The Character of Athletics at WPI

The Character of Athletics at WPI


WPI Basketball Head Coach Chris Bartley has a little code that summarizes what he expects of his team. He calls it the “ABC’s for Success at WPI” and it’s all about embracing life with passion. “A” stands for academics. “B” is for basketball. And “C” is about commitment to your community.

One morning last winter, just before Christmas, the team was rigorously adhering to “B.” The season was still young, but another NCAA Division III tournament appearance seemed within reach. In little more than a month the team had shown what it was made of, losing just one game while posting nine wins, including a hard-earned double overtime tilt with Gwynedd-Mercy in the Regis Tournament.

Good teams don’t think about the last game, though, or the tournament two months down the road. They concentrate on the here and now. So that morning Bartley’s guys were in the weight room. That’s where they got the news.

There is a meditative quality to the repetitive nature of fitness training. Grinding out the laps, the sprints, the lifts, the steady one-foot-after-the-other pace of the long distance run can be good not only for the body, but for the spirit as well. Somewhere in the rhythm of the reps you find your center. You achieve balance.

But after the team learned about Mary Chatfield, no one felt like lifting anymore. It was like the light had suddenly drained out of the day.

Bartley himself delivered the news. A lot of tasks fall upon the shoulders of collegiate coaches, but nothing prepares you for this. Mary Chatfield, who coordinated the Big Brothers Big Sisters Program at Worcester's Elm Park School, where all the members of the team serve as mentors to a group of young boys every week, had slipped away during the night. She was just 54 years old.

"The guys were devastated when I told them," Bartley remembers. "Ms. Chatfield was a powerful role model for them. She had a terrific way with kids—firm, but fair. She had great strength."

All of the players knew what they had to do. They had to show great strength, too. They had to be there for their "little brothers," many of whom do not have a real big brother or a dad to be there for them when the light suddenly drains out of the day. They had to be there for Chatfield, whose wake they attended and at whose funeral they served as ushers. And they had to be there for each other, their community.

The Best Role Model You Can Be

Bartley, now in his ninth year at WPI, reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters seven years ago, joining the organization’s board and recruiting his players as volunteers. There were 15 WPI Big Brother matches that year. Today, while every member of Bartley’s team still serves as a Big Brother, involvement in the program has spread well beyond athletics, and there are nearly 200 WPI Big Brother and Big Sister matches.

“A major part of the WPI mission is to take what you learn and use it to make the world a better place,” Bartley says. “Participation in Big Brothers Big Sisters helps us instill in our student-athletes a willingness and desire to be servants in the community. All of our student-athletes understand that they are very fortunate to be here. This program is a way for them to give something back to others who are less fortunate. At the same time, it helps the athletes mature.”

Ask David Brown, a junior guard from Lowell, Mass., who comes from a background not unlike many of the kids served by Big Brothers Big Sisters. Brown met his “little brother,” Juan Garcia, when he was a freshman. They’ve built a tight bond in three years. “These kids really look up to us,” says Brown. “It’s important for them to see older guys who are succeeding as college students. When you realize what an influence you can have on a little kid, it makes you want to be the best role model you can be.”

A Structure for Success

“A big part of our success is attracting the best young student-athletes we can find,” Bartley says. “We put a high emphasis on character.” At WPI, those best young student-athletes must be able to cut it in the classroom, too. “A lot of people ask me how I could play two sports and handle the course load required to earn a degree in civil engineering,” says Mike Swanton ’10, who played varsity baseball and football during his four years at WPI. “I’m not so sure I would have made it without playing sports.” 

Sports helps provide the structure that is absolutely essential for students who must be effective time managers if they are going to succeed at WPI, says Kelly Johnson ’10,who knows a thing or two about time management. Another twosport student-athlete (field hockey and softball) she also served a term as president of SocComm, WPI’s social committee, and actively participated in Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

“You really need a structure at WPI,” says Johnson. “Sports provides that. It also gives you an instant group of friends, a team whose support, resources, and connections you can rely on.”

In fact, athletics and academics enjoy a symbiotic relationship at WPI. Head Women's Basketball Coach Cherise Galasso says sports offers students a way to be balanced and focused.

At the same time, she says, "our student-athletes succeed because they are well-rounded, high achievers. They have great time management skills and a strong work ethic. They like challenges and they are very competitive. They thrive on that."

All told, WPI's varsity programs succeed because the teams comprise students who are good at both academics and athletics, and who are deeply devoted to both, says Dana L. Harmon, director of physical education, recreation, and athletics.

"Our job is really to address 'the whole person,'" she says. "We help them work with others and develop self-confidence. They have a sense of responsibility about their academic work and they're accustomed to being on teams. They have an understanding of the sacrifices you sometimes have to make, the choices in life that are so important. These are remarkable young people and they do well."

So well, in fact, that WPI student-athlete GPAs are on par with, or higher than, the general student population, Harmon says. Student-athletes graduate in four years at a rate that's 6–10 percent higher than the overall student body. And that fact, which speaks to perseverance as much as intelligence, says a lot about the success of WPI's student-athletes.

"You have to have a certain skill set to be successful at both academics and athletics at a school like WPI," says Galasso, whose team boasted a collective 3.45 GPA while winning 20 of 25 regular season games last year. "You definitely can do both sports and academics, and do them well, but you have to stay focused and balanced. The student-athletes we recruit are accustomed to teamwork. They are actively involved in learning. And they tend to like having a routine."

Head Baseball Coach Mike Callahan thinks intelligent student-athletes bring an edge to the game. "Smart players play better," he says. "They understand the game better. They see it right away. But what's more important—the biggest thing— is they really want to get better. They want to fix problems."

Brian Savilonis '72, head men's and women's cross country coach, echoes that work ethic. "Many of my most effective student-athletes have been young people who never participated in athletics in high school," said Savilonis, the longest tenured active WPI coach. He recalls three alumnae— Athena Demetry '91, Maura (Collins) Pavao '91, and Chris (Mikloiche) Scott '90—who hadn't run in high school. "Here at WPI they became All-New England together," he says. "It is wonderful to see young people like these come here and find something special in athletics, something enduring that they can take with them when they leave."

Demand for Recreation

Since Harmon arrived on campus in 2002, WPI has continued to grow its athletic reputation and success. In 2009 the men’s basketball program returned to the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year. At the same time, the women’s basketball team won 20 games, a new school record, on its way to another ECAC New England championship, its second in three years. And the men’s baseball team competed in the NCAA championship for the first time in the program’s history.

The 2009–10 season also marked an important milestone: WPI had the greatest number of women participating in varsity athletics in school history. Still, athletics at WPI is not just about varsity sports. Fully 60 percent of students participate in intramural sports, Harmon says. And another 20 percent are engaged in club sports.

So great is the demand for recreational options that the Institute has just broken ground for the new Sports and Recreation Center. The 145,000-square-foot facility will include a modern 25-meter stretch swimming pool with spectator seating for 250; a 29,000-square-foot gymnasium that can accommodate indoor sports and help with large community events like admissions open houses and robotics competitions; an elevated, three-lane jogging track around the perimeter of the new gym; workout studios; and 14,000 square feet of fitness and cardio space.

“WPI’s beautiful campus and extensive facilities are critically important to its continuing success as a high-performance university, producing women and men well prepared for the rigors, opportunities, and challenges of 21st century life,” says WPI President Dennis Berkey.

Indeed, Chris Bartley sees firsthand the importance of sports and recreation for students. As basketball coach, his job extends beyond the court.

“We have a special privilege,” he says. “We get to play a role in shaping the lives of great young people during their four years of college. My job isn’t just about developing a winning team. What I love about coaching is working with student-athletes and helping them to be really successful— in all aspects of their lives.”

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Last modified: July 13, 2010 11:23:39