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Westminster Athletics

Cheering On a Winning Team

Mixing Academics and Athletics at Westminster

by Anthony Martinez

From its earliest days, Westminster College fielded a variety of collegiate athletic teams including soccer, baseball, basketball, football, and volleyball. But in 1978 Westminster's athletic era came to an end: the college's athletics program was, for mainly economic reasons, discontinued. In its wake the Payne Gymnasium and Hansen Memorial Stadium fell silent, leaving only the echoes of the once-cheering crowds.

Now, 25 years later, athletics has made a comeback at Westminster, and in spite of an injured national economy, the program appears to be running strong and making points.

"We needed to create opportunities for [students] on campus; we needed to create something for them to get behind," said Tommy Connor, director of athletic programs at Westminster College. And according to Connor there's no better way to rally students in the college spirit than to add athletic programs. Those programs currently include men's and women's basketball, golf, and cross country; women's volleyball; and men's soccer.

Connor believes that without these programs a valuable part of college life would be missing. "You would lose student life, you lose student excitement, you lose an extracurricular activity that's really important in terms of coming to a game with friends or a group of people--that's part of the college experience," he said.

Dean of Students Carolyn Perkins agreed with Connor's assessment and went just a little further. "It gets [students] away from the living helps reduce stress and anxiety because you can yell and scream and have a good time, and it's all done within the whole umbrella of 'it's okay because you're in the gymnasium.'"

In addition to the entertainment and stress relief that athletics provide, Perkins added that there are practical applications too. "I think it brings such an important aspect that we don't look at sometimes with athletics, and that is what the students learn from athletics: how to play as a team member and how to deal with confrontation, but also how to lead at different points in time."

In another way, Perkins sees athletics as similar to any other organization on campus. "Whether it's a club or organization, whatever it is, there's a nice camaraderie that develops from being a part of a team, whether it's athletic or some type of academic team." She said the benefits of camaraderie and teamwork come as the result of sharing common struggles or challenges with other members, or in the case of athletics, simply knowing someone on the team who represents you.

Of course there are always critics when it comes to collegiate athletics. Every year stories pop up in the media about inequities in academic standards for student athletes versus the everyday student. But according to Connor, that's precisely where Westminster student athletes differ from those at other institutions. "We have the quintessential student athlete, and the quintessential student-athlete program--student first, athlete second, and that is what we are all about. It's what we've been about since the day I arrived; it's what was stressed to me; and it's what now, as athletic director, I am stressing to all the other coaches," he said.

According to statistics, it seems he may be right. Student athletes at Westminster College make up five percent of the undergraduate population, and according to Connor, the academic status of these students mirrors that of the general population. "In a study I had to do over a year ago, taking all our sports teams and doing cumulative GPAs, our average student-athlete GPA is higher--in fact significantly higher--than the average student GPA. It continues to be that. We have tremendous student athletes," he said.

In addition to a cumulative GPA of 3.4 for student athletes at Westminster, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which governs athletic programs at educational institutions like Westminster, has recognized more than 32 Westminster student athletes as Academic All-Americans--a distinction reserved for student athletes who maintain a 3.5 GPA, serve in leadership roles on campus, and take part in volunteer programs while still participating in an athletic program.

Perkins and Connor both suggested that some of the reasons for the academic success among student athletes at Westminster point to the attitude of the athletes themselves. "Our student athletes, for the most part I think, have great integrity. They are committed to their academics first. I think that they are trying to represent what we would want a student athlete at Westminster to represent," said Connor.

And while the numbers say Westminster's student athletes really do compete academically, the numbers on the scoreboard suggest they can really compete athletically as well. Last season, men's soccer kicked their way into the regional tournament, a feat Connor calls extraordinary since the soccer program has to play outside the athletic conference system as an independent team. And the men's basketball team has been to three straight national tournaments and garnered two conference championships in the past three years.

"Doing it the right way, bringing the right kind of people on campus, that kind of success has brought tremendous positive recognition to the college," said Connor. And it is just that kind of success and recognition that has brought another once-missing tradition back to campus. If you listen closely on game night, you can hear the echoes of the cheering crowd filter through the windows of Payne Gymnasium.