Freshmen athletes: Will they stay or will they go?

Ryan McAnany, Contributing Writer

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Andrew Ciancone is just one of the many talented freshman athletes making headlines. Is a cultural shift towards school spirit and athletics the key to increasing UD retention rates? University of Dallas Photo.

Twenty-four percent of freshmen in the class of 2019 are participating in an NCAA sport during this academic year. That means that nearly 1 in 4 of those baby-faced kids you see walking aimlessly around campus have begun a serious commitment that will take plenty of time, energy and will-power to complete. This high percentage of athletes is the highest ever, and it necessarily begs the question: what does it all mean?

Our athletics department has never been something to boast about, and although we have made a recent turnaround in terms of overall quality, we are still not exactly the cream of the crop. As an athlete here at the University of Dallas, I value sports. Yes, I know I am biased because I have played sports all my life, but I do think that there is reason to believe that sports have an extremely beneficial effect on both intellectual and spiritual life as a whole.

But there are those who have their doubts, and reasonably so. Many students here question what kind of culture may develop with an increased emphasis on sports. Athletics might be seen as a short term distraction to the long term intellectual and spiritual goals of the future. Yet, with a 5 percent increase in the percentage of freshmen athletes over the last three years, it seems as though the administration may think differently. Recruiting coordinator and men’s basketball volunteer assistant coach Matt Grahn was kind enough to inform me of the exact numbers.

“I attribute that increase to two things: the coaching staff and the administration,” Grahn said. “We now have a phenomenal group of coaches who are hard working and dedicated to improving their respective programs. All of them are invested and passionate about recruiting.”

In addition to better coaching, it seems as though the administration has also jumped on board with the idea of increasing efforts to improve our sports program.

“President [Thomas] Keefe and Dr. [John] Plotts have poured their support into our department,” Grahn said. “They truly see the value that athletics provide our student athletes and the pride our programs provide the general campus community.”

Pride is important, but we should also take a moment to realize the added value that sports bring to a small, Catholic, liberal arts school like UD. Sports foster added perspective; they help bring the individual outside of his or her own world and into the world of a team. Working together toward a common goal forces the individual to place his own needs after the needs of the team, a virtue that is extremely useful in today’s world.

While the administration may recognize these positive effects, another question remains unanswered and may continue to remain unclear for several years to come: does UD have the culture necessary to foster commitment to sports? And will this group of freshmen have the commitment necessary to stick around with their respective sports for all four years?

There are examples from the past that portray very negative results. In the fall semester of 2012, Gregory Hall was filled with baseball players (yes, youngsters, it was a boys dorm once). By the time junior year rolled around only two or three of those players remained, with everyone else either having quit or transferred out. And baseball is by no means the only example. Every sport here at UD endures through ups and downs, with new people coming and old people leaving. It is stressful, especially for a coach.

It is my hope that this trend is changing, and news like the kind Grahn is giving us provides reason for that hope. It seems as though the administration is beginning to recognize the benefits of team sports. New sports clubs, such as Tennis and Swim, are forming more regularly and are even beginning to make efforts to be recognized as official sports. Funding from the administration is beginning to find its way into the hands of sports-related promotional clubs, such as Blue Crew, demonstrating the fact that even non-athletes are starting to take more interest in their classmates’ performances.

This simple statistic — this 24 percent — can be seen as more than just a statistic. It represents a trend, a trend that many people will worry about, but which I believe illustrates an active effort to demonstrate the beneficial effects that sports can have at a small, liberal arts, Catholic school.

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