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Community college athletics no longer warm-up acts for bigger stage
Published Wednesday, July 9, 2014
by Christina Sturdivant, AP

While traditional college sports fans gravitate to the courts and fields of four-year institutions, a robust world of sports-driven enthusiasm can be found on the campuses of junior colleges across the country.

For decades, junior college sports teams have been characterized as housing student-athletes who lack blue chip status because of academic or athletic deficiencies. More recently, though, the stigma is changing and smaller institutions have become nurturing environments for greater opportunities.

“Over the past five to 10 years, we have really emphasized initiatives which provide a better collegiate feel for our two-year college athletes,” said Mary Ellen Leicht, executive director of the National Junior College Athletic Association, which oversees and regulates eligibility requirements for more than 58,000 student-athletes at over 500 junior and community colleges in the United States. “We no longer are the place student-athletes go because they aren’t good enough in the classroom or on the field of competition.”

Due to advancements and affordability of technology, the NJCAA has been able to use its website and digital TV platforms as integral tools in highlighting the successes of community college student-athletes.

To name a few, Shawn Marion played basketball at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Indiana, and went on to become a four-time NBA All-Star and 2011 NBA champion on the Dallas Mavericks; Cam Newton played football at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, and went on to become the 2011 Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year as a member of the Carolina Panthers; and Danielle Adams played basketball at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Missouri, and went on to become a member of the WNBA’s 2011 All-Rookie team as a San Antonio Silver Star.

A recent nationwide acknowledgement of community colleges and its role in providing quality education and career preparation has presented Leicht with the opportunity to promote member colleges on a larger scale through championship events, awards and media publicity.

In Athens, Texas, a culture of prestige has developed around the Trinity Valley women’s basketball team, who finished the 2013-14 season with a record of 36-1.

“Our Lady Cardinals have probably been the premier program on campus for years, and it’s because of the legacy that Kurt Budke [head coach from 1993 to 2000] started,” said Elena Lovato, who has spent the last three years as head coach. “We’ve won eight national titles now.

We definitely draw great crowds and have a lot of support behind us because we’re expected to win championships every year.”

Lovato notes that one vital source of support comes from the college administration, which provides financial support by awarding 12 full scholarships to Lady Cardinal members each year.

Even Division I qualifying athletes have decided to hone their skills on Trinity’s court.

“We tend to get some Division I transfers who go to a school and don’t necessarily enjoy it, or don’t like the coaching style or don’t get much playing time so they come to us in order to open up their recruitment and be on the radar for Division I opportunities again,” Lovato said.

A sophomore at Trinity Valley, Sylvia Smith-Gatson chose to play for the Lady Cardinals because of the coaching staff and for the opportunities on a team that sends 100 percent of its players to Division I schools. With her eyes set on Lincoln and Nebraska universities, Smith-Gatson has long-term goals of teaching a game she’s been playing since she was 9 years old.

“I just love the game, so I want to be a coach,” the Omaha, Nebraska, native said.




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