A Magazine from California State University, ChicoFall 2014 Issue

Athletes Make the Grade

Photo of Johnny Sanchez

Student-athletes are as competitive in academics as they are in athletics

Coach [Greg] Clink and the staff made it clear that I wasn’t just coming to Chico to play basketball—academics were going to be the focus.

Chico State’s student-athletes have had a ton of experience performing in pressure-packed situations. But this was a whole new ball game.

They sat in a tidy row of cushioned chairs facing a room full of dignitaries: CEOs, city leaders, and University President Paul J. Zingg, among others. Asked to accompany Chico State Athletic Director Anita Barker to a presentation to the University Advisory Board, the student-athletes spoke about succeeding academically and athletically, and what they’ve learned along the way.

They knocked it out of the park, sharing stories of dedication, discipline, and perseverance.

“It’s very hard to be a student-athlete, but it’s also so rewarding to look back on what you’ve accomplished,” said Olivia Watt, a communication sciences and disorders major and cross country/track and field athlete. “We’re here as student-athletes, but we’re also growing as human beings. I’m so grateful to be doing it here in such an encouraging place.” 

“I’ve learned the most valuable lessons in my life as a student-athlete,” added softball player Kayla Barber, a kinesiology major. “I’ve learned that I’m not perfect and that I don’t always get it right. But I come back even stronger the next time, determined to be better.” 

In all, a dozen student-athletes spoke as the audience listened intently.

“I believe I speak for everyone on this board when I say we are proud of our student-athletes’ visions, commitment, dedication, and achievements at Chico State and in our community,” said board chair Farshad Azad. “Our community is a better place because of people like these.”

Practice makes perfect

Chico State’s student-athletes are racking up victories in the University’s classrooms and conference rooms at an ever-increasing rate.

Chico State student-athletes’ average GPA has risen in each of the past seven years to a modern-era high of 2.90 in 2013–2014, eclipsing the University’s average GPA each time. The department’s cumulative GPA was even higher at 2.95. And 51 percent of Chico State’s 319 student-athletes boasted a GPA of 3.0 or higher last academic year.

An all-time high of 58 Chico State student-athletes earned the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) All-Academic award for achieving a GPA of 3.4 or higher as an undergraduate varsity athlete in 2013–2014.

Seventeen student-athletes were recognized for their academic success at the national level, including Kasey Barnett, a recreation, hospitality, and parks management major, and track and field standout. She was named College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA)/Capital One Academic All-America and the CCAA Scholar Athlete of the Year. 

Ten more athletes representing seven different teams earned CoSIDA/Capital One Academic All-District honors. Chris Doyle, (BS, Business Administration, ’14), received the Golf Coaches Association of America/Cleveland Golf/Srixon Division II All-America Scholar Award. History major and distance athlete Tommy McGuan ran away with the University Advisory Board’s Student Service Award.

Coach Gary Towne (right) at the 2014 NCAA Track & Field Championships with distance athletes Barron Maizland, Alex McGuirk, Isaac Chavez, Olivia Watt, and Ayla Granados

Coach Gary Towne (right) at the 2014 NCAA Track & Field Championships with distance athletes Barron Maizland, Alex McGuirk, Isaac Chavez, Olivia Watt, and Ayla Granados

Springboard into the future

Chico State’s Department of Athletics is churning out not only some of the best NCAA Division II athletes in the nation but also, more importantly, some of the best people.

Take Johnny Sanchez, for example. 

Sanchez is the first in his family to earn a college degree. He did it in four years. 

“The last two semesters were very challenging,” says the kinesiology major and cross country All-American. “Waking up at 6 in the morning to get a run in, going to class, getting in your second run in the afternoon, and then going back and doing homework. It’s definitely taught me that nothing is given to you. You have to put in hard work.”

Sanchez is now working hard on his single-subject secondary teaching credential while chasing his third All-America honor as a senior on the cross country team. He hopes to teach high school physical education.

Barnett, who is a Chico native and graduate of Chico High School, needed only to walk across the street to attend college. But her collegiate journey led her much farther. She finished her degree’s course requirements in four years while leading the women’s track and field team to four straight conference titles. Barnett won three CCAA Championships—in the pole vault, long jump, and 4x100 relay—while qualifying for the NCAA Championships in all three. She claimed All-America honors by finishing fifth in the long jump at the National Championships.

Along with her national awards, Barnett was the CCAA Field Athlete of the Year and Chico State Female Athlete of the Year.

She is now a management trainee at the Pebble Beach Company, learning the role of restaurant manager at Roy’s at the Inn at Spanish Bay.

“Athletics was my favorite part of my collegiate experience, but I also knew it would only last four years,” says Barnett. “My degree would be my springboard into the future.”

Damario Sims’ road to success began on the streets of West Oakland. He was a partial qualifier coming out of high school, meaning his high school GPA or test scores did not meet the requirements to be eligible to compete as a freshman. 

“Coach [Greg] Clink and the staff made it clear that I wasn’t just coming to Chico to play basketball—academics were going to be the focus,” says Sims. “I remember getting a 3.0 my freshman year. They called me up, and we celebrated as much as we did when we won the conference championship a year later. 

“Coming from where I come from, there’s a stereotype that we can’t succeed academically. I knew I was smart. You have to be smart to make it growing up in West Oakland. You just have to transfer some of that street savvy to the classroom. I needed a community that believed in me and helped push me that way. I got that at Chico State, and I will always be grateful.”

Sims, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice, is now working as a foster agency case manager at Bay Area Youth Center and as the assistant basketball coach at his alma mater, McClymonds High School. 

Anything you can do …

Sims was at the center of a memorable moment that raised the academic stakes for Chico State’s athletes. At the 2010 student-athlete welcome-back barbecue, Athletic Director Barker announced the winners of the University Foundation Board of Governors Team GPA Award, presented to the men’s and women’s programs with the highest average GPAs. Sims then stood and announced that the men’s basketball team was going to win it the following year. Much hooting and hollering from his teammates and other teams followed.

One year later, at that same barbecue, Barker announced that the men’s basketball team had, in fact, won the award. This time, the hollering was deafening. The competition for the honor has been fierce ever since. This fall, the men’s golf team (3.14 GPA) and women’s soccer team (3.18) won with the highest marks yet.

“I think the award is genius,” says Sims. “It shows the direction Anita [Barker] is trying to take things in and what’s important to her. We heard about what other teams were doing, and we wanted to top it. We’re naturally competitive. We really attacked it. We held each other accountable. We made sure our teammates were getting to class, and when someone was struggling, we made sure they were doing everything in their power to turn things around.”

In fact, academic achievement was the first goal Head Coach Greg Clink set for his team when he took over the men’s basketball program at the start of the 2008–2009 season.

“We started by recruiting guys who felt it was important to get a degree,” says Clink. “Then we set up workshops on how to take tests, how to take notes, and how to read a textbook. We did class checks and grade checks. When we won the Team GPA Award in my third year here, we celebrated that the same way we did when we won the conference championship. That was a great night for our program.”

After Barker’s announcement, and after the men’s basketball players finished dancing on the tables, head baseball coach Dave Taylor stood up and congratulated Clink’s team. But then he added: “We’re coming for the championship belt this year.” 

One year later, it was the baseball team celebrating the honor. Nine of the department’s 13 programs have won the Team GPA Award at least once during its nine-year existence. The women’s golf team has won it four times, and the men’s track and field team, three.

“Some of the coaches made it a high-priority goal for their teams, and that got the competitive juices flowing,” says Barker. “It doesn’t take much to get coaches and student-athletes wanting to win something. So now it’s become a badge of honor to be the team with the highest GPA.

“Every coach, every year, when I ask them to set the goals for their program, one is either bettering their GPA or getting the highest team GPA.”

Every step of the way

All of Chico State Athletics’ coaches, athletes, and administrators stress that academic success is not a product of their hard work alone. They described faculty and staff campuswide who have supported and encouraged student-athletes.

“I know it sounds cliché, but it takes a village,” says Barker. “There are people all over campus who are supporting our students and helping them to succeed. That might be the financial aid office, Student Learning Center, tutoring, a faculty member who spends a little extra time.” 

Barker notes that while it’s impossible to name everyone, they have relationships all over campus. “If there’s a student-athlete in need, we can plug him or her in to get the help they need,” she says. “At the end of the day, if student-athletes want to be successful, they’re going to be if they put in the work, because the people of this campus will be there supporting them every step of the way.”

Sanchez, Sims, and their peers have experienced it firsthand.

“I’ve definitely had a lot of support,” says Sanchez. “I was part of EOP [Educational Opportunity Program] that works with first-generation college students. I went to Summer Bridge with EOP, and that really helped me adjust to college. I had a supervisor and advisor that I met with for the first two years. I did struggle during my freshman year. There were times when I wondered if I was going to make it. Without having them there, helping get me back on track and motivating me to keep working hard, I don’t know if I would have.”

Sims also appreciates the support he received from the campus community. “I don’t care if you’re a superstar or a 12th man—Chico State is a brotherhood/sisterhood kind of place,” says Sims. “You can experience camaraderie throughout the whole University. There was never a time I didn’t feel cared for. That’s special.”

With a little help from my friends

Professor of African-American literature Tracy Butts believes she’s seen an evolution in the attitudes of the student-athletes in her classes. 

“I’ve definitely seen a change in the way student-athletes in my class are emphasizing academics,” says Butts. “Generally speaking, they show up to class, they’re prepared, and they check in with you about how they are doing. I’ve even had student-athletes come to my office hours to check on their teammates to make sure they’re showing up to class and keeping up on their work. It’s refreshing to see the way they care for one another.”

For Sanchez, Anthony Costales played the role of caring teammate. Costales was one of the team’s older runners and would become one of Sanchez’s assistant coaches. 

“He was a huge help,” says Sanchez. “Having guys like Anthony who were in the same major and watching what they did was really important. I knew I had my work cut out for me. I saw how dedicated they were to their studies and the time they spent in the library. They helped me set goals, which has been one of the most important things to my success.”

That kind of peer-to-peer encouragement is becoming commonplace in the department.

“It’s important to our coaching staff that we approach academics with the same attitude we do our sport,” says Luke Barker, an exercise physiology major and Academic All-District pitcher on the baseball team who led the nation in saves last season. “It’s part of the culture on our team. If you’re not on board with the academic side of things, you aren’t on board with the team, and you’re not going to be a part of what we do moving forward.”

 Athletes also rely heavily upon their professors, who take the time to help them overcome the scheduling challenges that come with being a student-athlete. Volleyball player Lindsay Quigley attributed many of her academic successes to the help of Professor Randy Miller, the chair of the chemistry department. 

“He’s really gone above and beyond,” says Quigley. “His office is always open. Whenever I have a problem, he’s always there to help me.”

“I didn’t have a professor that I didn’t enjoy,” says Sims. “I was in and out of each one’s office hours. We talked about the class, but we also talked about life and my plans for after graduation. I still talk all the time with three of my professors: Jonathan Caudill, Michael Coyle, and Matthew Thomas. I also talk to Tray Robinson [director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion]. He’s always checking in and quick to respond if I text him. That’s just the community of Chico. We care about one another.” 

A special place

 The village is encouraging, and the village is motivating. But at the end of the day—and at the beginning and in the middle—it takes special student-athletes to put in the hard work.

“I see a group of young people who are really hardworking and committed,” says Professor Butts. “Being able to sustain that kind of focus despite being pulled in so many directions is truly impressive. I don’t know that we talk enough about how they balance their schedule and can be so committed to so many things. They are sacrificing some of their college experience to succeed in the classroom and as athletes, and that sacrifice is truly remarkable.”

“It’s definitely a lot more challenging than people realize,” says Quigley. “But you kind of get used to it. You get into a rhythm. You learn how to manage your time and multitask because you always have a lot of things going on at once.” 

The end result is something to behold.

“It’s all beginning to sink in,” says Sanchez, whose family came to Chico to see him graduate last summer. “All the hard work I’ve put in is starting to pay off. It’s definitely a great feeling. I owe so much to my coaches, teammates, and family. But also to my professors, the EOP program, and people all over campus who encouraged me along the way. Chico is a very special place, and I will always be grateful for my time here.”

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Division II Athletics: Life in the Balance

Jim Morgan, a professor in the Department of Management, is Chico State’s faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and CCAA. He’s constantly singing the praises of Chico State’s student-athletes and believes that the NCAA Division II model is an important piece to the puzzle. In 2010, Division II shortened athletics seasons to allow more balance in student-athletes’ lives.

“Our model, ‘Life in the Balance,’ connotes a balance between athletics and academics,” says Morgan. “We believe that student-athletes can have a terrific experience as athletes while having the opportunity to prosper academically. The administration and coaching staffs have championed this notion, and it’s really paying off.”

Morgan points to Chico State’s unique environment as well.

“The residential nature of this campus attracts faculty and staff who want to have relationships with students and engage them in their personal pursuits and challenges,” he explained. “They tend to see their jobs as so much more than just walking into a classroom and lecturing. They care about the whole person, which is what helps make this place so special.”

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Competitive Spirit on the Court and in the Classroom

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that double-majoring in chemistry and biochemistry with a minor in math has its challenges. Add the student-athlete element to the mix, and you have the life of two-time All-West Region volleyball player Lindsay Quigley. 

“I feel like my competitiveness gives me a leg up in the classroom,” says the senior three-time All-Conference middle hitter. “I’m just as competitive in class as I am on the court. I don’t like to do poorly in anything.”

She rarely does. Quigley earned Capital One Academic All-District honors the past two seasons, and she’s a three-time CCAA All-Academic Award recipient. She set the program’s single-season and career hitting-percentage records and surpassed 1,000 kills this year. She is sure to take this competitive drive into grad school to prepare for a career in chemical engineering or physical chemistry.

About the author

Luke Reid (BA, History, ’04; MA, Kinesiology, ’09) is the sports information director at Chico State.