How a tiny college makes sports stars out of its athletes

WASHINGTON — Serving two dozen plates of pasta at a picnic complete with an ice chest of Raisin Bran, standing in line for a Nike photoshoot and getting spied by a coach at a…

How a tiny college makes sports stars out of its athletes

WASHINGTON — Serving two dozen plates of pasta at a picnic complete with an ice chest of Raisin Bran, standing in line for a Nike photoshoot and getting spied by a coach at a volleyball game may not sound like the kind of college experience more modern undergraduates expect. But at the College of William and Mary, those in the upper-level classes know they’re in for a treat.

College of William and Mary is home to one of three student-athletes-in-residence programs, each of which has a different purpose. At this time of year, for example, said this year’s BA student-athlete host is quarterback Nic Shimonek, who had a prolific senior season. His duties include giving out welcome drinks and hosting alumni activities and tailgates at home games, but he’s also joined William and Mary’s Green Falcons football team and, on Tuesday night, the Tribe faced off against James Madison at Bill Dee Stadium.

“It’s a very unique and unique place,” Shimonek said. “You come home and you get that alumni bond that you don’t get at other universities, where they all kind of know each other. You get to have more than 50 or 60 alumni you don’t know at other universities. You’re also very, very supported in an environment where, if you’re out of place, you get it taken care of. The support staff does it, they welcome you, they welcome me. They make sure everything’s OK.”

When it comes to athletes in residence programs, many have the experience of living with upperclassmen in the freshman dorms or living at home as a “second choice,” but it’s often in a more intimate setting.

“I don’t have 20 people sitting around a table,” said Matt Gjertsen, the Army captain who leads the basketball team’s student-athlete residence program. “We do smallness, but with a very intense support network.”

The AKIN program gives members of the football team a four- to six-month stay on campus, through which they have many responsibilities that range from hosting team dinners to working out with other athletes. The best part, perhaps, is learning from older athletes on campus, like senior captain Sean Elliott.

“[Being in residence] has allowed us to watch each other grow and improve as student-athletes,” Elliott said. “We’ve all had a similar path, and because we’ve all gone through the same academic and athletic challenges as our peers, we can all look at each other and say, ‘Hey, this is what I did wrong.’ ”

Gjertsen’s experience was much the same.

“In the spring and in the summer, we hang out with some of the student athletes, and it was neat to watch them develop from being no-name freshmen into someone you recognized,” he said. “We get to hang out with them, we get to coach them, we get to play with them. That’s a pretty awesome experience.”

It’s one that’s catching on at other institutions, too.

“At William and Mary, they have a program called the Explorers,” said Army football coach Jeff Monken. “So we have a majority of sophomores here, and they rotate the program. They’re all former student-athletes and student-runners from off the roster. They all, in the end, graduate, but they’re in residence and they have a very, very, very wide circle of friends — a way in which we’re enhancing the student life here.”

William and Mary athletic director Eric Lamb is preparing his first season for the program. From 30 students last season, this year he expects 150 to 250 — down from some of the upperclassmen who filled it in years past.

“Most of the student-athletes who have been in the program in the past I’ve never met,” Lamb said. “I don’t think it’s a show, I think it’s just one of those things that makes it more like a bigger university. I think it’s important for our student-athletes to get involved in those activities that are important for them.”

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