September 6, 2012

Rise of the Saints

Rise of the Saints

It is March and spring is just around the corner, yet as Director of Athletics and Recreation Pam Roecker sits in her office above the pristine Jean Yawkey Center gymnasium, she can still hear the all-familiar and repetitive thud of the ball striking the hardwood and the screeching of sneakers across the court.

At this particular moment, the noise she hears coming from the practice below is that of one of the top women's basketball programs in the country, en route to a season that will end with a spot among the NCAA Division III Women's Basketball Tournament's "Elite Eight." Since arriving at Emmanuel in 2003, Roecker has learned to expect this - when March rolls around and the vast majority of teams across the country have wrapped up their winter seasons, there's still basketball left to be played for the Saints.

Soon after practice comes to an end, Roecker again hears similar sounds resonating from the gym floor. This time, however, it is the men's volleyball team producing the clamor. A young, talented group, these Saints opened their season ranked 12th in the country. Much like the women's basketball squad, they too expect to be playing long into the postseason. And they will. A few weeks from now Roecker won't simply be taking in a practice, but watching the team play in the GNAC Championship - the fourth title game appearance for the program in five years.

Walking across the street from campus to the city's Roberto Clemente Field, home field for the Saints, Roecker again finds herself looking out upon a sea of talented student-athletes. Atop the synthetic turf field practices the Emmanuel men's lacrosse team, the College's 17th varsity sports program, participating in its inaugural NCAA season. Meanwhile, in full flight along the rubberized surface surrounding the field are members of Emmanuel's men's and women's outdoor track and field team. Among them are the members of the men's 1600- and 3200-meter relay teams, who will garner All-New England and All-Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) honors by season's end, respectively. Individually, two of the relay members, Nate Bruno '14 (400-meter hurdles) and Adam Julien '15 (400-meter dash) will rank among the top 30 in the nation after their final races of the year.

All around Roecker there is visual proof of the growth of Emmanuel College's athletic program in the last decade. Yet it is not the national rankings, the championships or awards that fill her with the most pride. It is overseeing the development of a department that has more than doubled in size in the last 10 years. It is witnessing the College's commitment to athletics through the construction of state-of-the-art facilities. Most importantly, it is achieving success within a philosophy aimed toward shaping individuals, building character and preparing student-athletes for life beyond their playing days.

"Our goal is certainly for all of our programs to compete for championships, but we are not going to take any shortcuts along the way," said Roecker. "We talk constantly about 'doing things the right way.' Our expectation is for our student-athletes and coaches to exhibit sportsmanship, professionalism, organization and enthusiasm in daily practices and competitions. We believe that winning will take care of itself as we all commit to creating this type of championship atmosphere on a daily basis."

Emmanuel's athletics program today is a remarkably different one than it was a little more than a decade ago, when the College first introduced men's sports and began expanding its athletic offerings. Back then, Men's and Women's Cross Country/Track and Field Head Coach Tony DaRocha started his program with just five student-athletes total. Men's Basketball Head Coach Jamahl Jackson, then an assistant coach recruiting the first class of men to Emmanuel, had to house recruits at a nearby hotel because there were no male residence halls on campus. Now, DaRocha fields a team of 50 student-athletes. Men make up nearly a third of Emmanuel's undergraduate population. Nine new athletic programs have been introduced since 2001, making Emmanuel one of the largest programs in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC), home to nearly 300 student-athletes.

As a Division III college, Emmanuel competes as a member of the NCAA's largest grouping, which includes nearly 430 institutions across the country. Historically, Division III schools have promoted themselves as colleges or universities that do not offer athletic-rated aid or even highlight athletics beyond a complementary piece of the overall student experience. Over the last few years, the division has embarked on a more detailed "identity initiative" to better differentiate itself from the other two divisions. The research resulted in a new identity platform based upon the key words "discover," "develop" and "dedicate."

As explained on NCAA.org by Jack Copeland, a consultant with the identity initiative, the Division III experience distinguishes itself by allowing student-athletes to "discover their potential and develop their passions through full participation in campus life, and ultimately to dedicate themselves to success as citizens and leaders in society."

The athletic experience at Emmanuel College is no different. When members of the athletics staff utter the phrase, "academics come first," it isn't an empty promise. Emmanuel's athletics department operates under a no-class-excusal policy for its student-athletes, a rule that can lead to athletes having to miss contests due to conflicting class schedules. Roecker acknowledges the added challenges this provides members of her coaching staff, who in certain cases may have to compete with limited players, but considers herself fortunate to have coaches who support the characteristics that make the Division III athletic experience distinctive.

"I am so proud of our staff members and the accommodations they make to ensure that our student-athletes have the opportunity to excel in the classroom," she said. "It is very common for our teams to travel with abbreviated rosters because of class time issues, and you can imagine the challenge a legitimate academics-first commitment creates for these competitive coaches.

"A focus on 'academics first' may affect the outcome of a game or two throughout the course of a season, but when looking at the big picture, I am confident that our student-athletes - and parents - appreciate the academic encouragement and support they receive," Roecker added. "As a result, our student-athletes are afforded a chance to excel, and in fact, graduate at higher rates than students who do not participate in varsity sports."

"It's about letting our athletes take advantage of all the opportunities available to them," said Women's Volleyball Head Coach Denitra Seals of the department's philosophy. "Allowing them to really be a 'student'-athlete."

It's a challenge today's Saints fully embrace.

In addition to serving as Emmanuel athletes, students are also leaders on campus; track and field's Jordan Coulombe '12 for instance, served as president of the Student Government Association. They are researchers like tennis and lacrosse player Jenny Konecnik '14, who presented a paper at the Eastern Sociological Society Annual Meeting in February 2012 on "The Functions of Alternative Schooling for At-Risk Youth: Through the Eyes of Teachers." They are also volunteers, having contributed more than 500 hours of community service during the academic year; world travelers, taking advantage of opportunities to study abroad; and real-world explorers, who find time to fit internships into their busy schedules.

"Because athletics is so engrained in the College as a whole, it lets you become so much more invested in the Emmanuel experience," said Coulombe. "It is geared toward being a scholar before an athlete and still maintaining the integrity of the overall college experience."

Emmanuel's commitment to athletics and the development of its student-athletes is reflected in the expansion of the athletic department, both in terms of staff and amenities. The department has grown its full-time and part-time coaching staff to 38 members and added new positions in athletic training and sports information. The College also initiated a renovation of nearby Roberto Clemente Field, home field for its softball, soccer and lacrosse programs, in addition to building the Jean Yawkey Center on campus in 2004.

The restoration of Clemente Field in 2009 was completed in partnership with the city of Boston, supported in part by a grant from the Yawkey Foundation II. Today, the facility is a far cry from what it was just a few years ago, when the field was more dirt than grass and the track was uneven and damaged. It is home to an upgraded 120,000 sq. ft. NCAA-regulation synthetic turf field, a three-lane rubberized track, practice facilities for track and field events, new MUSCO lighting, scoreboard, spectator stands and benches. The Jean Yawkey Center includes a gymnasium that serves as home court for the men's and women's basketball and volleyball programs, a fitness center, athletic training room, athletic offices and a Booster Room that is suitable for small gatherings during athletic events.

For Saints coaches and players alike, there is much pride in calling these facilities home. The women's soccer team hosted the GNAC championship game at Clemente Field the first season it was refurbished, while seniors on the men's soccer team, who spent their first year without a field to call their own, closed out their athletic careers this past fall with the program's first-ever GNAC tournament win. The year the Jean Yawkey Center opened, the men's basketball team had its first winning season, losing only three games in its new home venue. The women's volleyball program, meanwhile, won three-straight GNAC championships in the first three years after the building opened.

Head Women's Basketball Coach Andy Yosinoff, whose tenure at Emmanuel spans 35 years, remembers well the on-campus facility that predated the Jean Yawkey Center, which in his early years housed just two baskets with wooden backboards, short ceilings and barely enough room for benches along the sidelines. Sometimes he sits in the Athletic Booster Room overlooking the gymnasium, props his feet up against the table, leans back in his chair and thinks about how far Emmanuel has come.

"I do this all the time," he said. "It's like I moved into a palace. I think this is the best facility in Boston. The resources and support Emmanuel has given to athletics has just been phenomenal. Athletics represents a great opportunity for recruiting a more diverse student body."

When Head Men's Volleyball Coach Adam Martel and Director of Lacrosse/Men's Head Lacrosse Coach Brendan McWilliams joined the Saints' coaching staff in 2010, their respective arenas were big draws toward their visions of recruiting top student-athletes to their programs. In the Jean Yawkey Center gymnasium, Martel recognized a home court facility as attractive as any offered in all Division III. In Clemente Field, McWilliams saw a unique place to play, an open environment where lacrosse games could evolve into a neighborhood event.

For both, the high-quality facilities were the most obvious sign of the College's commitment to its athletics programs and to its student-athletes. It didn't take either coach long to realize that what Emmanuel was offering was really the whole package.

"Emmanuel is the best of both worlds. Beyond athletics we offer access to professors, academic support, and the ability to take advantage of all the resources within the city of Boston," said McWilliams. "It's not a hard sell. We are the liberal arts and sciences college in downtown Boston with lacrosse. There isn't anyone doing what we are doing."

"Academically, kids want to go somewhere they can succeed," said Martel. "Emmanuel is great at making opportunities available to its students. When you take into consideration the academic, athletic and social aspects available all within a major city location, not many other schools can compete. Emmanuel is the perfect storm of a Division III program.

There is no reason a student-athlete wouldn't want to come here."

The rise of Emmanuel's athletics programs has certainly proved a boon for the College's recruiting efforts overall. For a college that draws a high percentage of its student population from within the New England area, athletics has been a successful vehicle for expanding into new markets. When Jackson originally began the legwork for recruiting men's basketball players, he looked to establish himself in the pipeline of key areas around the country. His initial class included players from Utah, Iowa, Indiana and Florida. The following years saw recruits come from Louisiana, Georgia and Michigan.

"I found out early in the recruiting experience that it was easy to have success out of region," he said. "If guys had the chance to play and get an education, they were willing to travel. We were offering a private Division III liberal arts education with a new athletics program in Boston and they saw it as a great opportunity."

McWilliams is employing a similar approach with the Saints' newest program and is heavily recruiting in lacrosse hotbeds such as Baltimore, Md., and Long Island, N.Y. His first recruiting class included Cody Gallagher '15, who hails from West Islip High School, N.Y., regarded as the top high school lacrosse program in the country. Martel, meanwhile, is entrenched in California, where he says resides the strongest pool of players in the nation. Currently, three men's volleyball players come from the "Golden State," including captain Nick Updike '13 and Ashanti Jackson '15, both 2012 All-GNAC First-Team selections. Martel considers recruiting a collaborative effort between the coaches and Emmanuel's admissions staff.

"It's a mutual relationship," he said. "I wouldn't be a successful recruiter without admissions and with their support I help create exposure for Emmanuel on the West Coast."

Regardless of where student-athletes come from, the hope is that through their participation in athletics they will develop a sense of pride for their respective teams - and Emmanuel as a whole - that will resonate with them long after their collegiate careers are over. Roecker and her coaching staff enjoy few things more than seeing alumni return to campus to cheer on their old teams or reconnecting with former players and staying up to date with new developments in their lives. One need only look at the Saints' staff to realize the impact athletics has on Emmanuel students, as a number of coaches and staff are alumni of the College, including Assistant Sports Information Director Dan Campagna '07, Assistant Women's Softball Coach Sarah Palmer-Thompson '10, Assistant Men's Soccer Coach Mark DaCruz '08, Assistant Men's and Women's Track and Field Coach Irene Limlengco '11, and Assistant Men's Basketball Coaches Levi Smith '08 and Albert Hayle '05.

"Both of these guys I recruited and brought here," said Jackson of Smith and Hayle. "Now, they are men, who are helping to bring new guys into our family. I couldn't be happier to have them. They are the best salesmen of this program, of the College, they are role models to our players, and it makes me feel great about what we've built here that they want to continue to be a part of it."

As the Saints' programs continue to grow in strength and numbers and the student-athlete experience continues to evolve, what will remain constant are the defining characteristics that entice alumni to return and new, talented crops of student-athletes to rise to the challenge of wearing the Blue and Gold.

"One of the things I like most about our athletic department here is that it's not 'win at all costs,'" said McWilliams. "At the end of the day our mission is to graduate smart, successful student-athletes. If we can field a competitive program while meeting that end, then I think we are doing the right thing."

"The growth we have experienced in the last decade is amazing," said Roecker. "We have added teams and staff members, remodeled and added facilities, and have significantly increased our numbers, but one thing that has not changed is our overall philosophy and focus on the student-athletes.

"The relationships they build with teammates and coaches, the opportunity they have to improve their individual skills, the commitment we make to encouraging our student-athletes to 'be the best they can be in the classroom' remains consistent," she added. "Our goal is for our student-athletes to leave Emmanuel with pride in their program and in themselves, and believing that it was a privilege to participate."