SMSU student-athletes achieve new level of academic success

It may not have happened on the playing field, but the Southwest Minnesota State University athletic department just experienced its most successful year to date. Though the Mustangs earned only one conference champion during the 2012-13 school year, they did experience their most proficient year within the classroom.

The Mustangs boasted an overall department GPA of 3.05 for the year, SMSU’s highest since the move to Division II in 1995-96.

Of its 12 sports, eight had a team GPA of at least 3.0, led by volleyball at 3.57. SMSU’s five men’s sports also combined for their highest cumulutive GPA in school history at 2.91, up from 2.67 just six years ago.

That 3.05 department-wide GPA also showed vast improvement from the 2006-07 mark of 2.87.

The sustained, measurable improvements by the SMSU student-athletes in the classroom can be largely attributed to the efforts of the students, but a great deal of credit also belongs to the department staff and the faculty, which has embraced the truths that in the long run a text book holds more value than a playbook and an aced test is more important than an ace serve.

“It starts with a philosophy. That’s what our student-athletes are at SMSU for, first and foremost, and that is to get an education,” SMSU director of athletics Chris Hmielewski said. “To support that, we’ve been fortunate enough to move Ross Webskowski, our women’s golf coach, into the director of student-athlete academic affairs. And that’s really helped in the areas of academic support for our student-athletes; support in the area of academic advising and making sure that all of our coaches are trained in advising student-athletes in their career path, specifically in their liberal arts education.

“I believe it’s a combined effort,” Hmielewski added. “It’s not just the work we do in athletics; it’s the work we do in student affairs, it’s the work we do in academic affairs and all of us working together to help our students achieve their goals.”

One such goal was set by Hmielewski. Although the students fell short of the goal of a 3.1 department GPA, their mark of 3.05 has shown consistent improvement.

Hmielewski said that when he first officially took control of the athletics department on March 22, 2007, the goal for the department was a 3.0 GPA. But as the grades improved, so too did the goal. For the last four semesters SMSU student-athletes have achieved a cumulutative GPA above 3.0. As the department creeps closer to the 3.1 mark, expect that goal to jump up to a 3.2.

“I really do believe that as we get to a 3.1 GPA, we’ll probably move to a 3.2 and we’ll continue to raise the bar and challenge our student-athletes to achieve in the classroom,” Hmielewski said. “We know, ultimately when it’s all said and done, that the life experiences that they take away from sports is going to supplement the quality education that they received at SMSU and hopefully take them out into the workforce and become very successful in their professional career, as well as in their family life.”

Along with the team and department improvements in the banner year for SMSU scholastically, the Mustangs also saw a record number of individuals honored in 2012-13.

Five Mustangs were selected as College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-District honorees (Amy Dreessen, Brooke Burmeister, Rachel Patnoe, Micah Larson, Ethan Hildebrandt), while two went on to be named CoSIDA Academic All-Americans (Dreessen and Burmeister). A third Mustang (Patnoe) picked up her third selection to the Women’s Golf Coaches Association’s (WGCA) All-America Scholar team for Division II.

Forty-six Mustangs were named to Academic All-NSIC teams for their respective sports, with Ellen Degler honored in both women’s basketball and volleyball.

Amy Dreessen, a 2013 SMSU graduate and Mustang softball player, was one of the two CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, joining volleyball player Brooke Burmeister, and said that the flexibility of her professors was vital to her success, especially being a spring athlete.

“I would say for the most part it worked out and professors were very accomodating for me,” Dreessen said. “For an outdoor, spring sport in Minnesota there are always schedule changes happening, whether you are changing location or changing game times. This spring especially we did end up missing a lot of classes because we weren’t able to play on our home field. If it wasn’t able to work out, as far as taking the tougher classes in the fall, the professors in the spring were very accomodating as far as if I needed help on the material I had missed if we had games.”

Hmielewski was also quick to praise the flexibility of the faculty in helping the SMSU student-athletes reach their academic goals.

“It’s not always easy, a student-athlete’s schedule, and when you go through a spring like we experienced this year, when you look at the weather that we dealt with, our faculty are so important in working with our student-athletes when we do have adjustments in the schedule,” he said. “It takes us away from the classroom when we might have projects, homework and exams. I appreciate their efforts in helping us to manage that in years like this year.”

According to Ross Webskowski, who not only serves as a liason between the SMSU student-athletes and the NCAA but also coaches the SMSU women’s golf team, the secret to developing cooperative relationships between students, faculty and the athletics department comes down to communication.

“One thing that we stress as a department is communication and doing all the little things throughout the year, regardless of just when you need something,” Webskowski said. “I think that communication has gone a long way, and our professors are more willing to work with student-athletes when situations arise like that in the spring. Just for the fact that they’re going to class and communicating ahead of time, and that just helps when things aren’t going as scheduled. When situations arise, they’re willing to help out as long as the students are putting in the effort. In situations like that the coaches just need to make sure that they’re communicating with the professors, as well as the student-athletes.”

Another facet of the communication process is ensuring that each student-athlete is aware of the exact NCAA standards for credit load, academic progress and grades. Each fall the SMSU athletic department provides a seminar for each of its student-athletes, but it is targeted primarily for incoming freshman.

“The past couple years I took over the student-athlete academic affairs and the biggest part of that is our incoming freshman. Really just more of an orientation, life-skills class (for them), teaching them how to get used to college and be successful academically,” Webskowski said.