A Lot on the Ball
Our top scholar athletes of the year are
winners on the field and in the game of life
By Bethany Bradsher
Carolina sports fans know the football team has won the Conference USA championship two years in a row and that softball narrowly missed taking the conference crown. But fans may not be aware of other honors brought home by Pirate teams—that the softball and men’s golf teams had the highest GPA of the 12 teams in the conference for three straight years. Or that the women’s golf team has won the award twice in the past four years.
Every time a Pirate squad grabs a new academic honor, it highlights a theme that athletic director Terry Holland has worked hard to hammer home: Achievement in the classroom is every bit as valuable as accomplishments on the field or court. Holland has backed up those priorities by awarding a bonus of one month’s salary to a team’s academic “coach” (a student development staff member who tutors athletes) every time one of their teams wins the conference academic award. It’s the same bonus the university gives an athletic coach whose team takes a conference championship.
“The athletic administration and our coaches have done our best to send a consistent message that class attendance as well as the response to our academic coaches should be at the same expectation level as the requirement for attending practice and responding to the sport coaches,” Holland said.
In our effort to honor the academic superstars of sports, East collaborated with the student development staff to compile ECU’s Top Scholar-Athletes for 2009–10. They were chosen based on GPA, community service and team leadership. Presented in alphabetical order, they are:
Blake Briese, swimming
Briese grew up in Atlanta, and his first months in eastern North Carolina took some adjustment. But even if he was somewhat homesick and unaccustomed to the extreme demands of Division I swimming, Briese arrived with the discipline he needed to excel in his business courses. He did so well that he finished his business degree in just three years with a 3.85 GPA, and for his last year of swimming eligibility he started working toward his MBA. At graduation in May, Briese received the Wall Street Journal Student Achievement Award, which is only given to one business school graduate each year. Like many of the top scholar-athletes, Briese spent many hours doing community service, especially last fall when he was paired with an Ayden-Grifton High School student who had never been in a pool but wanted, for her senior project, to learn how to swim. Briese spent about five hours a week with her throughout the fall, and by the time they finished she could swim underwater across the pool.
Estes, a junior with a 3.81 GPA, has always had good time-management skills, she said, so her adjustment to college life was relatively smooth. She rates physics as her toughest class so far, and she said that October is the hardest month to maintain academic excellence because so much of the month is devoted to traveling to golf tournaments. The secretary of the ECU Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), Estes has ample opportunity to share her coping tips with younger Pirates. Every fall the SAAC sponsors a freshman seminar whose primary goal is to encourage new student-athletes as they perfect the juggling act between their sports commitment and their academic load. “I think most of them come in well-prepared,” she said. “In SAAC, we are a bridge between the athletic and academic side. All the freshman athletes come in, and we explain to them how college works and how to balance your athletics with your academics.”
Kimberly Gay, basketball
Kim Gay was a first-team All-State basketball player in Georgia coming out of high school, so she felt confident about her ability to make a difference on the Pirate basketball court. She was less certain about how she would fit academics into that picture. The 6-foot-2 forward admits that she was uncertain about her ability to do everything well at East Carolina, but she made corrections as she went along in those early semesters, spending more time in study hall and trimming her schedule down to little more than studies and basketball when it was necessary. “It took some time getting used to,” she said. “I just figured it out on my own.” As a result of that diligence, Gay has compiled a 3.37 GPA—an average that is consistently the highest on the Lady Pirates squad. A junior finance major, she found accounting and statistics to be the most challenging legs of her journey so far. Her ultimate career destination? A job as a financial advisor, helping people manage their money the way she has learned to manage her campus responsibilities.
Austin Homan, baseball
The college reality check came for Homan when he was told to get up between 5 and 6 a.m. many mornings for strength and conditioning. On top of that, the regular science classes were much more intense than Homan had ever encountered in high school in Pennsylvania. But he found his rhythm, and as a senior he has a 3.36 GPA and his first scholarship after playing as a walk-on for three seasons. He will graduate with a degree in health fitness and return next year—his last year of baseball eligibility—for a master’s in physical activity promotion. His ultimate goal is to own and operate his own health club.
cross country and track
If Samantha Lichtner’s educational and career path unfold the way she hopes, she will be a doctor working with athletes like herself. Her career goal is medical school and training in osteopathic medicine. Wherever she ends up pursuing her medical education, Lichtner is likely to have a step up on her classmates because of the time management skills she has honed en route to her 3.75 GPA. Competing almost nonstop from August through May, with separate seasons for cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, she does not have an offseason, creating additional strains on her academic obligations. As the president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) this year, Lichtner takes every opportunity to encourage other athletes who are trying to keep their studies in the forefront.
Amanda Malkiewicz, soccer
Malkiewicz’s career ambition would make most of her peers cringe; she wants to be a high school calculus teacher. When she came to ECU to play soccer from Forked River, N.J., she was fifth in her high school class of 420 and as excited about what she saw in the math classrooms she visited as the prospect of playing her sport as a Lady Pirate. A sophomore, Malkiewicz has a 3.9 GPA and sees it as her responsibility to make sure that young soccer fans who flock to the Lady Pirates’ games have examples of academic diligence. “Everyone’s always watching you as a student-athlete, so you have to be on top of your game,” she said. “I was always raised to know that school comes first.”
cross country and track
Newby has learned plenty through his four years earning a 3.62 GPA in exercise physiology and now as an MBA candidate, but some of his richest education has come outside the classroom and away from the track. He’s president of the local SAAC chapter and an active member of the national SAAC. He helped craft legislation for student-athletes and got to know the men and women at the highest echelons of college sports. This year he is the only student-athlete on the NCAA Division I academic cabinet. Those experiences have convinced Newby that he might want to pursue a career in inter-collegiate athletics himself, when his graduate studies and Pirate running career are behind him.
Katie Prast, volleyball
She knew the demands of Division I volleyball might make it difficult, but Prast had always hoped to study abroad. In 2008, thanks to a summer program in Argentina that allowed her to return to campus in time for the preseason, Prast had that opportunity. “I studied Spanish there for six weeks,” said Prast, a senior from Chicago. “I learned so much. It was so nice to be submerged in a totally different culture.” With a 3.77 GPA in English education, Prast is looking to become a high school English teacher. For now, she practices those teaching skills by tutoring other athletes in the ECU writing lab.
Greyson Sargent, basketball
Sargent came to ECU via Fork Union Military Academy after completing high school at a small Christian school in Raleigh, so the freedom of a large public university was a bit heady at first. But given the chance to monitor his own activities, Sargent thrived. “I enjoyed the freedom to juggle school and sports, especially coming from military school,” said Sargent, a marketing major with a 3.52 GPA. Basketball has a demanding travel schedule and a long season, and many times Sargent has sought out the computer in a hotel lobby and logged on to Blackboard to get the notes he missed that day. Like Homan, he also just earned his first scholarship after three years as a walk-on.
Joe Sloan, football
Sloan is one of three of our top scholar-athletes who finished their undergraduate degree in three years, and like Briese he is earning his MBA while playing his final year of eligibility. He has worked in his father’s development business, but the ECU holder’s ultimate goal is to coach college football. He found MBA courses more demanding and intense than undergrad (he finished his finance degree with a 4.0 GPA), with plenty of group projects to prepare students to interact productively with all types of people. He has also had the chance to transmit his academic discipline to young football teammates as the monitor for one of the study hall rooms. “I had some guys who came in just out of high school and I helped them get their feet wet and understand what they were getting into,” he said.
Kaui Tom, softball
As a member of the team that won three straight C-USA sport awards, Tom has distinguished herself among overachievers by compiling a 4.0 GPA in health education and promotion. Tom came to ECU in 2006 from Hawaii with two friends, Cristen Aona and Charina Sumner, who were also coming to join the softball team. All three of the Hawaiian players have excelled academically every semester, and they have pushed each other to greater heights, Tom said. “We have a commitment to this as a team, and I think it stems from our coaches,” said Tom, who plans to train to be a nurse practitioner in Hawaii after graduation. “They have set the bar higher for us.”
Brooke Walter, tennis
Walter broke a record before she ever swung a racquet in an ECU uniform; she came in with more advanced-placement hours—46—than any athlete had ever earned. That accomplishment allowed her to graduate in three years with a degree in English literature (and a perfect 4.0 GPA) and when she went to London to study abroad after what should have been her junior year, she was already earning graduate credit. While in London, Walter studied British literature and film and got to attend two Shakespeare plays, including one at the original Globe Theatre. When she completes her last tennis season and her master’s in English literature, she hopes to pursue a career in publishing. “I’m bored if not occupied,” she said.