Hopefully, we can complement those international players…with a handful of incoming freshmen that do buy into (the idea that) not all Division I schools are equal.”
This is not to say that Hartman is dissatisfied with his current roster – far from it. UNOH sits at 32-16 this season, a half game back of Indiana Tech for first place in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference. While that will likely not be enough for UNOH to gain at an-large bid to the NAIA tournament, the Racers have a chance at winning the conference tournament and earning an automatic bid to the national tournament. A difficult schedule gives UNOH reason for optimism in the conference tournament, where a top-heavy quartet will be battling for an automatic bid.
Here also, though, UNOH finds itself with a disadvantage to overcome. As is the case across all levels of college baseball, teams in the Northern part of the country find themselves scrambling to catch up with teams in the South, where warm weather gives teams the opportunity to play outside earlier in the year. With conference play concentrated at the back of the schedule, interregional games tend to take place earlier in the season, when the difference in preparation time manifests itself the most. “Those guys have been outside for a month, two months, and we’ve been inside,” Hartman said. “So, when we go down in February and play some of these top teams, we have success against them, but it’s not to the point where we’re winning the series.” UNOH went 0-6 in February against nationally-ranked Bryan College and Faulkner University, both of whom should be back in the NAIA tournament come May. While Hartman conceded that “Faulkner is in a different category,” and at 44-5, it is easy to see why, he also opined that if “we could go down and play Faulkner right now, the scores would be different.”
The weather also presents a unique challenge for UNOH given their roster makeup. With a heavy concentration of players from the Caribbean, the cold can be a difficult adjustment for some players, at least initially. “A lot of our [international] kids are from JUCOs from Iowa or the Midwest, so they’re used to it. The problem that we’ve had are with freshmen coming [directly] from Puerto Rico,” Hartman said. “It takes them a year or two to get accustomed to the weather change playing in 30, 40° weather, but we’ve kind of embraced that. Our upperclassmen who are Latin players have empowered the younger players to embrace it.”
Northwestern Ohio practices outdoors in the cold to prepare its players for the inevitable unpleasant games in barely above freezing temperatures. As Hartman noted, while the temperature shock might be most acute for some of the international players, everybody struggles with such extreme cold. Such is the unfortunate reality for a Northern school. “We’re playing in it, we’re practicing in it, and you better embrace it, or you might as well transfer out and go somewhere where it’s warmer.”
From reputation to weather, Northwestern Ohio has myriad fundamental challenges to overcome to reach its desired heights as a program. On-field success, while difficult to achieve, is the best cure to those ills. From high schoolers overlooking the program for higher-profile schools which may not be more talented than them, to Southern NAIA schools controlling early-season non-conference play, NAIA schools from the North find themselves struggling for respect. The only solution, Hartman says, is building a sustainable winner. “In time, it’ll maybe change, but we’ve got to…have success in the national tournament, we’ve got to have success when we go down and play them in early February, March so that (they respect us).” To do that, the Racers have cast a wide net to find high-level talent across the globe, and that approach may prove fruitful in expanding their brand in their own backyard.