A record number of IC students participate in sports. They also excel academically.
by Tom Coccagna
Sarah Legg '05
Hometown: Plessis, New York
School/Major: H&S/Biology (Pre-Med Track)
Sports: Intramural Volleyball and Softball
"Trying to get into medical school is challenging and stressful. Intramural sports are my stress release. If you're not healthy, you can't do all the things a healthy person can do to be successful."
Jon Whetstone '06
Hometown: Palo Alto, California
Sport: Intercollegiate Basketball
"It would be extremely nice if we had better facilities to practice and play in."
Thwack! The familiar sound of a softball meeting the leather of a glove reverberates through Ben Light Gymnasium in Hill Center. This may seem commonplace, except that it is shortly after five o'clock on a February morning. To prepare for their season-opening trip to California, softball players have had to dodge snowflakes or bundle themselves against single-digit wind chills to arrive at practice at a time better spent with heads resting gently against pillow.
"Our team wakes up two or three times a week at 4:30 in the morning to be at practice at 5:00 a.m.," says junior outfielder Leigh Bonkowski, a leisure studies major in the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance.
Such commitment is typical of today's Ithaca College athlete, who not only perseveres but excels despite a space crunch at booked-to-the-rafters Hill Center. "Spring sports teams are practicing at 5:00 a.m., 10:00 p.m., even midnight," points out men's basketball coach Jim Mullins, M.S. '85. "Those aren't great times for kids. Right now we have four teams in season [using Hill Center], and the spring sports teams are all scrapping for gym time. It's very tough."
Tough it may be, but Bonkowski and many others display the dedication and sacrifice that go into making Ithaca's one of the best Division III athletic programs in the country.
The numbers do not lie. Without looking them up, sports information director Mike Warwick rattles off the 14 national team championships the school has won, beginning with football in 1979 and continuing through women's crew last spring. Student participation is at an all-time high. The 750 athletes playing intercollegiate sports on 25 varsity and 4 junior varsity teams merely scratch the surface. Add 1,200 club sports athletes (in 21 competitive and 16 noncompetitive teams) and 2,100 intramural participants, and even with some overlap the staggering total reveals that more than 60 percent of Ithaca's 6,350 students are involved athletically in some way. And that doesn't include those who just use the campus fitness center to keep healthy and in shape.
"One percent of all high school athletes go on to play in NCAA competition," says Franklin Harrison, assistant manager of recreational sports. "We're serving those other 99 percent who played in high school."
It is a sports-happy environment, but not one that has caused Ithaca to abandon any of its academic standards. Quite the opposite.
"Academic excellence and athletic excellence are joined at the hip," says Mike Serventi '72. Serventi is so passionate about this subject that he is chairing the committee working to raise funds to build a new athletics and events center, although he was not an athlete himself as a student at IC. "This is not some 'dumb jock' program," he is careful to note.
Jaclyn Brisson, a sophomore on the women's soccer team, knew what she was gaining when she decided on Ithaca. "I knew I'd be getting a good education," she says, "and once I would leave college, I knew I'd be a step higher because I went to Ithaca."
More numbers provide testimony. The Empire 8 conference has a Presidents' List, a distinction that goes to athletes who achieve a 3.75 grade point average or better during a semester. Ithaca has placed an average of 90 students on the Presidents' List in each of the last two semesters.
Ken Kutler, director of intercollegiate athletics and recreational sports, knows that is a prodigious number. In fact, he can hardly contain his awe as he says, "It's impressive to me, and I'm sitting right on top of it."
Interestingly, grades generally do not take a nosedive during an athlete's sport season -- if anything, athletics seems to enhance classroom performance. "Being in athletics, students do better during their season," says Jim Nichols, coach of the men's track and field and cross-country teams. "Track athletes don't do as well in the fall as they do in the spring."
"I find I can be a lot better [academically] when I'm playing my sport," Brisson says, "because when your sport is in season, you have to manage your time a lot better."
"Our coach is always pushing for us not to have any Cs," adds Bonkowski, who batted .343 and led the softball team in home runs last year. "It is our team goal to have Bs or better this whole semester."
"When they come to us, they are already good people and well-balanced students," says Kristen Ford, former director of intercollegiate athletics and currently director of special campaigns in the Office of Institutional Advancement. "All the student-athletes I work with have a good work ethic in academics and athletics. They are committed to both."
"If you look at the grades of these kids, they're fantastic," says Serventi. "I like what one coach said: 'We don't recruit good athletes. We recruit good students who go on to be good athletes.' "
Ithaca Athletics Highlights:
These student-athletes also finish what they start. In addition to winning championships and producing quality teams, Ithaca's athletes graduate. The 86 percent graduation rate for athletes is 10 percent higher than the graduation rate of the entire student body.
"They are good students to begin with," concurs President Peggy R. Williams. "They're disciplined, they're used to working hard, and they're conscientious. They carry those characteristics to the classroom and the playing field. Additionally, many of them are student leaders. They're pretty accomplished people."
Kutler points to a strong support system that reinforces the whole student, not just the athlete. Ithaca helps student-athletes tie into the NCAA's Champs Life Skills Program, which stresses academics, personal development, and career development. The academic component includes such important programs as tutorial assistance and time management seminars.
Not surprisingly, athletes and coaches say time management skills are crucial to success in the classroom and the arena. Junior Josh Felicetti, the starting quarterback on the football team for the last three seasons, puts it succinctly: "I've got to manage my time to the fullest."
Other athletes must do the same. Gymnastics coach Rick Suddaby says, "Gymnasts are special because they understand the balance an athlete must maintain. They've had to learn how to prioritize their time. They've been in the gym late at night and then have had to go home and study. So they come in here already having a good sense of how to prioritize."
Senior gymnast Heather Block knows exactly what Suddaby means. "Being an athlete my whole life, I've learned to manage my time better," she says. "It's second nature by now -- having to practice, go to classes, get your homework done, and sleep. Sometimes it's tough, especially when you're tired and don't want to do your homework, and your ankle might be throbbing and you have to write a paper. At that point you think your life is no good, but you have to realize one night is not going to ruin your life, so you ice your ankle and write your paper."
Learning how to establish priorities is a skill that will benefit athletes when they leave college. "You have to balance the academic, athletic, and social," Nichols points out. "You can't be at the library 24-7 or you'll go nuts. Socially you can't party all the time or you'll flunk out. You can't spend all your time in athletics or you'll flunk out. You have to balance all these things. We have good kids, and you have to be flexible with them because of the times they have to practice."
Track and field athletes, for instance, have to travel to Cornell University to use the indoor facilities that Hill Center can't provide. On a recent Thursday morning when senior track and field thrower Tariq Ahmad was being interviewed, he had just returned from an early practice session at Cornell. Nichols had just finished practicing with a jumper and thrower but had scheduled trips to Cornell at 11:30 a.m. for a women's team member and 4:00 p.m. for some distance runners. Normal practice was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Cornell. He might make the trip -- 10 minutes there and 10 minutes back -- five or six times a day.
Nichols's example is just one instance in which athletes can look to coaches as role models for dedication and sacrifice. "Coaches basically make themselves work around their athletes' schedules," Ford explains, taking such juggling as part of the territory. For the most part, when coaches come to Ithaca it takes a lot for them to leave. Some coaches will step into a Division III program hoping to use it as a springboard to a higher level, with their ultimate goal being to make "the big time." But at Ithaca "coaches are here a long time," points out President Williams. "It's not like they're here for two years and then go somewhere else. They're teacher, friend, supporter, adviser; they play multiple roles."
Block knows that very well. She says that she and the other gymnasts have a special relationship with Suddaby. "He has been like a second father to me," says Block, who early in her college life suffered through periods of separation anxiety, with her home in New Hampshire seven hours away. "I wouldn't still be in school if it weren't for my team and my coach."
George Valesente '66, M.S. '75, has been head baseball coach since 1979. His résumé is remarkable, with 2 national championships (1980 and 1988), 9 College World Series appearances, 25 NCAA playoff trips, 14 conference championships, and 811 victories (720 at Ithaca). He recently was inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. When Valesente was an Ithaca student in the 1960s, coaches stressed professionalism, holding their players to a strict dress code. "They were very professional and very demanding," he said, "but they were very willing to help, too." That tradition of professionalism, he believes, has been passed down through the years and has been a big part of the excellence Ithaca teams maintain. "You were expected at all times to be on time, prepared, and alert," recalls Valesente, whose brother Bob Valesente '62, M.S. '67, has been a longtime assistant coach in the National Football League. Those who wanted to coach, he says, paid close attention to their mentors.
Valesente and others could have listened to the whispers of bigger colleges trying to lure them with their massive athletic programs, but Ithaca is home to them. "A lot of Division III coaches aspire to a higher level," says men's basketball coach Mullins. "But this is a level I enjoy. Why leave a good situation for something that is questionable?"
Mike Welch '73, head football coach for the last 11 years and an assistant for 10 years before that, has also found success at his alma mater, with an 89-33 career record. Last year's team went 9-2, just missing the NCAA playoffs. Welch was an assistant coach on the teams that won national championships in 1988 and 1991. "People have been here a long time," Welch affirms. "The level of experience of our coaches is high, and that carries over into continuity for our athletes. That is a big part of our success."
The success comes within the constraints of Division III scholarship guidelines. Division III schools cannot give athletic scholarships, only need-based and academic grants. "I do it because I love it, not because I'm paid for it," says senior gymnast Devon Malcolm, who found her way to Ithaca from California.
Quarterback Felicetti, who attended football-tough Central Bucks East High School near Philadelphia, was recruited by Division I-AA schools Villanova, William and Mary, and Monmouth University, as well as several within the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, known as one of the most competitive in the country in Division II. Yet he felt at home at Ithaca. "I looked at where I'd be happy if I wasn't playing football," says Felicetti, who completed 61.8 percent of his passes and threw for 19 touchdowns last season. "I wanted to be where I'd be happy if I got injured or couldn't play."
When they seek recruits, all coaches want the same things -- skill, competitiveness, court sense -- but Ithaca coaches expect even more from prospective athletes.
Mindy Quigg, who has coached women's soccer for 11 years, looks for "intangibles" in her recruits. "I want people who can handle competition at a higher level," she says. "I'm looking for people who are self-starters, not someone you're going to have to coddle for four years. I want people who are going to take ownership for their actions."
Dan Raymond, in his fifth year as women's basketball coach, wants athletes who have a burning desire to succeed, not just get by. "That person is going to be a success no matter what they do," he says.
Raymond, says sophomore basketball guard Erin Sanvidge, does not blur the distinction between academics and athletics. "Our coaches stress academics, keeping a good balance, and getting our work done," she says. "During practice, for those two hours it's all about basketball, but after that, the focus is on academics."
Focus. No problem for these student-athletes.
Photography by Gary Hodges -- www.jonreis.com