William & Mary athletics redefined success in 2009-2010.
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The football team finished third nationally and produced two All-Americans, both drafted into the NFL. Basketball enjoyed its best season in 50 years, while golf produced its finest finish in 25 years. Thanks to All-American Jon Grey, cross-country finished a best-ever fifth in the NCAA championship. Soccer produced All-American Andrew Hoxie, the 37th player taken in the Major League Soccer draft. Men gymnasts won nine All-American honors at the national championships and produced an all-around national champion in Derek Gygax.
Women’s cross-country won a seventh consecutive Colonial Athletic Association title behind All-American Emily Anderson. Golfer Morgan Stepanek set a school record for strokes per round. Gymnast Teenie Beck tied for second in all-around at the USAG Collegiate Nationals. All-American Emily Johnson led lacrosse into the nation’s top 20. Swimmer Katie Radloff finished her career with 19 CAA championships and two swimmer-of-the-year awards.
Team by team, the list of accomplishments could go on and on. But, at William & Mary, wins and losses never tell the whole story of the athletics program. There is another important piece to what makes a Tribe athlete so unique in the world of big-time college athletics.
A record 76 athletes earned Provost Awards, which require freshmen to compile a 3.75 grade-point average in their first semester, and sophomores, juniors and seniors to carry at least a 3.5. The graduation rate among scholarship athletes continues at 95 percent, 16 points above the national average.
A report issued by the National Collegiate Athletic Association on May 12 honored five W&M squads as recipients of its public recognition award for 2009-10. To receive this recognition, the particular program must have posted an Academic Progress Report (APR) rating that finished within the top 10 percent of the national average for the sport. The Tribe teams recognized are football, men's and women's gymnastics, women’s basketball and volleyball. Four of these squads have been recognized in each of the previous five years.
“This just proves that you can have a good academic institution that’s fulfilling its mission and you can have a good athletic program without selling your soul,” Director of Athletics Terry Driscoll said. “We are a very strong academic institution . . . . Unlike a lot of other schools, people know who we are. There’s a segment of the (high school student) population that this program attracts from the get-go. If we did not have the high quality of excellent academics, balanced by exciting, successful, competitive athletics, we would not attract them.”
Four students stand out among the many who truly epitomize the slogan “William & Mary: Where athletes are scholars.” They embody the College’s commitment to diversity, local and international civic engagement, and producing graduates who step into the real world and immediately make their mark. In short, they are what separates the W&M student-athlete from all the rest.
The sight-unseen foreigner
At age 18, Nat Baako, ’11, had a difficult decision to make. He could stay home and play professional soccer in Ghana, or say goodbye to the game and go to college. Then his youth soccer coach told him there was another solution: Attend college in the United States and do both.
Without benefit of preparation, Baako took the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and did so well that when his coach phoned Tribe soccer coach Chris Norris, Baako already had the academic credentials to get in. Norris took him sight-unseen.
“I’m here because of somebody else’s trust in me,” Baako said.
He justified that trust. In three seasons, Baako has twice been named first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association. While leaving home for a country where he knew no one wasn’t easy, Baako says the coaches and teammates did all they could to help with the transition.
“I remember our first dinner after practice my first day,” he said. “We went out to dinner and they were cracking jokes and laughing. I was just there. The humor wasn’t there for me. Then and there, they decided to tell me ‘This is why this is funny.’ I got the basics of what they were saying . . . . Some seniors sat me down to tell me what was going on. I was aware from Day 1 what to expect.
“I’m most proud of the adjustments that I had to make . . . from professors’ accents, which for me were accents because I’m not from here, to social life, soccer, the pace of it, and I had just about a week to do all of that. . . I kept my head up and kept going.”
Named his high school’s best Business Accounting and mathematics student from 2003-2005, Baako is a Finance major at W&M. He spent the spring, 2010, semester studying at the University of Manchester Business School in England – not coincidentally, the home of his favorite soccer team, Manchester United.
“The whole trip has been one of the best times of my life,” he wrote from England. “I have had a lot of time to reflect on my life . . . It has been great, especially having the opportunity to fit all of this experience in my four-year program at W&M.”
Baako has no trouble expressing what makes athletics at W&M unique among all colleges.
“Once you get into any program, you automatically become part of a family,” he said. “You compete for as many years as you have, but when you leave, you’re still part of the family. . .
“It’s very different. I thought I’d be here for four years and then go on. (But) I have come to know a lot of alumni, not only through soccer, but through the other programs. I e-mail them, and they are friends to me . . . . The program never leaves you, and hopefully, you never leave the program.”
The sports agent of the future
Ragini Acharya, ’10, entered William & Mary as a 5-star tennis recruit. The United States Tennis Association ranked her fourth nationally among under-18 players. Georgia Tech, Northwestern, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown fought the College for her services.
Four years after coming to Williamsburg, Acharya has crafted a legacy superior in every way. Selected first-team All-CAA three times, and second team once, Acharya finished her career with 102 victories, ninth-most in school history. As the conference freshman of the year, she won 87 percent of her matches, including 27 straight singles titles, and finished Number 1 among Eastern Region tennis players.
The College named her the 2009 Barksdale Award winner, which goes to the female student-athlete who carries a minimum 3.25 grade-point average. Acharya’s fluctuated between 3.6 and 3.8. Those figures, combined with her athletic achievements, made her selection easy to justify.
But Acharya also took advantage of one of the myriad opportunities offered by W&M, and wound up with an internship with international marketing giant Octagon Sports between her junior and senior years. It’s helped convince her to become a sports attorney.
“I found a program called ‘University of Dreams’ through the Career Center,” she recalled. “They help you find internships throughout the country . . . (At Octagon), I worked in the tennis division. I did presentations for potential athletes, presentations for current clients we wanted to present to Adidas or Nike, I worked with other interns, and did a lot of research on who we should recruit, up and coming players. I also got to look at contract negotiations, and I love the idea of going into the law and sports.”
Acharya, who received a B.A. in Economics, has been fully involved in the W&M lifestyle. She served as a member of the student-athletic advisory committee, which regularly pulls together athletes from all different sports to discuss public service projects such as food drives for the hungry at Thanksgiving and Easter, clothing collections for earthquake victims, and a wheelchair tennis tournament to benefit a foundation for wheelchair bound.
The involvement from athletes in every sport is one of countless attributes that make W&M unique.
“You’re going to compete for an institution that is one of the finest in the nation,” Acharya said. “You’re getting to meet other athletes just as serious about their athletics as they are about their academics. You’re getting to meet first-rate coaches, and a first-rate athletic support system in W&M Hall that is so helpful in every aspect of your life, whether it’s choosing classes or choosing equipment or anything. There’s no reason why they can’t succeed athletically and academically.”
Called to be a professional
The man on the other end of the phone said he worked for the Indianapolis Colts, National Football League powerhouse and participant in Super Bowl XLIV last February.
Was David Caldwell interested in joining the organization?
Caldwell signed a free-agent contract with the defending AFC champion, the fifth member of the Class of 2010 wooed into professional football.
At 5-11, 212 pounds, he fits the Colts’ profile for the safety position, a spot that Caldwell played with distinction for the Tribe. A 2009 first-team all-conference selection, Caldwell led the Tribe in tackles his last two seasons, and his 288 total tackles ranked among the top-50 of all active college football players.
But Caldwell, who received a B.B.A. in Finance, will tell you that he received as much as he gave at W&M, sometimes from unexpected sources.
Todd Mooradian, an associate professor in the School of Business, sent a “blind” e-mail to the Chief Executive Officer of Smithfield Foods recommending Caldwell for a summer internship.
Within a day, Smithfield e-mailed Caldwell asking him to come to their offices. He thought he was going for an interview. He was wrong.
“They basically said, ‘No, you have the job, let us know when you can start work,’ ” Caldwell said. “It was great.”
Following high school in New Jersey, Caldwell attended a year of prep school. It wasn’t to hone his grades, but to polish his football resume a bit. The more he heard about W&M, the more it appealed to him.
“I wanted to challenge myself academically and athletically,” he said. “I feel like William & Mary is one of the few schools that can do both.”
Four years later, Caldwell has been an integral part of a football team that advanced to the NCAA national semifinals, and is regularly ranked in the top 20. It also has an established pipeline to the NFL in coaches Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Colts defensive backs coach Alan Williams, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Dan Henning, and players like Darren Sharper, Derek Cox and others.
“That’s what makes these William & Mary athletes unique,” Caldwell said. “We can get it done in the classroom with a rigorous class schedule. A lot of other schools, I talk to their guys and they’re not necessarily doing all of the things that we’re doing every day. They’re not studying for tests, heading to the library and then competing for national championship on the field.
“We’re doing it – and not just for football. We’ve been highly competitive in a lot of sports.”
The Renaissance Woman
Brielle Paolini, ’10, has always wanted to experience it all.
In four years at William & Mary, she came close.
She was a member of the women’s golf team, and the first National Golf Coaches Association Scholar All-American in school history. She helped in the campus fight against cancer and AIDS. She was a Monroe Scholar who studied digital photography one summer in Italy. A certified yoga instructor. Goldwater Scholar. Hospital volunteer. Phi Beta Kappa. Provost Award winner.
Of which is she most proud?
“I’m most proud of being able to do all of those things,” she said, “and most proud of being able to balance high-level academics with a very hectic golf schedule. There’s a fine line between both of those.”
Paolini, from Virginia Beach, didn’t just belong to the golf team. She competed in 85 percent of the Tribe’s matches, twice finished in the top-20 of tournaments, shot a career-low 75, and seemed to relish the physical and mental grind that college golf often becomes.
“No question, it’s been tough; golf is a very difficult sport,” she said. “When you play 18 holes (with round-trip travel, warm-ups, etc.), it can easily take up nine hours. We end up putting in a lot more time than other people. Golf is also at the top of the physical pyramid. You have to have strength, you have to have endurance, you have to have flexibility, and you have to be good at all of those things in order to compete at the top. You need to do that training outside of the course. It becomes pretty difficult not only to balance your physical training and your golf training, but schoolwork, too.”
Having achieved a B.S. in Neuroscience, Paolini is headed to Wake Forest for graduate school. She’ll miss the golf competition within the team and within the CAA, which was everything she could have asked for.
“We don’t just have five strong players; we have 10,” she said. “It’s a great team. The girls on the team are my best friends, and I’ve been completely blessed to have them. There are other students on campus with whom I have fun, artsy relationships with, ones that have grown over the years. I’ve been really blessed that friendships have fallen into my lap so I didn’t have to necessarily go out and seek them out.”
Despite spending inordinate amounts of time on school and golf, Paolini also immersed herself in the community spirit that pervades W&M. After her father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (he is in remission), she joined the campus Relay for Life as a committee chairperson.
“I came back to campus and I wanted to do something to give back to the cancer community,” she explained. “Honestly, it was really fun. I put together the opening and closing ceremonies, the music, the speakers, the survivors who had come to speak (about their experiences) and set the tone for the evening.”
With W&M being such a large part of the relatively small Williamsburg community, Paolini says that getting students involved with matters outside the campus is a priority, and one of the many things she treasures about the College.
“All of my friends do something for the community, give back in some sort of way,” she said. “It’s very much a part of campus life.”
Athletes, in particular, feel the calling.
“I know that the baseball team and the football team get together and go out into the community on weekends together,” she said. “We’re very tied to Williamsburg. We have a huge quest to give back. When everyone’s doing it, it becomes kind of peer pressure -- but in a wonderful way. You want to get involved and be part of it.”
The traditional goal of a liberal arts university such as W&M is to help students prepare to live worthy lives as humans and as citizens, as distinct from preparing them for careers or professions or positions. Paolini is convinced that the College meets that goal brilliantly.
“William & Mary provides an environment for us to be able to pursue many interests,” she said. “We’re not just athletes. We’re not just students. We’re able to go out into the community and give back, while being able to pursue things like art and photography. William & Mary makes it possible for us to do all of these things at a very, very high level. We can really pursue everything we’re interested in as passionately as we want. I think that makes us different.”