Changes to Tri-C's Athletics Program Pass Benefits to the Whole College
August 27, 2015
Karen Barrientos had a decision to make. The senior and long-distance runner at Lakeside High School in Ashtabula had three colleges on her short list. All offered scholarships based on her athletic and academic performance.
She carefully considered her options. Then she chose Cuyahoga Community College.
The first-year Tri-C student received a scholarship that covered her tuition and books. It made the deal for her, and until recently, it would have been unheard of.
For the first time since 1992, Tri-C has increased the amount of athletic scholarship money for students. The move will have far-reaching implications — not just for Tri-C’s sports teams, but for student success College-wide.
The additional scholarship money targets students who are likely to succeed academically. Student-athletes exhibit higher semester-to-semester and year-over-year enrollment than other students, as involvement in extra-curricular activities tends to lead to higher retention rates.
Student-athletes also must be enrolled full time, which increases the likelihood of a timely graduation, and if they fall below a C in any course they are required to work with a tutor.
“Students athletics at a community college is actually a student success strategy,” said J. Michael Thomson, Ph.D., Eastern Campus president.
Thomson, along with trustee Bruce Murphy, spearheaded the move to increase scholarship money and the visibility of College athletics. Tri-C made more than $362,000 available for athletic scholarships for the 2014-2015 academic year, up from $89,000 the year before.
While previously student-athletes might get $500, they now can receive scholarships that cover their full in-county tuition.
The change brings Tri-C’s athletic scholarship money up to the median level of other colleges in the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference. This will allow coaches to meaningfully recruit student-athletes, making teams more competitive.
The move constitutes a major facelift to an athletics program that many didn’t know existed.
Tri-C fields teams in seven sports — men’s baseball, men’s soccer, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s softball, women’s volleyball and women’s track and cross country. The teams compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). All are Division II except women’s track and cross country, which are Division I.
Triumphs and titles are not unusual.
The men’s basketball team won a national title in 2004 with a roster that included the team’s current head coach, Michael Duncan. The softball team won district and regional tournaments in 2013 to earn an invitation to the NJCAA Division II National Championship, capping the best season in the school’s history.
Tri-C’s baseball team won district championships in 2010 and 2011 and holds numerous conference titles. Former Cleveland Indians pitcher Jeff Shaw took the mound for Tri-C before going on to save 203 games in a 12-year career in Major League Baseball.
Just this past March, the track team’s Atiyyah Herron finished sixth in the 800-meter run at the NJCAA national competition. The distance medley team — which included Barrientos, a cross-country All-American in the fall — also finished sixth at nationals.
The Tri-C soccer team even has an international flair with players from Jamaica, Uzbekistan and Japan.
Thomson likes to think of sports as building a campus atmosphere and contributing to the “first choice” strategy that makes Tri-C the top selection for students exploring higher education.
“The fiscal reality of higher education is that the public four-year degree is getting further and further away from the median salary of the average Ohioan. People are recognizing we are a first-choice college. You come to us; we provide a great first two years,” Thomson said.
“As we emerge more as a first choice, there is an expectation that we would look and feel more like where our students are going. That way students are looking at four-year schools and comparing them to our environs. If we have a more vibrant student life — and that includes athletics, cultural events, other activities — students recognize that, and it will draw students here.”
Jennifer Ellis, director of student life and athletics at Metro Campus, said that, right now, more students attend basketball games on weekdays than on weekends. There are fewer students on campus on weekends, and Tri-C’s team doesn’t have the kind of profile across campus to bring students out on Saturdays. Doubling up women’s and men’s games on the same day has helped, yet the fact remains: Tri-C sports have not traditionally been a strong draw.
“[Sports] really should be more prominent, because I think there are a lot of students who, if they knew about it, might want to go sit and watch a game,” Ellis said.
More competitive athletes will help that, too.
“It’s been difficult for us to compete with other schools,” said Don Cox, women’s track and cross country coach. “We would lose kids.”
While lack of scholarship funds played a part in that, the program’s disjointed character has not helped. For years, each campus’s sports teams were largely autonomous. At one point, there were two men’s basketball teams, one at Metro and one at Western Campus. They would play against each other.
The College used to compete in more sports, too, including wrestling, men’s bowling, men’s track and men’s cross country teams. The wrestling team won a national title in 1976.
“I came to Tri-C as a student in the fall of ’67,” said Rita McKinley, director of student life and athletics at Eastern Campus. “They had the teams and cheerleaders. Metro was really down at the Huron Road building. Western Campus was at Crile hospital. Because we were playing as two separate teams, Western’s colors were gold and blue. They were called the Chargers. Metro Campus was brown and gold, and they were the Cougars. I know because I used to be a cheerleader when I was a student here.”
Each sport still lives at a specific campus, though they’re unified in team name (Challengers) and colors (teal, black and white). Women’s basketball and volleyball call Eastern Campus home. Metropolitan Campus has men’s basketball and women’s cross country and track. Western Campus claims baseball, soccer and softball.
Each campus has a director of student life and athletics. Most student-athletes attend the campus where their sport is located.
But the athletics program as a whole is now poised to become a major player at Tri-C.
“It’s not like it’s my master plan to hang championship banners from winning the basketball title four years in a row. Although that would be great, it isn’t the focus. The focus is student completion,” Thomson said. “Athletes go to school full-time; they are on a schedule; they have support services around them. Women who are coming to us to play volleyball and basketball are going to get a degree. That’s what we are after.”
And a graduating contingent of athletes is not negligible. Consider that the men’s baseball team has 30 players; soccer has 20, softball 15. With an average of 20 athletes per team, that’s 160 students that will likely earn degrees at Tri-C. About 1,400 students petitioned the College for degrees and certificates for fall 2014 Commencement.
Barrientos, who is majoring in health sciences, considers herself a student and an athlete in equal measure. In her first year, Barrientos broke Tri-C’s cross country record with a time of 18:24 in the 5,000-meter race.
“It takes just as much time in athletics as it does in academics,” she said. “With all the traveling we have to do, it kind of interferes with academics. You have to be disciplined.”
She added that she has every intention of earning her Tri-C degree.
Mark Rodriguez, director of student life and athletics at Western Campus, said there were no immediate plans to add or subtract sports at the College. He pointed out that sports are not a revenue source for Tri-C, and adding a football team, for example, didn’t make sense because it would be cost-prohibitive and there would be no other teams for it to play.
But those teams that do exist at Tri-C stand to gain immensely from the recent changes. The larger athletic scholarships were first available this academic year, so the next two years will likely be transformative as Tri-C recruits competitively and builds its teams.
Those athletic scholarships in turn will benefit the College as a whole through student success. Trustee Murphy points out that a robust athletics program might also create alumni fundraising opportunities.
“I really think we are moving in the right direction,” Ellis said.
“It doesn’t just help the athletes,” Thomson said. “It helps the campuses create an atmosphere that draws students who desire a more vibrant student life.”
If you have ideas or tips for stories about Tri-C, send email to Jarrod.Zickefoose@tri-c.edu.