TWIN FALLS — Jim Cartisser takes some ribbing.
Since the summer of 2010, the assistant College of Southern Idaho volleyball coach and gregarious recruiter has made trips to sweet and sunny Hawaii to scope out prospective Golden Eagles.
“People joke with him, like, ‘Sure, you’re going to Hawaii to recruit,’” said Heidi Cartisser, head coach of CSI volleyball.
Then the results started pouring in.
Two years after her husband’s first recruiting trip to the Aloha State, the Golden Eagles claimed their 10th NJCAA national championship behind two players from Pearl City High School in Waianae, Hawaii: setter Marie Fujii and outside hitter Keani Pasii, named NJCAA player of the year as a sophomore.
Jim Cartisser and former CSI head coach Ben Stroud had recruited Hawaiian players before, but always from the confines of the mainland. They traveled to places like Las Vegas and Oregon to scout when Hawaiian players came to town for tournaments. When Allegiant Air began offering a cheap flight to Honolulu in 2010, however, the cost of flying from Idaho to Honolulu became comparable to flying to Southern California.
Though Hawaiian players have attended CSI for decades, and the Golden Eagles’ recruiting there began to heat up in the mid-2000s, Fujii, Pasii and Allegiant Air laid the foundation for a true college recruiting pipeline.
For CSI and for every other college sports program, pipelines make all the difference.
Any initial apprehension CSI had about sending its volleyball coaches nearly 3,000 miles into the Pacific Ocean — which Jim Cartisser insists was minimal from the beginning — quickly evaporated. Pipeline construction was underway.
“If there’s a kid (from Hawaii) that we really want, I can almost guarantee I’ll know someone she’s played with or played for,” he said. “If we make a push for it, we have a better than average chance of getting that player.”
So how does a college recruiting pipeline form? Sometimes it’s a matter of a coach like Jim Cartisser, who builds pipelines organically by being present and engaged and talking to everyone. Sometimes it comes down to a talent surplus in a prep sports area, or a dearth of prep talent near the college. Sometimes it’s a matter of simply knowing the right people.
Regardless of how they form, pipelines are vital to the recruiting game.
There is no substitute for a good word from someone you trust.
College athletes talk. And in this landscape of club and AAU athletics, most athletes know one another. They know athletes from neighboring high schools, and those know other athletes from neighboring states. Prep athletics have become a communal affair.
That is especially true in the tight-knit Hawaiian Islands, where family and community hold extra value.
12 — The number of players from Hawaii who have suited up for the Golden Eagles’ volleyball …
“When the high school and the club coaches vouch for you, it’s better than anything else you can do,” Jim Cartisser said.
The same can be said for athletes who attend a school and return home to share their experience. CSI got that in 2005, when Aneli Cubi-Otineru of Haleiwa, Hawaii, helped lead CSI to a national championship.
Cubi-Otineru is the younger sister of Babes Kalulu, who has been an assistant volleyball coach at CSI for the past 12 years and took over the Jerome High School head coaching job this summer. Since 2005, another of Kalulu’s sisters, Kawena Cubi-Otineru, and Kalulu’s daughter, Lepeka Kalulu-Sugai, also played volleyball at CSI. The testimonies of players and parents like the Kalulu family have been vital in maintaining the Golden Eagles’ Polynesian pipeline.
“Jim and Heidi are family-oriented, and the Hawaiian girls are family-oriented too. That’s what keeps them coming. ... We look at each other as one big ‘ohana,” Kalulu said. “It’s not just the tradition of national championships, but when they meet Jim and Heidi, they see how much they care. It’s like having parents away from home.”
When it comes to building trust in Hawaii, CSI and the Cartissers also have an advantage of availability. Most years, Jim goes to Hawaii’s highly competitive high school volleyball state tournament, where he’s typically the only mainland coach in attendance.
In January, he goes to a pair of camps on Oahu, the first of which he helps organize. While he’s there, he can meet both players and parents, a luxury not afforded to past recruits if their parents were unable to travel to the mainland for tournaments.
“In the Polynesian culture, if you go to their home and you take the time to meet the family, they understand that you’re going to be the parent and the guardian for the next couple years. It makes them a lot more comfortable,” Jim Cartisser said. “If a family member tells you that this is where you should go, that’s going to hold a lot more weight than a coach calling out of the blue.”
Walla Walla Community College is benefiting from that phenomenon too.
The Warriors’ women’s basketball team will have four players from Idaho’s District IV next season — Kortney Hutchison of Burley, Adrianna Peralez of Minico, Malorie Bowen of Declo and Blair Radford of Wood River. Despite it being about 125 miles closer to Walla Walla, Wash., the Treasure Valley has zero players listed on the women’s basketball roster.
The effectiveness of the Warriors’ recruiting in south-central Idaho can be linked to one person: Becky Tompkins.
In 2010, the former Idahoan returned to her college alma mater to coach under Bobbi Hazeltine, who will enter her 19th season at the Warriors’ helm this fall. Hazeltine observed that college recruits quickly took a liking to Tompkins, and Hazeltine always considered the tactical side of coaching as her own strength. In 2013, Tompkins was named the program’s recruiting coordinator.
“She has a passion for recruiting. All of our coaches have our strengths, and Becky loves recruiting,” Hazeltine said. “She does her homework, and she’s personable. She makes every single contact and makes every single call. We’re loaded with Idaho kids because she knows Idaho the best.”
Tompkins develops relationships with myriad potential recruits — and maintains that relationship, even if it’s just a matter of checking in to see how things are going. In 2016, that helped her nail Hutchison and Peralez, a pair of standout players from Cassia County who went on to room together last year.
Hutchison took her initial visit in November of her senior year and was immediately sold. She verbally committed to join the Warriors in March, an early commitment by junior college standards. Much of her initial enthusiasm about the program stemmed from Tompkins’ thorough recruiting.
“It’s nonstop talking. She would always ask how your games are going and tell you good luck,” Hutchison said. “She’s like another friend in addition to a coach.”
Not long after her commitment, Peralez scheduled a visit too.
“When I found out she had a visit scheduled, I just told her good luck, and I hoped that she loved it,” Hutchison said.
They both did. So much so that when Hutchison learned Malorie Bowen was returning from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission this spring and looking for a place to play, she lobbied for Walla Walla’s coaches to pursue Bowen.
Recruits talk, and when that talk turns to college recommendations, no one has the ear of an athlete quite like a fellow athlete.
In the three years since the College of Idaho reinstated its football program, its conference rival 150 miles to the northwest has made a subtle change to its roster composition.
Six Magic Valley athletes have made Eastern Oregon University’s football roster since 2015, though zero players from the Magic Valley were listed on the Mountaineers’ roster from 2010 (when Eastern Oregon’s online archive begins) to 2014.
That’s no coincidence.
If Eastern Oregon lost recruits to the College of Idaho, and those recruits helped the Yotes defeat the Mountaineers, Eastern Oregon head football coach Tim Camp would be in trouble. So Camp and his staff expanded their recruiting web. They used their topographical and financial advantages to lure more recruits across the Idaho border.
“In my short time here, the amount of recruiting activity in the Magic Valley, Treasure Valley and the whole state of Idaho has increased 10 times,” College of Idaho fifth-year coach Mike Moroski said.
Before the Yotes reinstated football, Eastern Oregon nearly held an Idaho monopoly. The Mountaineers never competed with Boise State University, University of Idaho or even Idaho State University for recruits, and they never expected to. Eastern Oregon competes in the NAIA, so it has always focused on recruiting tiers below the Division I level.
Before 2014, Eastern Oregon was the only school in the Frontier Conference close to home for most Idaho recruits. It was comfortably the nearest NAIA school to the Treasure Valley (170 miles from Boise), and only conference opponent Montana Western rivaled its proximity to Magic Valley. Not all distances are created equal. The 300-mile drive from Twin Falls to Dillon, Mont., traverses mountains. The 300-mile drive from Twin to La Grande, Ore., is mostly flat.
Eastern Oregon has another crucial selling point: It can offer in-state tuition to students from Idaho and Washington.
The school’s estimated tuition for the 2017-18 school year is $7,020 for Oregon, Idaho and Washington residents. Montana Western’s estimated 2017-18 tuition for non-Montana residents is $7,725 — per semester.
In theory, those advantages should have suffered after College of Idaho’s 2014 return to football. If anything, they’ve gotten stronger.
From 2010 to 2014, the Mountaineers had 19.6 players from Idaho per season on their football roster. From 2015 to the upcoming season, an average of 19.7 athletes from Idaho have been listed on the roster, including the crop of Magic Valley players.
Camp said he and his staff don’t care whom the Yotes recruit. But he admitted the College of Idaho has affected his team’s recruiting philosophy.
The Yotes’ rebirth helped the Mountaineers gain more attention from Idaho recruits, Camp said. It also nudged Camp and his staff to shift their focus beyond the heavily recruited Treasure Valley.
“I don’t want to spend all of my scholarship money on a Boise kid when I can find someone as good or better somewhere else,” Camp said. “We want to be able to turn over enough rocks and find the right fit here at Eastern Oregon.”
Since 2014, 17 players from Idaho’s District IV have been listed on the Yotes’ football roster, but only three on their 2017 roster. Eastern Oregon lists five Magic Valley athletes on this season’s roster.
That sample size is small, but those numbers speak to Eastern Oregon’s inherent advantages.
A pair of 2017 Eastern Oregon signees — Gooding’s Bryson Comstock and Jerome’s Joey Lenker — cited Eastern Oregon’s location as a factor in its favor over the College of Idaho, despite the 150 extra miles.
“I just love Eastern Oregon. It’s an amazing place to be because I’m an outdoors person and it’s surrounded by mountains,” Lenker said. “C of I’s in Caldwell, and that’s not really appealing for me.”
Lenker, who is redshirting this fall, was set on playing for the Yotes until the Mountaineers reached out to him last winter. Looking back, he thinks his football career would be over if Eastern Oregon hadn’t come calling.
Fellow Jerome graduate Haziel Ledezma signed with the College of Idaho in 2015, but he transferred to Eastern Oregon prior to this season. He chose the Mountaineers over the Yotes for the same reason Lenker did: money.
The College of Idaho’s estimated tuition for the 2017-18 school year is $28,000 — nearly four times the cost of Eastern Oregon’s estimated annual resident tuition. After accounting for room and board, fees, etc., the College of Idaho costs almost $20,000 more per year than Eastern Oregon.
The scholarship offers Lenker and Ledezma received from the College of Idaho could not neutralize that five-figure disparity.
“The College of Idaho is a great school. I love it. But it is a more expensive school,” Moroski said. “There can be sticker shock, at times, for hardworking people in Idaho.”
All the better for Camp. He doesn’t expect the recent wave of Magic Valley players to crash anytime soon.
“You get one or two, and suddenly three or four come,” he said, “and you create a pipeline to a certain area.”
The first thing Southern Virginia University women’s basketball coach Heather Roberts mentions to recruits is that her school is connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“If they aren’t interested in following the honor code, there’s no point in going further,” Roberts said.
Southern Virginia differs from Brigham Young University in that it’s not sponsored by the church, but the Division III school, 2,193 miles from Twin Falls, calls itself “the only private liberal arts college dedicated to educating Latter-day Saints.”
Roberts estimates that 90 percent of her players belong to the LDS faith. Even if they don’t, she normally recruits players who grew up around the culture to lessen the surprises of life on campus.
Her proclivity to recruit the Mountain West is evident in the makeup of the women’s basketball roster: Seven of the 16 players on last year’s team were from either Utah or Idaho, while just one was from Virginia. It also showed in the team’s southern Idaho connection. Two players from last year’s team, Larissa Knight of Hagerman and Katee Hubert of Dietrich, and another who will join the program this fall, Moriah Dill of Dietrich, landed at Buena Vista, Va., in different ways.
Knight’s uncle is on the school’s board of trustees, so she had a relationship with the school before ever suiting up for its basketball team. She enrolled at Southern Virginia after one-year stops at Western Wyoming Community College and Northwest College. According to Roberts, Knight is transferring for her senior year with no intention of pursuing basketball.
Dill’s brothers, Flint and Vance, now 32 and 31, respectively, played basketball at the Virginia college, and Flint met his wife there. Dill played two seasons at CSI upon graduating from Dietrich in 2012, with an LDS mission in Alaska sandwiched in between. Roberts discovered Dill during her second stint with the Golden Eagles.
Hubert’s brother, five years her elder, served an LDS mission in Charleston, W.Va., and returned with rave reviews of the college, just a few hours’ drive away.
Hubert was in eighth grade during Dill’s senior year at Dietrich, so the two never shared a varsity basketball court. And they never talked about heading for the same school. Still, two players from a town with a population of about 300 will play together on the other side of the country.
“It is ironic that almost 1 percent of the town’s population is here. It’s a town of 300, and two of the kids are here at the same time,” Roberts said.
Roberts lives in Oregon during the offseason, so she has easier access to athletes who fit the Southern Virginia mold than a recruiter who lives exclusively on the East Coast would. Still, though she spends half of the year thousands of miles from her target recruiting area, the allure of the school’s religious values is strong enough to consistently recruit capable players from the Mountain West.
CSI head women’s basketball coach Randy Rogers tries to recruit inside-out. In other words, he focuses on Idaho first.
But in Rogers’ 15 years at CSI, Idaho hasn’t done itself many favors.
“Idaho is the worst state in the country of trying to find out which high school kids are good,” Rogers said. “By far the worst I’ve ever seen, and it hasn’t gotten any better.”
When Rogers looks for Idaho high school girls basketball statistics, he often finds himself combing through newspaper websites. He can only hope the coaches provided the stats and the newspapers published them. It’s unreliable and time-consuming.
Other states have entire online databases for high school girls basketball. Stats aren’t everything, but they serve as guides for coaches like Rogers who have only so much time to see recruits play.
Despite the poor stat-keeping, CSI’s women’s and men’s basketball rosters have consistently featured players from Idaho. But as the coaching staffs have built connections, their recruiting webs have expanded.
“People around here will say sometimes, ‘You don’t recruit locally,’” CSI head men’s basketball coach Jared Phay said. “Well, if they’re good enough, of course we do. They just need to be good enough.”
Shortly after Phay became CSI’s head coach in 2014, he jumped at the chance to sign a local player. Casdon Jardine had just won a state championship with Twin Falls High School, and he was a Division I talent. He was also scrawny and about to embark on a two-year LDS mission in Brazil, so he needed a launch dock. CSI provided it.
Jardine returned to CSI two inches taller and significantly stronger. He signed with Boise State last November, less than a month into CSI’s season.
“I knew that CSI was a winning program. I saw it firsthand,” Jardine said last month. “Everyone knows that CSI is one of the best junior colleges at sending players to Division I.”
Phay had the same impression of CSI prior to 2014, when he was the head coach at North Idaho College. And that reputation was hardly limited to Idaho.
“I noticed that every player that went to CSI went somewhere really big,” said former CSI guard Josiah Barsh, a Tacoma, Wash., native. “They always get good players, and they know how coach Phay coaches. He’s probably one of the top coaches in the country.”
Barsh transferred from Williston (N.D.) State to CSI prior to last season. He signed with Southeastern Florida in May. Unlike Jardine, Barsh didn’t watch Golden Eagle men’s basketball games when he was a kid, yet he had a positive impression of CSI well before he transferred there.
The Golden Eagles won their first NJCAA Division I men’s basketball national title in 1976, and they’ve added two since, most recently in 2011. None of that success would be possible without high-end talent, especially of the Division I variety.
CSI’s 2016-17 men’s basketball roster featured players from Alabama, Georgia, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. Two players hailed from Nigeria, and another was from Suriname (all three played for schools in the U.S. before joining the Golden Eagles).
Jardine was the only Idaho native on last year’s roster. Since the 2009-10 season, only 13.6 percent of CSI’s players have been from Idaho.
“CSI recruits the best players they can,” Jardine said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from.”
If CSI can find players from all over the country, Idaho is going to fall to the bottom of the recruiting tree. The state simply doesn’t have the population, talent or exposure to compete with other recruiting hubs.
The same logic applies to the CSI women’s team, although 35.7 percent of its players since 2009-10 have been from Idaho. Las Vegas’ Quest Preparatory Academy, which closed recently because of financial scandals, has yielded the most Golden Eagles of any school in Rogers’ 15 years at the helm, he said.
If Rogers can’t go next door to find the players he wants, he’s happy to cross borders.
“I want local kids,” Rogers said, “but can we win a national championship with these local kids?”
A crowded pipeline
Most advantages that a college program has in recruiting will eventually be voided. Other coaches and recruiters will catch on to the same information, and they’ll start recruiting on the same turf.
CSI’s recruiting in Hawaii is no different.
When Jim Cartisser started going to the two yearly camps on Oahu years ago, he was the only junior college coach there. Last winter, he counted about 15.
What does remain is the culture that college programs cultivate. No pocket of athletic talent remains undiscovered by recruiting competitors, and once enough colleges get on board, no surplus of talent is safe from running dry.
But if a program’s players return home and boast of the experience they had, if the program provides enough cultural similarities that it feels like home, and if it can achieve successes that grab the attention of talented high schoolers, it can find a solid recruiting footing and maintain the pipelines essential for competing on a national stage.
“I absolutely fell in love with the community and people at CSI,” said Fujii, the setter who helped lead CSI volleyball to its 10th NJCAA national championship.
“Being from Hawaii, it was a little bit of a culture shock. But they made me feel like I was their own. They treated me like I was their own daughter.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the family member of Larissa Knight's who is on the board of trustees at Southern Virginia University as her father. Her uncle is the family member who holds this position. The story has been updated for accuracy.