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Sports Success

Carissa Risucci '13

Carissa Risucci '13

an all-American swimmer, was recruited by Division I schools before selecting Nazareth’s “total package.” In addition to her studies as a communication and rhetoric major, she’s involved with the Student Athlete Advisory Council.

Martie Staser

Martie Staser

head coach for men’s and women’s swimming and diving and assistant athletic director for student-athlete welfare, guiding swimmer Justin Sawran ’14, a mathematics and economics double major.

Tyshun Stephens '13

Tyshun Stephens '13

counseled by head basketball coach Kevin Broderick.

by Robin Flanigan

When she was in high school, Carissa Risucci ’13 was courted by numerous NCAA Division I and II colleges around the country who wanted the competitive swimmer to sign on as a recruit. But she passed on every offer—and the attractive scholarships they came with—to attend Nazareth College, a Division III school that provides no financial aid on the basis of athletic merit but did offer something the others couldn’t.

“Nazareth was the total package,” says Risucci, a communication and rhetoric major from Utica, N.Y., who started swimming competitively when she was eight years old.

It was a package no financial incentives elsewhere could match.

“I knew there was something bigger I wanted to get out of my college experience,” she explains. “I wanted to be an integral part of the team, not just another number. I told every coach I was recruiting with that I wanted to be as important to the team as the team is to me, and that’s exactly what I got here.”

Risucci, whose specialty is the breaststroke, has made her way to nationals every year since stepping onto campus, earning seven All-American honors. But her story spotlights more than the passion Nazareth’s student-athletes have for their sport. It also speaks to the importance the College places on enrolling athletes who will be a good fit both academically and socially. Risucci finished the spring semester with a 3.95 grade-point-average, has served as class vice president or president since her freshman year, and has been active in several campus organizations.

Nazareth has a broad athletics program that draws a diverse group of students—some 430 of them, nearly one-quarter of the school’s total enrollment—who, like Risucci, are well-rounded and bring with them much more than their eagerness to compete.

“There are so many quality high school athletes who can’t imagine their athletic career being over their senior year in high school,” says Kevin Broderick ’89, head coach for the men’s basketball team. “But being here is not just about the playing. Certainly we have to be recruiting students with a high level of athletic ability, but they’re also coming here to get a degree and to be a positive part of the campus, not just for the two hours a day they’re at practice.”


Growing a Strong Program

When Pete Bothner, director of athletics, took on the job in 1998, Nazareth had 13 intercollegiate varsity sports. With the addition of men’s hockey last fall, that number stands at 24.

Nazareth’s athletes are no strangers to national recognition. The men’s lacrosse team has taken part in six national championship games, winning the title three times in the 1990s and maintaining a consistent national ranking over the past two decades. Men’s volleyball won the national championship last year. And Nazareth has sent members of its women’s swimming team to nationals for eight consecutive years, bringing home a national champion—Emily Lesher ’08, a nine-time All-American who set a Division III record in the 400-yard individual medley—in 2007.

The athletics program experienced a growth spurt between 2000 and 2004 to include equestrian, women’s golf, softball, men’s and women’s cross-country, men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track, and men’s volleyball.

These days, the emphasis is on finding increasingly creative ways to recruit students from a wide variety of backgrounds and geographic areas, especially given that the number of high school students in New York State, a hotbed for Nazareth recruitment, will continue to decrease over the next several years.

“That means we’ve got to expand our net to attract kids from outside of what has been our traditional focus,” says Bothner, “which is about 150 miles outside of Nazareth.”

Nazareth’s recruiters are directing much of those efforts to prospective students who want to play lacrosse, hockey, and volleyball—sports that aren’t offered at colleges in all parts of the country.

Brian Wright ’13, a lacrosse midfielder and double major in biology and inclusive education, hails from Franklin Lakes, N.J. He first heard about Nazareth from an alumnus who was his older brother’s assistant lacrosse coach at the University of Massachusetts, then became seriously interested when Nazareth was recommended by the head coach at his high school. Two visits to campus later, after lacrosse head coach Rob Randall ’88 “reached out to me more than anyone else,” he’d made his decision.

“Coming from New Jersey, I didn’t know much about Nazareth,” he says. “But it really set itself apart from the other schools that were looking at me.”

The personal attention and support not only sealed the deal, they’ve deepened over the past three years.

“Coach Randall is the best around in my eyes,” says Wright, an All-Conference athlete. “He always tells us there’s more to life than lacrosse, that he’s sending us out as young men with values. He teaches us life lessons through lacrosse that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives. And whenever something happens in the face of adversity off the field, he’s there to help us. His door is always open.”


The Competitive Edge

Student athletes aren’t the only ones who find themselves in competition. Coaches are finding that the recruitment process becomes progressively more intense each year.

“It’s definitely gotten more competitive, no question about it,” says Randall, whose assistant coach Francis Donald ’07 was on the road for 20 straight days of recruitment throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic states this summer.

Lacrosse recruitment in particular has gotten more aggressive in Upstate New York, prompting more rigorous attempts to draw in out-of-state students. Of the 41 Nazareth lacrosse players last year, 18 were from other states, the largest number yet.

Joe Seil, sports information director and assistant director of athletics, says “the landscape has changed quite a bit” in recruitment since he came on board 26 years ago. No more perusing the newspaper for game scores and player statistics (that information gets posted instantaneously online) or needing to travel to watch a student compete (webcasts take care of that). Recruiters don’t even need to use the phone to contact prospective students anymore (they can text).

“We have to be aware of all the new media that’s out there, and all the ways high school students gather their information about where they want to go to college,” he notes.

In fact, Martie Staser, head coach for men’s and women’s swimming and diving and assistant athletic director for student-athlete welfare, does all of her initial recruiting online, given that a good performance in the water is based solely on time. She monitors meet results, creates a list of prospects she feels would bring Nazareth’s swim program some depth, then reaches out through both mail and email to let the athletes and their coaches know she’s interested.

“This year was a good one” for recruitment, says Staser, who brought on six new swimmers for her men’s team, which typically gets between three and four a year.

Webcasts, along with industry contacts, helped men’s ice hockey head coach George Roll form his inaugural team, one that boasts an impressive international mix of players from Canada, South Africa, Russia, and the U.S.

Despite the latest technology, prospective students seem to regard most highly the good old-fashioned communication they receive from those who’ve gone before, says Broderick. “We have a long list of current and former players who believe they’re getting, or have gotten, a quality athletic and academic experience here, and they help encourage others to come on. I find that perspective to be much more powerful than anything else.”


“I’m More Focused” in Season

The attention on academics is more than a recruiting tool. Nazareth’s student athletes, who show high retention and graduation rates, regularly earn honors for their work in the classroom. Most recently, both the men’s and women’s swimming teams were chosen by the College Swimming Coaches Association of America as a Scholar All-America team for their academic work through the spring 2012 semester.

To illustrate the importance of success outside of their sport, Broderick often tells his basketball players the story about how Tyshun Stephens ’13, a point guard who was team captain last year, came to Nazareth. Broderick had just started his job at the College, and Stephens was the first name he’d been given as a potential player. (Former men’s basketball coach Mike Daley had already shown interest in the All-Conference player.) Stephens, who grew up in Newark, N.Y., was still making up his mind about which college to attend. Because Broderick’s sister-in- law worked as a teacher at Stephens’s high school, he used the connection to make his first call—not to a coach but to someone who knew how Stephens approached his studies, acted in school, and treated other people.

“He was the kind of student athlete we want representing our school,” says Broderick. “I tell that story to my players because it’s a good reminder for them as they pursue employment. People are checking you out from all angles all the time.”

Stephens, a business administration major who was drawn to Nazareth’s small classes, recalls both Daley and Broderick, sometimes together and sometimes on their own, traveling to his hometown to watch him on the court.

“They were always asking how I was doing in school, what my grades were, not just how I played,” he says. “And they didn’t just show up to watch me, they showed up more than anyone else.”

Student athletes say they tend to perform better academically while in season because if they don’t get to their studies before practice, they’ll be too tired afterward, when all they want to do is eat and unwind.

“I’m more focused and get a lot more accomplished in season because there’s good structure,” confesses soccer right back Amanda Sudore ’13, a communication sciences and disorders major from Ontario, N.Y. “Out of season, I’m just really relaxed and I end up procrastinating.”

Study halls are required four days a week for first-semester freshman athletes in several sports, as well as any other athletes who need to boost their grades to stay eligible. The number of sessions is later reduced in direct proportion to a student’s academic progress.

Sudore, who took up soccer in elementary school and was also recruited in high school by Division I teams, was honored last year as a first-team All-American for the sport and a first-team Scholar All-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. She is grateful for the opportunity to balance schoolwork, soccer, and social clubs, “to really get that college experience,” and appreciates that proud professors post news articles about their student athletes on classroom walls.

“In Division I, it’s pretty much like you’re never out of season,” she adds. “They hold scholarships over your head, and if you don’t play well, they take that money away. That’s too intense. Nazareth gives me the time and flexibility to do a bunch of different things.”

Risucci, the swimmer, acknowledges that it was a tough decision to pass up tempting scholarship offers from Division I schools, some of which would’ve allowed her family to pay thousands less each year in tuition. But ultimately, she placed a higher priority on her overall undergraduate experience—one that she says feeds her desire for success in everything she does.

“Athletes in general are just very results-oriented people,” she explains. “The way that I am in the classroom and in life is in direct relation to the way I am in the pool.”

Read more about Nazareth athletics at athletics.naz.edu.


Robin Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.

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