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More Than An Athlete

Athletes Ryan Strufing and Marina Shelton study at the Bickerstaff Center.

By Kenneth Swisher

At Long Beach State, the concept of the student-athlete is firmly entrenched as the 49ers excel academically, in sports, through campus activities and community service.

Just ask Ryan Strufing, a sophomore criminology major and baseball pitcher.

“Being a student-athlete at Long Beach State has proved to be a growing experience,” he said. “It has come with the challenges of balancing school work; athletics, such as practices and traveling; and then dealing with things that everyday life will throw at you. In my experience, I have had to make sure that I remember that I am a student-athlete, and not an athlete-student, meaning that the student part always has to come first and has priority.”

But he’s not left to fend alone. “I have everything I need around me to be successful, whether it’s coaches, professors, teammates or my counselors. They all are supportive, and when everything is right in front of you and you can just take it, there is no greater feeling to know that what I am doing will lead to success. The key is always to remember that student comes before athlete for a reason.”

The Long Beach State athletic program again won the Big West Conference Commissioner’s Cup in 2011-12, demonstrating overall excellence for the third time in the past four years. And, when the NCAA announced its academic performance rates (APR) for 2007-08 through 2010-11, Long Beach State exceeded the minimum score of 930 in all 18 sports for the sixth straight year.

“This student-athlete experience helps prepare them for life,” said Athletic Director Vic Cegles. “It’s a year-round commitment, not just for one season. We set the bar high here and we have great coaches who believe in academic achievement. The student-athlete experience is as valuable as you can have,” toward achieving dreams and understanding teamwork. “The president, the coaches and I have high expectations and hold people accountable. If you don’t go to class, you don’t play.” Athletes also are expected to take part in community service activities, representing the campus.

“It’s your job to make sure they succeed academically and to get the most they can out of the college experience. We want to make sure you don’t squash their dreams but always have a backup plan.

—Dan Monson, basketball coach

Coaches and others credit much of that success to the Bickerstaff Academic Center (BAC) for Student-Athletes, which provides advising to ensure that student-athletes are enrolled in appropriate courses for their degree while main­taining athletic eligibility. The BAC is geared to maximize chances for classroom success by integrating academic, student and athletic assistance.

Under director Gayle Fenton, the BAC is staffed with academic counselors who are assigned to assist specified teams and are available throughout the calendar year.

The NCAA developed the APR, which covers four-year periods and is determined by using eligibility and retention for each student-athlete on scholarship during a particular academic year, to measure academic performance of athletic programs. Recently, Long Beach State led the Big West Conference in men’s basketball, men’s cross country and softball, and in men’s volleyball for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. Its teams also ranked in the top three in six of the 14 Big West sports.

Eleven of the 18 teams improved or matched its score from last year. Softball showed the biggest improvement, increasing its score by 20 points, and women’s basketball scored a 983 after scoring a perfect 1,000 last year. Every Long Beach State team scored at least 942, six points higher than last year, with the men’s cross country and men’s volleyball teams receiving perfect scores of 1,000.
CSULB requires mandatory advising for student-athletes, so coaches, advisers and students meet regularly. She noted that the BAC  is one of a handful of student-athlete academic centers that report to academic affairs rather than athletics or student services.

According to Dan Monson, men’s basketball coach, “It’s your job to make sure they succeed academically and to get the most they can out of the college experience. We want to make sure you don’t squash their dreams but always have a backup plan. Even if they get a career as a player, that’s only half their life. We want to help them from age 40 to 80, too, when they have a wife and kids they don’t even know yet,” he said. “I always promise their parents, ‘You send me a young man and I will give them a grown man ready for life.’”

Fenton said people don’t see all the work the student-athletes put in—watching videos, constant training and practice, the traveling and the responsibility of representing the university nationally.

“We do counseling that goes beyond academics—financially, personally and medically. We have to look at it holis­tically. We have great respect for what they are doing. Many of these student-athletes are truly brilliant,” she commented. “Each student-athlete has to be seen as an individual. Each student is at a different place and a different major with a different path. It’s understanding their navigation plan. We give them individualized one-on-one counseling.”

According to Sandra Shirley, associate director of student-athlete services and a Long Beach State Hall of Fame softball player, “There is mutual respect with the coaches. They listen to advisers. They act immediately when necessary and take it very seriously. There was a good relationship before the APR, but that strengthened it. Students sometimes lack a sense of reality in what they need to take. For example, I had a student who said he was neither good at nor liked math. When asked his choice of major—business.”

She said they also look at student-athletes’ overall schedules and sometimes suggest students consider another major if, for example, they’re in a difficult major and still work 20 hours a week.

“The support here is the best I’ve ever seen,” Monson said. “I give a lot of credit to the BAC. Every basketball player has graduated. There is a vision here from the president to the BAC to the AD to the coaches. I tell every recruit that, and the parents need to hear that. We don’t recruit students who believe society has put them on a pedestal. We want not just to make them a better ball player but a better person. We win and lose as a team on the court and in the classroom,” adding that one player’s actions can affect the image of the whole team.

Strufing agrees in the blend of personal and collective responsibility: “There is so much support that all of the athletes get that it really does make things difficult to fall behind, but a lot of it does fall back onto the student-athlete. There is a sense of trust that was put into me to come to school here, and I strive to keep earning that trust so that if and when I make mistakes, the people in charge can trust that I will fix it and work to be where I need to be, whether that is the coaches, the Bickerstaff Center or even my parents. They expect things from me, and that makes it that much more difficult to slide by with the bare minimum.”

According to Cegles, it’s a philosophy. “If someone is not doing the right thing, you help them. The whole thing here is about family.”