By the time Jordan Johnson graduated from high school, she had been playing soccer for 13 years and competing in the sport for at least seven. She was burned out and had no intention of playing at the college level. That was until she visited The University of Texas at Tyler and met head women’s soccer Coach Stefani Webb.
Coach Webb’s desire to not only improve her players’ athletic ability, but also build their character is something that appealed to Ms. Johnson.
“When I came here, she’s like our mom away from home …” she said. “She said one of her big things is she wants to make better women.”
Ms. Johnson, 21, of Universal City, decided to come to UT Tyler and play soccer. The senior biology major, who was named Third Team All-Region last school year, launched her last year of undergraduate work this week. She is in the last stretch of a four-year university experience that has pushed her in the classroom and on the field, but it’s a challenge she appreciates.
Ms. Johnson is among more than 300 student-athletes on the campus. Although these students don’t get the athletic scholarship money or the prestige of their counterparts at Division II and Division I campuses, Division III allows them the opportunity to continuing competing in a sport they love while prepare for a career in another field.
Division III is the largest NCAA division with more than 170,000 student-athletes at 444 institutions, according to the NCAA website.
It is a division in which academics is the primary focus for its student-athletes.
The division is designed to reduce the conflicts between athletics and academics by having shorter practices and playing seasons and regional competition.
Student-athletes in this division are a part of the campus and treated like all of the other students so their focus can remain on being a student first.
Dr. Howard Patterson, UT Tyler’s vice president for student affairs and government relations, said the presence of student-athletes benefits the campus as a whole.
“I think it helps with diversity because you have a cross-section of students who have been in competitive sports their whole life,” he said, adding that intercollegiate athletics brings an excitement to the campus and helps students become more engaged.
Patterson said the division in which a university exists is somewhat of an institutional philosophy. At UT Tyler, officials believe athletics should complement the university’s mission. Because of that, UT Tyler coaches recruit academically sound students who also want to continue playing a competitive sport.
These students come to the university to get a marketable degree, but while they are here one of their dominant activities is their sport instead of intramurals or Greek life, he said.
Coach Webb, who also is an assistant athletic director, said when recruiting she considers the quality of the athlete, their academic standing and their character.
Although she wants her team to win and they always have been at the top of their conference, her goals for her student-athletes go beyond that.
“For me, I work really hard to try (to) create strong women in our program,” she said.
Head softball coach Mike Reed, who is also an assistant athletic director, said beyond improving his team members’ athletic abilities, he aims to teach life lessons through the sport.
He considers the softball field another classroom and his job is to help them transition from high school seniors to someone who is willing and able to function in a career.
FINDING THE BALANCE
This dual focus of academics and athletics is something that appeals to many student-athletes, but it is not an easy road.
“It’s definitely been tough,” Ms. Johnson said. As a biology major, all of her science classes had a lab, which often fell in the middle of the team practice.
So Ms. Jordan went to lab, arrived at practice late with the blessing of her coach, and stayed late to make up whatever she missed at the beginning of practice.
A typical day last semester was packed with a 6:30 a.m. wakeup, class from 8 a.m. to noon, a three- to four-hour lab in the afternoon, and practice for two hours in the evening.
After that, it was home to have dinner, shower, study and go to bed. A midnight bedtime was considered an early night. But the challenge has been worth it for her. She said she plays on a team with girls who become like family and she has prepared herself academically with hopes of getting into medical school.
She also made time to participate in volunteer activities in the community such as feeding the homeless on Saturdays and serving as a leader through the Student Athlete Advisory Committee.
Billy Lirely, 22, a 2014 UT Tyler graduate who earned an accounting degree and played baseball while doing it, also has learned about hard work and sacrifice.
Lirely practiced four to six hours a day on top of taking classes and working as a teaching assistant in the College of Business and Technology.
He said the sport taught him about determination, hard work, commitment, integrity, teamwork and friendship.
“If you’re determined enough to want to be on the field, you have to do what’s required in the classroom,” he said. “It takes another level of effort and determination that some people just don’t have.”
Lirely’s determination paid off as he graduated with a 4.0 GPA and was accepted to the professional accounting program at UT Austin’s McCombs Business School.
“I think sometimes, student-athletes are looked at as things are given to them, and I don’t think people realize how much student-athletes work for the things they receive at least at our level,” he said.
Recent UT Tyler graduate Lauren Robenalt, 22, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in human resource development, said playing softball while in college challenged her and developed her.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “It really was. I’m a different person because of it for sure.”
She found great success on the field. Last school year, she was named First Team All-American, First Team All-Region, American Southwest Conference Athlete Medal of Honor and American Southwest Conference Female Athlete of the Year.
She said being a student-athlete helped her develop time management skills, leadership and the ability to effectively work together.
“I feel like team sports really do that for a person,” she said. “I really did not expect to have the career that I did when I started my freshman year. I learned what my capabilities were, what my limits (were) and who I could count on, too.”
She said she really appreciated that softball wasn’t her entire life. She could play competitively, be a student and serve in a leadership role at her church.
“I just wish people knew more about Division III athletics and schools like UT Tyler where it’s not the biggest and we don’t have football, but there are great opportunities to grow as (an) individual,” she said.