Thursday, February 9, 2023

Cardinals balance two sports, academics

By Collin Bolebruch

In high school, it’s common to see a student compete in multiple sports. About 43% of high school athletes are members of more than one team, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In college, balancing two sports  is another monster.

SUNY Plattsburgh has just a handful of two-sport athletes out of the hundreds of rostered players. Playing in two different sports seasons while taking college classes is a test not many are able to tackle.

Kathy Peterson-Ross is a first-year political science student at Plattsburgh from Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Peterson-Ross participated in both basketball and soccer in high school. When she was recruited to Plattsburgh, she was sought for her abilities on the court.

“I was just going to focus on basketball, and then it was just too hard to give up soccer,” Peterson-Ross said.

Peterson-Ross approached women’s basketball Head Coach Ben Sarraf with the idea of playing soccer. Sarraf reached out to women’s soccer Head Coach Whitney Frary with the proposition.

“The soccer coach came into contact with me and they said they’d give me a chance, so I took it,” Peterson-Ross said.

Sarraf has had a variety of two-sport athletes on his roster over the years. Last season, Payton Couture played both basketball and soccer, like Peterson-Ross. Sarraf said the “rule of thumb” is whichever season is currently being played takes priority.

Peterson-Ross said, at first, Frary didn’t want her to be playing both at the same time. She was allowed to only attend basketball practices in the morning and soccer practices at night.

“The strain on your body as a dual-sport athlete is huge,” Frary said. “I like to make sure that they take some time off or at least talk to their coach.”

Peterson-Ross found the time in which basketball and soccer overlapped to be difficult. She said the period was “tough” because of the basketball she was missing. 

Sarraf discussed Peterson-Ross’ involvement in basketball during the soccer season.

“Every time I spoke with Kathy [Peterson-Ross], it sounded like she was going to all of the pickup games,” Sarraf said. “On top of soccer practice, on top of travel from soccer and she was doing community service, too. She did a phenomenal job balancing both and the only way to do that is to make sacrifices in other places, it wasn’t academically either.”

He makes sure his players are on top of their grades. Sarraf holds weekly or bi-weekly meetings with players to discuss academics and mental health. Peterson-Ross credits him with being the “biggest support system at Plattsburgh.”

“This is about academics first. If your No. 1 priority is basketball, academics will inevitably suffer,” Sarraf said. “I don’t really want someone in my program that’s like, ‘I want basketball more than anything.’ Dude, no. You’re here to get an education, you’re paying for it, you better be going to class.”

She feels the two-sport experience at college is “a lot different” than in high school. Peterson-Ross said her schedule was more conventional in high school, and in college, practices are “squeezed in” between players’ schedules. She claims the workload between high school and college are similar.

Peterson-Ross said playing two sports is “really rewarding,”  emphasizing the “fresh start” when beginning a new season.

Kaitlyn Bjelko has been playing volleyball and throwing in track and field for the Cardinals for years. Unlike Peterson-Ross, Bjelko was foreign to her second sport. At Beekmantown High School, a 12-minute drive from SUNY Plattsburgh, Bjelko played volleyball, tennis and basketball.

Her volleyball teammate, Brianna Coon, was a thrower for the track and field team. Coon believed Bjelko had potential as a thrower and should join the team at practice. When her first volleyball season, 2018, came to a close, Bjelko found herself with a “need” for something more.

“I feel like it kind of came from boredom, because I’m so used to being busy every second of the day whether it’s homework or classes and then sports at the end of the day,” Bjelko said. “I was missing a piece of my day.”

Bjelko said her head coaches, volleyball’s Kelsea Healis and track and field’s Andrew Krug, through the years have been understanding of her commitment to other sports. Her allegiance to track and field prevented her from playing in last year’s volleyball spring season. She believes that it’s important to focus on the sport that is currently playing a season.

In opposition to Peterson-Ross, Bjelko believes being a two-sport athlete in college is “a lot more of a commitment” than it is in high school. She said early practices and watching film of games makes it important to take time to “do something that you enjoy.”

Bjelko said women’s volleyball Head Coach Kelsea Healis holds her accountable for procrastinating schoolwork. She told a story of an assignment she had to complete for midterms that she hadn’t started until the week before it was due.

“I was stressed to the max and I have weekly meetings with [Healis] and she was like, ‘You really should have done this throughout the first half of the semester instead of waiting,’” Bjelko said. “The second half of the semester, [Healis] said, ‘If you don’t get your assignments done in a timely manner,’ she was going to tell Krug to give me sprints.”

Healis recalled the story, emphasizing the significance of getting schoolwork done in a timely manner and how it “kind of” motivated Bjelko.

“She really was just unmotivated and I asked if me helping motivate her would help, or giving her a deadline,” Healis said. “I don’t know if we ever had her do [the sprints] or anything.”

Krug agrees with the importance of having a good academic standing. He believes the strongest athletes on the team are also some of the most dedicated academically.

“Their commitments, their priorities and how they get it done, I don’t think is a mistake,” Krug said. “I don’t think there’s anything unusual happening there. It’s because they know how to get it done and are willing to sacrifice other things to get it done.”

Plattsburgh athletic department’s academic coordinator Tom Thompson agrees with Krug. Thompson oversees student athletes’ grades, advising and eligibility. He has worked with his share of student athletes over his nine years in his role.

“I totally agree with that. The students that do that know they can excel at it,” Thompson said. “They know how to balance it. A lot of them did it in high school. Our athletic GPAs are generally higher than that average college GPA.”

Bjelko talked about a time in her junior year, during the outdoor track and field season and volleyball spring season, where she found herself struggling. Volleyball was practicing five days a week while she was also attending track and field practice.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Bjelko said. “[My coaches] ended up talking me through it. They were like, ‘You should just focus on the sport you’re competing in right now and take some time off from the other ones,’ which ended up being fine.”

Krug emphasized the importance of training, fitness and “mental batteries.” He agreed with other coaches that the sport currently running should take priority over others.

“We need to be smart about how we train, how our body recovers,” Krug said. “It certainly keeps the demand high on [the athletes], but we’re willing to work with other coaches and other programs to enhance what we can do as well as enhance what those student athletes do when they’re with their other sport.”

Thompson emphasized the dedication it takes to be a one-sport athlete on campus, let alone a two-sport athlete. He says it takes a “tremendous” amount of time-management skill and most athletes are “pretty structured,” crediting the “discipline” athletics requires.

“I think you’ll find most of the two-sport athletes really enjoy that structure,” Thompson said. “They thrive on that structure, they thrive on having that schedule, that built-in routine.”

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