As Men’s Head Basketball Coach Clay Nunley walked out onto the court at the Salem Civic Center last spring, his thoughts were focused on how to help his team members take home the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) men’s basketball championship title.
The young men who joined Nunley on the floor that afternoon had helped build a new basketball program—and a legacy. And for the four seniors, that history-making moment at the ODAC championships was the culmination of a college career like no other.
The WildCats did not win the game that night, but Nunley knew success for this team could not be measured by titles or trophies. While his players focused on refining their basketball skills, Nunley had been building leaders.
“One of the things that was noticeable to me with these seniors was how much their leadership had evolved,” said Nunley, who was named the 2011 ODAC Coach of the Year. “Learning how to operate as a team, how to blend all these personalities, how to invest yourself into something bigger than you, they are all things athletics teaches you. I give credit to these students. They embraced that.”
Like many of the student-athletes at Randolph College, Nunley’s players had helped build an athletic program from the ground up, a process that provided them with invaluable experience beginning their first year.
Caleb Pearson ’11 remembered how difficult it was to step onto a team with no older students to serve as mentors. “We were undersized, not as athletic, and younger than the other teams,” he said. “It made you grow up faster. Coach Nunley didn’t treat you as a sophomore or a first-year. He treated you like a senior captain. He never accepted that we were young and were not supposed to be winning. We knew we had to outwork everyone. That kind of mentality drove us. And that’s the type of thing we’ll use every day in the real world.”
Nunley, like the other members of Randolph’s coaching staff, considers it his responsibility to prepare his players for more than NCAA Division III competition.
“Athletics transcends life in so many ways,” Nunley said, “whether it is ideals like commitment, sacrifice, giving to something bigger than yourself, perseverance, or learning to operate as a team. All of those things will come into play when you are a spouse, an employee, an employer, or a friend.”
Learning those life skills helped push his team to success on the court and will do the same for them later in life, Nunley added. “This isn’t just a matter of showing up and having a good time,” he said. “This is about adhering to a set of standards day in and day out. It’s about knowing that being on top of your game every other day is not enough. If you really want to do special things, you have to understand the importance of knowing how to lead yourself and others.”
That same work ethic also helped Randolph’s softball team make it to the ODAC championship finals last season—despite the fact that the team had no seniors and only one junior, Gina Pagano ’12. “Softball teaches you to talk to people who may be different than you and work things out,” she said. “They are your team. They are a part of your life.”
Her coach, Caroline Cubbage, said the challenging situations faced by young teams only help later. “They have to take the reins now,” she said. “Sometimes, they step up to the plate and hit it. Other times they fall short. It’s a learning experience. But by the time they are juniors and seniors, they won’t bat an eye.”
As NCAA Division III athletes, Randolph’s students do not receive athletic scholarship money, and most will not go on to play professional sports. They play because they love the game.
“That’s the uniqueness of Division III,” said Brad Bankston, commissioner for the ODAC. “They are challenged not only to have a rigorous academic experience, but to also be responsible to the team, to the coaching staff, and to themselves to improve in their sport. They are able to excel academically and athletically, but also have the time to engage in other activities on campus. These are the types of kids you aren’t going to hold back.”
Callie Jones ’13 is a prime example. A soccer and lacrosse player, Jones balances an academic load that includes the time-consuming American Culture program. She credits her coaches for giving her the motivation to succeed academically.
“Sometimes I think there is no way I’m going to get all my classwork done,” Jones said. “But then I hear my coach’s voice in my ear, and I remind myself that I didn’t think I could run faster either, but I did. I know I can push harder.”
That is the attitude Women’s Head Lacrosse Coach Alexis Wagner wants all of her players to adopt. “They are a crucial piece of a bigger picture,” she said. “They learn patience, they gain a mental toughness, and they increase their confidence.”
In its second year, Wagner’s team is still young, and she relies on sophomores like Jones for leadership.
“It made me step out of my comfort zone, and later I saw myself starting to take on other leadership roles and to have more of a voice in the classroom,” Jones said.
Randolph’s student-athletes use those leadership skills in other areas of their lives.
“It becomes a natural progression,” said Kevin Porterfield, the women’s soccer coach. “This is another laboratory for them. We always talk about learning outside of the classroom. This is just that—hands-on experience. These kids often don’t realize how much potential they have. Sports can sometimes pull those traits out of them.”
Coaches stress the importance of applying that same work ethic to schoolwork and say their athletes often perform their best academically while in season.
“They are driven, hard working, and determined to succeed,” said Cat Phillips, the head cross country coach. “Participating in a sports program helps them learn to budget their time, find healthy ways to burn off stress, and improves their self-esteem.”
And academics always come first.
“We hold them accountable on all fronts,” said Bryan Waggoner, the men’s head soccer coach. “We teach them that integrity is about being a good person in all aspects of your life. The fact that Randolph is selective and has a good academic profile keeps our student-athletes focused.”
The time management required of student-athletes offers important lessons—whether they are first-years or veteran players. Ryan Blackwell ’13 has used the skills he has learned on the lacrosse field in his position as manager of the campus radio station.
“The school’s motto, Vita abundantior, applies to what a lot of students, including athletes, are doing,” he said. “I like working on a lot of different things, and this college helps me do that. My coach helps me do that. These experiences help drive me to my full potential. That is only going to help me later.”
For many of the seniors who graduated in May, the end of their seasons was bittersweet as they bid farewell to teammates and coaches they considered family. But the lessons they learned and the legacies they built will carry on.
“They really put this on their shoulders and said, ‘This is ours. We built this. We own this,’” said Waggoner, whose team went from winning just two games during its first season to placing fourth in the ODAC in 2010–11. “They stayed their course, they got a great education, and they became better because of all of it. They have really set an example for the younger players.”