By Vicki L. Friedman
Special to Atlantic10.com
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – They all have unique stories, independent of their remarkable athletic prowess and outstanding leadership skills.
Richmond’s Allison Haas was a Junior Olympic roller skater, and George Washington’s Jane Wallis played soccer in Sochi as a high-schooler.
George Mason’s Paige Babel is a vegan, Rhode Island’s Abbey Miklitsch thrives in her juvenile corrections internship, and Saint Louis’ Kingsley Bryce has a taste for Nigerian food.
The student-athletes who comprise the Atlantic 10 Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) learned each other’s quirks during a three-day meeting Feb. 7-9 hosted at the league’s headquarters in Newport News, Va. But the more significant takeaways from the weekend stemmed from an interactive leadership workshop, a panel discussion, a homemade video, a talk from a respected peer and even a memorable teambuilding exercise involving creative salad-making at a nearby restaurant.
“It’s one level to be at a university,” said Miklitsch, a sophomore rower. “That’s phenomenal. That in itself is a blessing. It’s another level to be a Division I athlete. That’s an even greater blessing. But to be part of SAAC, you start to look beyond practices, beyond the work, beyond the games and you get to see a great value. You get to go to conferences like this one and you see firsthand the A-10 is more than just a basketball game. It’s the opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
The A-10 SAAC, made up of two student-athletes from each conference school, strives to enhance the experience on the field, in the classroom and in the community. It offers the opportunity to make a difference in NCAA legislation for those most affected by it: the student-athletes.
Each campus has its own SAAC, but the opportunity to come together as a conference rarely presents itself given academic and athletic demands. That’s among the reasons the weekend was special for the student-athletes in attendance. In addition to Haas, Wallis, Babel, Miklitsch and Bryce were Dayton’s Mickey Ludlow (cross country), Duquesne’s Devon Tabata (soccer), Fordham’s Krissy Buongiorno (volleyball), La Salle’s Jennifer Whelan (volleyball), Massachusetts’ Lauren Skesavage (soccer), St. Bonaventure’s Dan Dunnigan (golf); Saint Joseph’s Paige Cesky (rowing) and VCU’s Garrett Cyprus (soccer).
Jeff O’Brien of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports kicked off the conference with his “Branded a Leader” workshop, a discussion-style format allowing the student-athletes to engage with their peers in a dialogue that reflects their own personal styles and the impact they can have on others.
All recognize the difference in brands in everyday life, O’Brien said, pointing to familiar logos: the font from Disney, the golden arches of McDonald’s and the red bull’s-eye for Target, to name a few. Each carries different expectations. The same holds for leaders, he said, asking the student-athletes to consider their brand and in turn, how others might interpret it.
So what if you had to draw your own brand?
Miklitsch settled on a sun with a spatula. “If you’re not sunny side up, you should flip it,” she said, noting her positive spin on the dim moments.
Babel drew a little girl atop a globe, her tagline reading, “Girl meet world.” Buongiorno, a redhead, scribbled a mess of red hair atop the head of a grinning girl, signifying her belief in the power of positive thinking. Haas outlined a puzzle piece with the word “one” inside – “I’m one on my team, one in my family, one in the universe…” she said.
O’Brien then engaged them with hypothetical scenarios, asking them what they would do if alcohol became a divisive issue in their respective teams. Do you call each other out? Notify the coach? Ignore? And what if what you try doesn’t work?
“You have such a powerful influence on people you didn’t even know you had an influence on,” said Cyprus afterward. “There’s always somebody watching. You’re told that as a player. You always want to perform your best, but I never thought about how in the real world, there’s people who you might not even know taking notes.”
O’Brien added how you lead and how others interpret your leadership. “I never thought about what it was like to be led by me,” Cesky admitted.
The Friday night exercise concluded with a peek into the task for Saturday, much of which centered on the student-athletes developing a promotional SAAC video. Filming was set for Saturday, but “Is anybody tired?” Tabata asked.
Back to the hotel they trudged, video camera in hand, for a brainstorming session over pizza. Even without Spielberg in the house, the ideas spewed one on top of the other.
One theme? Two themes? Should we have a song? What’s the song?
“I’ve got your song,” Bryce said, tapping his phone to unleash a rendition of Aloe Blacc’s “The Man.”
The video highlights the A-10’s inclusiveness. Despite the geographical distance among the schools, most admitted they felt a connection to each other.
Bryce introduces the “A-10 family” by knocking on 13 different office doors. One by one, the student-athletes emerge, decked out in their school garb and offering one-liners reflective of their institution: “Hashtag UMassNation” and “Proud to be a Ram,” for example.
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Their school shirts get stripped to reveal SAAC A-10 shirts, as the video concludes with all atop the A-10 seal just inside the main door to the conference headquarters. In unison they shout, “On the field we’re competitors, but off the field we’re family.”
“So fun,” Tabata said.
Next on Saturday’s agenda was a panel discussion with Dr. Joseph Marolla and Debbie Richardson. Marolla is the Executive Director for the Center for Teaching Excellence at VCU and the Faculty Athletics Representative for the Rams’ athletic department. He also serves as an ex-officio member of the A-10 SAAC. Richardson is an A-10 Senior Associate Commissioner who oversees conference championships.
Marolla noted that much of his job involves interpreting faculty to athletes and athletes to faculty. Not all professors understand the travel demands of athletes who aren’t missing a test to slack off; they have to compete.
“It’s important to make policies that protect athletes from losing in the academic world because they are competing in the athletic world,” he said. Whereas 40 years ago, student-athletes were often considered separate from their peers, today’s athletes really are no different than other students minus one factor.
“You have this unusual skill,” he said.
Marolla urged them to be risk takers as leaders and tackle the most critical problems first rather than a stack of easier ones that are more manageable. Richardson agreed, recalling she used to be “a checklist type of person” until she realized the checklist dictated her. Prioritizing tasks, she said, ideally becomes more important that checking off tasks.
Richardson assured the student-athletes that the conference continuously works on their behalf to make both the men’s and women’s championships memorable experiences that allows all but one team to leave with just one disappointment –the final score.
“Always know that there are faces behind the decisions you make,” she said.
After additional filming of the promotional video, A-10 Assistant Commissioner Jill Redmond surprised the group with an exercise she had been hinting at throughout the day. Her details were sketchy. She divided the group into two teams, offering nothing more on the path to a nearby restaurant, Aroma’s World.
The “Dream Team” and the “A-Team,” names selected by the respective groups en route, faced off for what turned out to be competitive exercise involving salad preparation. Each of the teams was given 45 minutes and told the judging process would be based upon creativity, process, use of resources and presentation. A two-minute presentation would follow.
But what were they to do exactly? Redmond shrugged. She wasn’t giving further direction, noting privately that in the real world we’re often asked to complete tasks and given little guidance. Buongiorno strolled the restaurant for further clues. Wallis quickly began inking school names on napkins. Cesky became the natural timekeeper in her group.
Faced with bowls full of greens, nuts and dressings, the teams went to work. Dream Team’s creation involved individual salads representing each of the student-athletes – think GMU spelled out in cucumber and SLU spelled out in red onions. One larger salad, a concoction of beauty atop a pedestal table, represented the collective nature of the group, which set a scene on a corner table, mood music included from a cell phone.
“Real flash,” Marolla remarked.
The A-Team, ultimately declared the winner at Sunday’s breakfast, took an approach that acknowledged the significance of several of the themes suggested throughout the weekend, including inclusiveness and family. The team made a trio of “family-style” salads on oversized plates, each with a different message on the plate’s edge – “#A10SAAC,” “family” and “inclusiveness” were carefully spelled out with creamy balsamic dressing.
How quickly the teams came together as a unit, each member contributing and working toward one goal was exactly what Redmond had in mind when developing the idea.
“That reinforced that this really is a room full of leaders,” she said. “It’s clear what we talked about this weekend really resonated with this group.”
On Sunday prior to the annual SAAC business meeting, the student-athletes listened to the heartwarming story of one of their own –Richmond’s Becca Wann, who holds the rare distinction of being a starter on two Spiders teams (soccer and basketball). One concussion too many prematurely cut short both careers last fall, a stunning blow for Wann, who played for the US National Team and had draft potential for soccer and was named third-team preseason all-conference in basketball.
“These last six months have been the hardest of my life,” said Wann, who continues to attend Spider basketball practice.
Wann became emotional as she spoke; her mom sitting across from her wiped away tears.
Despite her passion for both sports, Wann said she trusted the advice of her trainer and neurologist, both of whom warned her about the consequences of continued concussions. She thought about playing again, but she also remembered the story of an athlete who had suffered so many concussions she had to sit in a dark room for three months.
“In the end, my identity is in who I am, not what I do,” she said. “Who you are is more important that what you do.”
“Wow,” Bryce said afterward. “Nobody really likes to talk about concussions. They’re usually something on the back burner. Her speech was perfect for that. I’m going to bring it back to my campus.”
The afternoon brought each of the student-athletes bound for separate directions back to Olean, St. Louis, Dayton, Philadelphia and the 13 campuses that comprise the A-10. Many of them talked of the growth they experienced, while others reflected on the value of being in a room with so many like-minded peers.
In 2 ½ days, they forged friendships they don’t intend to forget.
Said Buongiorno, “I’m ready to hang out with these guys next weekend.”