Student athletes represent the best of PLU
PLU baseball player Jared Simon maintains a 3.7 grade point average with a major in mathematics and a minor in economics. But balancing school and athletics isn’t always easy.
A starting infielder since his freshman year, Simon will graduate this spring. “The last couple of years I studied when I could,” he said. This year has been more difficult – he bought his first day planner – as he finishes up his academic program and plans for his wedding this summer.
Baseball coach Geoff Loomis “always says that academics come first,” Simon said. “For the seniors in the past and for me this year, we may have to take classes that are offered only during practice time. This year on Wednesday I’m going to miss half the practice because of class, which is kind of frustrating. But (Loomis) does emphasize the fact that (school is) the most important thing.
“You can tell he cares about how you’re doing in classes and not just about baseball,” he added.
That attitude is evident throughout the athletic department.
“Our department recruiting brochures state something that we really believe is true, that our student-athletes are among the best and brightest students on campus, and that we provide a balanced program that gives the student athlete an opportunity to do well in the classroom,” said Laurie Turner, director of athletics.
Last spring, Pacific Lutheran University placed 33 spring sports athletes on the Academic All-Northwest Conference team. In order to be eligible for the award, a student-athlete must have a grade point average of at least 3.50 and be on a team’s roster for the entire season.
One of those athletes, senior softball player Gretchen Ruecker ’06, earned first team Academic All-America honors from the College Sports Information Directors Association, only the third Pacific Lutheran student-athlete to achieve that status.
These accomplishments put in sharp focus the emphasis that Pacific Lutheran places on the “student” portion of being a student athlete. It is an emphasis that fits in well with the NCAA Division III philosophy, which states in part: “College and universities in Division III place highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience and on the successful completion of all students’ academic programs. They seek to establish and maintain an environment in which a student athlete’s athletic activities are conducted as an integral part of the student athlete’s educational experience.”
Prior to joining the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Pacific Lutheran was a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). PLU athletes had a long and distinguished record of academic success dating all the way back to 1978-79, when NAIA All-America Scholar-Athlete status was first awarded. That same year, men’s tennis player Dave Trageser was the first Lute to earn All-America status both on the tennis court and in the classroom.
It is now more difficult for Pacific Lutheran student-athletes to earn Academic All-Region and All-America status because they compete against student athletes at the NCAA Division I-AA, II, III and NAIA levels. Nonetheless, a focus on academics is of primary importance to the PLU athletic program.
“That’s why we are here,” Turner said. “Pacific Lutheran University is here to educate students. Athletics is a vital part of the co-curricular experience, but these are students first and athletes after that.”
Since PLU became an NCAA member institution, five Lute athletes have earned $5,000 NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships, the most recent being Andrea Wells in 2005. She is currently in the second year of a three-year program to earn her doctorate in physical therapy at Eastern Washington University. When she graduates, she will practice physical therapy and looks forward to interacting with patients.
Wells earned All-Northwest Conference first team honors three times while playing for the PLU softball team from 2002-05. Her academic success was every bit as impressive as her accomplishments on the softball field. “When I first looked at PLU I saw the combination of softball and a pre-physical therapy program that fit me perfectly,” recalled Wells.
She credits her advisor, Tony Evans, with helping her through the minefield of a heavy science load, classes necessary in her pursuit of a career in physical therapy. Her softball coach Rick Noren, emphasized “keeping up with your studies, because if you don’t you can’t do the athletic part of it,” she remembers. For Wells, that wasn’t a problem. “I was always going to do it no matter what, because that’s who I am.”
It is often just that kind of student that the Pacific Lutheran athletics coaches are looking for when they recruit, because they fit in well with the institution’s academic emphasis.
“When you recruit you do look at the player’s ability first,” said volleyball head coach Kevin Aoki ’84, who is in his 11th season at his alma mater. “But really quickly you find out her grade point average and her SAT score. If she can’t get into the school, you turn your attention to the athletes who can get accepted.”
Photo: Gretchen Ruecker ’06 was named to the Academic All-America team. She played first base on the softball team.