University of Denver student athletes juggle Division I athletics, academics

The University of Denver women’s soccer team practices on CIBER Field nearly every morning before classes begin.

For the University of Denver women’s soccer team, free time is a luxury rarely available. Between practices, traveling, games, classes, homework and studying, spare moments are reserved for sneaking in meals and getting enough sleep.

“A lot of people talk about time management, but all students need that, not just athletes,” said Head Coach Jeff Hooker. “You have to make a lot of good decisions. You need rest, and you have to make a lot of sacrifices that other students don’t. It is a total year-round commitment. You are an athlete for 12 months out of the year.”

Katy Van Lieshout, a senior forward on the women’s soccer team, demonstrates extreme commitment to both her athletics and her academics. In the 2011 season, Van Lieshout played in all 21 games for the Pioneers, finishing the season with a career-high five goals, three of which were game-winners.

In addition to her contributions to the team, Van Lieshout was also named CoSIDA Academic All-American for the University Division First Team last season. She currently boasts a 3.98 grade point average as a mechanical engineering major, and she was named to the Sun Belt Conference Commissioner’s List the last three seasons.

In fact, 18 members of the women’s soccer team were named to the SBC Commissioner’s List last season for maintaining a 3.5 GPA or better. An additional five members were named to the Honor Roll with a 3.0 GPA or better.

“For me, it comes down to a lot of time management – being really organized and proactive about what you need to do,” said Van Lieshout. “It’s about really taking advantage of getting to know your teachers and using the resources available to you.”

New conference, less traveling
Van Lieshout emphasized the travel required for games as one of the biggest impacts on her academic life. When the team travels for weekend games, the athletes typically miss both Thursday and Friday classes.

With at least 20 games this season and only eight of those being hosted at the University of Denver, the missed class time is significant.

However, the team’s membership in a new conference this season – the Western Athletic Conference – should help to alleviate this issue, as conference competition will be much closer to Denver than it was last year as a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

“The flights are shorter,” said Hooker. “The closest we used to travel [in the SBC] was North Texas, and now the furthest this year [in the WAC] is Seattle. Last year, we were going to Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas. We won’t have those trips this year, and we’ll be able to enjoy a lot more of the day not in airports.”

Sophomore midfielder Anna Willis agrees with Van Lieshout that balancing athletics and academics is a challenging task. However, after going through the transition her freshman year, Willis said she is approaching this year much more focused and ready to go.

“You wake up, and you go to practice first thing in the morning,” said Willis. “Then you have classes all day and you study all night. We have to make sure we eat. There are tutoring hours usually, and then we do it all over again.”

Willis completed her freshman season with the Pioneers with three goals, including two game-winners. She also tallied five assists and was named to the Sun Belt Conference Commissioner’s List.

“I’m more focused [this year],” said Willis, who has a 3.67 GPA. “Coming to college your first year is a new experience, but this year you have to be more concentrated.”

The women’s soccer team loads the bus at 5:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning to head to the airport for a game in Portland, Ore., the following day.

Innovative approaches
Because of the amount of time required for soccer, many of the student athletes must take an innovative approach when it comes to finding time for homework, studying and even sleeping.

“You sleep on the plane,” said junior midfielder Nicholette DiGiacomo. “Almost all of us have pillow pets,” she added, pointing to her hippopotamus-shaped pillow as the team loaded the bus at 5:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

Hooker also commended his athletes for finding time to complete their schoolwork among the hectic traveling schedule.

“The girls do a great job, whether it’s studying at the airport, on the bus or on an airplane,” said Hooker. “A lot of the older players realize how important academics are, and one group passes it on to the next.”

While the team has no mandatory study hall, Hooker said tutors are available for the athletes who need it.

Taking a break
The women’s soccer team’s competitive season runs from mid-August to early November, encompassing roughly three months. While the team trains year-round, according to Van Lieshout, the time commitment to soccer outside of this period is drastically reduced.

“It’s a huge difference, mostly with the missing classes,” said Van Lieshout. “Out of season, you actually are not allowed to miss classes. Without games on weekends, you have that time to recover and relax and take some time off. During the season, you don’t have that break.”

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