Kent State Athletes are Students First

Sophomore volleyball player Kelsey Bittinger was focused on impressing college recruiters in high school so she could continue in the sport.

Now an accomplished outside hitter, Bittinger strives to standout to employers with her 4.0 GPA in applied physics as an honors student. 

“I am so focused on getting a good job and a good career,” Bittinger said. “Volleyball is just kind of my passion right now. School is the future. It’s really tough to juggle volleyball and all this stuff that needs my attention.”

Bittinger (no. 17) celebrates during a volleyball match.

Dedicated students like Bittinger have contributed to the Kent State volleyball team’s academic progress rate (APR), earning it an NCAA Public Recognition Award.

Division I athletes add to a team’s APR by making grades, being eligible for the next season and staying in school.

Kent State baseball, gymnastics, women’s cross country and women’s golf were recognized, too—each team having earned an APR in the ninetieth percentile. No other Mid-American Conference school saw this many teams recognized for academic success.

The Kent State gymnastics team earned 1,000 points—the highest possible APR—for the second year in a row. Coach Brice Biggin attributes the team’s success to time management and prioritizing school.

“At our first team meeting, we discuss what the roll of a student athlete is,” Biggin said. “It’s really being a student first and an athlete second because none of these kids are going to become professional gymnasts. What’s important is what they do with themselves academically while they’re here. We take our gymnastics very seriously, but we understand that that’s just a small part of what they’re going to do.”

Junior gymnast Skyelee Lamano engages the crowd on the floor exercise. Photo by Sam Karam

Junior gymnast Milena Fabry holds a 3.977 GPA in pre-medicine. She and junior Skyelee Lamano, a marketing major, were named MAC Distinguished Scholar Athletes for the 2015-2016 gymnastics season.

Fabry said being a student athlete is a commitment, but she learned to balance her time in high school.

“I went to school for eight hours a day,” Fabry said, “and then I went to club gymnastics for four hours. I only had from 8 p.m. until I went to bed to get my work done. I learned really good time management skills.”

Fabry injured her back during her freshman year of high school and struggled to get a diagnosis. She found inspiration and answers to her back problems in Dr. Larry Nassar, team physician for the Michigan State University women’s gymnastics team.

“Dr. Nassar spent about five hours with me in the room trying to figure out what was wrong with me,” Fabry said. “The biggest thing I’ve taken away (from time with Dr. Nassar) is effort. Dr. Nassar makes sure 120% goes into every single appointment he takes, and I think that’s a really big part of being a doctor. He made me really interested in medicine and jumpstarted my desire to be in the medical field.”

Fabry, having also undergone two knee surgeries in high school, said she understands what it’s like to be out of competition. 

“It’s very frustrating as a gymnast to be out with an injury,” Fabry said, “for a year or even a couple months. The reason I would go into sports medicine is to help people make a quicker recovery so they can get back to sports.”

Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Academic Services (SAAS) Angie Hull said many student athletes enter the medical field because they have a lot of experience as patients. Even in challenging majors, Hull said it’s not unusual to see high APR rankings for gymnastics teams.

“(Gymnastics is) pretty much a perfectionist sport,” Hull said. “If you aren’t the best at every tiny little movement of your body, you’re not going to do well. A lot of them are perfectionists in the classroom, too. If they get a nine out of 10 on a quiz, they will go back and retake it. They’re not satisfied unless they have an A in the class.”

Junior gymnast Jordan Hardison sticks a landing on the floor exercise. Photo by Sam Karam

Golf is a two season sport spent partly on the road, yet four MAC women’s golf teams received NCAA Public Recognition Awards. Assistant women’s golf coach Maddi Swaney said the Kent State golfers take pride in their school work.

“Golfers in general have a pretty high standard on their academics,” Swaney said. “It’s a very individualized sport, so they take ownership of their academics without needing a lot of guidance from other people.”

Women’s cross country, another individualized sport, was also honored for its scholarship. Coach Mark Croghan said this “is evidence of the success of the entire athletic department.”

SAAS offers individualized tutoring with extended hours to meet the needs of student athletes. Academic advisors are assigned to each team to ensure that student athletes are completing their required number of study hours or achieving their academic goals. Advisors also work closely with professors, coaches and student athletes to coordinate class times with practice, meets and travel.

Academic advisors also monitor student athletes’ grades to verify that they meet or exceed a 2.0 GPA, which the NCAA requires for eligibility and retention. The Kent State teams hold a combined 3.24 cumulative GPA.

Croghan said every student athlete faces a unique challenge, distance runners included. 

“We have cross country in the fall,” Croghan said. “We have indoor track in the winter, and we have outdoor track in the spring. The cross girls are pretty much competing year-round. They really don’t have an offseason. To be able to train and get it done athletically as well as academically is a great accomplishment.”

With series on the weekends and mid-week games, baseball coach Jeff Duncan said his players need to be focused and get their work done on their days off.

“Monday is a big day class-wise because that’s our off day,” Duncan said. “We just try to make sure that they’re all in class and do a heavy load Monday through Thursday basically, so they’re not missing any class Friday.”

Photo by Sam Karam

Bittinger said the volleyball team plays most Fridays and Saturdays, so Sundays are for catching up on work and rest.

“Getting through the week is pretty easy,” Bittinger said. “You have your set schedule and stuff. You always miss Fridays in season, so that’s pretty rough. Sunday is the best day ever. It goes by too quick. You have to get so much done during that short amount of time, so you basically just need to focus on Sunday to get work done.”

Volleyball coach Don Gromala said managing stress is part of the game of volleyball.

“In volleyball, as things get tougher, the game gets faster and things get more athletic and physical,” Gromala said. “(Bittinger has) a lot of pressure on her, but I think she handles it really well. Kelsey took a very demanding major. She’s also one of the best outside hitters in the conference as a sophomore. She’s just determined to be the best at what she does.”

Even with determination, Bittinger said sometimes work piles up and Sundays aren’t enough to get ahead. In those instances, Bittinger turns to her team.

“I think every student athlete has (reached a breaking point),” Bittinger said, “every student, probably. But I have support. I have my whole team. They’ll understand even if they’re not in the same major. It’s really nice to have a bunch of different support systems.”