Recruiting for a program that expects to make the NCAA Tournament every year, GW head coach Joe McKeown is often competing for athletes who also have the option of going to larger schools with bigger athletic reputations. But McKeown uses GW’s size to his advantage.
“The main thing we try to emphasize is (that) this is a family,” he said. “This is a small school. We don’t have football and this is one of the few schools where women’s basketball is funded and treated with great respect, and we don’t have to play second fiddle to anyone.”
This sales pitch was part of the reason last year’s Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Cathy Joens came to GW from Irvine, Calif. The fifth-year senior also made final visits to Arizona State University, Nebraska University and the University of Iowa, but she liked McKeown’s message the most.
“He was just so genuine about the school and the family,” she said. “The others tried to sell things like football and other things besides basketball, but he said, ‘This is a smaller school and all we have is basketball and you’ll be treated first-class’.”
McKeown said he also targeted Joens with another of the school’s advantages – academics. At the time, he was also recruiting Lindsey Davidson, another California native and a member of the same Amateur Athletic Union league as Joens. Upon finding out Joens was an excellent student, he knew what approach to take with the high school star.
“We really focused on academics with her, what GW could do for her. And she really loved basketball, and we could give her both,” he said. “In recruiting her, we tried to make her understand that very few schools can do what we can do for her (academically and athletically).”
Finding students who are academically successful is a main priority for McKeown and his coaching staff, who must sort through hundreds of letters, phone calls and conversations with other coaches before deciding which players to actively recruit. While other schools may only care about winning, McKeown said his staff must look at a number of factors.
“The one thing we first look for are people we think can fit into GW because we realize it’s not for everybody,” he said. “We stress academics. We recruit people who are going to look for a city-type environment and people who want to come to Washington, D.C., for more than just basketball.
“But we also understand that to compete on a national level, you’ve got to have a passion for basketball. Nobody cares what your SAT scores are when you’re on the court, or what your grade point average is, so you have to be able to translate the academic side and the passion for basketball. You have to have that type of competitiveness.”
He found that in current freshman Amanda LoCascio, who is yet another Christ the King High School alumnus to put on a Colonials jersey. With LoCascio, McKeown emphasized the tradition he has built at GW and the number of Christ the King players who have contributed along the way.
“He told me (Christ the King and GW) have a history,” LoCascio said. “His exact words were ‘We recruit winners, and Christ the King is a winning program and we want you to come help make us a winning program.’ And I took that compliment very well, to be compared to other people in our program. For him to say that I could make a difference on this team made my decision a lot easier.”
If all else fails, McKeown said sometimes he simply tells a player to come to GW and gives her no other choice. This was the case when recruiting current senior Marsheik Witherspoon out of Opa-Locka, Fla.
“She was going in eight different directions,” he said. “And we just told her, ‘This is the place you’re coming. Forget about everything else, you’re coming here. You need to let me know by tomorrow or else you don’t have a scholarship.’ And she came.”
While McKeown said he doesn’t recruit negatively against other schools, he has wished bad luck upon them before. When recruiting Ugo Oha, one of his top competitors was Notre Dame. McKeown knew Oha was visiting South Bend one weekend and figured the Fighting Irish would bring her to a football game.
“I was watching them play USC, and I knew she didn’t like football and it was starting to rain and I was hoping it would keep raining,” he said. “So I’m 47 years old, watching the weather channel and hoping for rain in Indiana. This business makes you do some weird things.”
Whatever McKeown does, it works more often than not. He often calls recruiting “the lifeblood of the program,” and the program has gone from mediocre to a perennial 20-game winner since he arrived in 1989. After 14 seasons, his ability to recruit talent is as strong as ever. Blue Star Basketball, which publishes a women’s recruiting newsletter, ranked this year’s freshman class 18th in the nation.
Despite his recruiting success, McKeown said players don’t come to GW just because they want to play for him. They come for everything GW has to offer.
“Coaches sometimes think the kid came because of them,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of ego. Some players come if they want to play for a certain coach, but most of the time they want to be part of something special.”