By Jessica Bernheim
UMBC Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
Collegiate student-athletes must deal with a challenge that most other college students do not have to face: balancing the rigors of their classes and schoolwork with the demands of their practice, workout and competition schedule. In order to excel in their sport, many student-athletes struggle to maintain the same intensity in the classroom. But there are some who thrive in both areas and truly embody the full meaning of the student-athlete.
The UMBC women's basketball team is made up of 13 such people.
"Ever since I got here, we've targeted student-athletes who understand that academics is our top priority," head coach Phil Stern said. "We make sure that they understand the mission of the university and what we want here in our program. That has led to us having some really well-rounded players in our program who succeed in the classroom and in the community, as well as on the court."
Last season, the Retrievers were recognized on the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll for posting the third-highest grade-point average (3.578) in the nation among NCAA Division I squads during the 2009-10 academic year. In addition, the America East Conference acknowledged all 11 team members on the league's winter/spring academic honor roll for earning a GPA of 3.0 or better during the spring semester, with seven players earning commissioner's honor roll status for a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
The team was able to achieve this despite practicing two hours a day five or six times a week, as well as two or three weightlifting sessions each week, in addition to games for five months out of the year.
"The great part about us achieving the Top 25 is how difficult this university is," Stern said. "This is an honors university; there are no blow-offs here. You've got to go to class and get ahead, especially when you're traveling as much as we are."
Senior forward Meghan Colabella is a testament to the women's basketball program's academic success.
Colabella graduated magna cum laude last spring after just three years, and she is currently pursuing her master's degree in historical studies from UMBC while completing her eligibility on the court.
"I have always wanted to get good grades, so graduating with honors was a built-in goal for me," she said. "I just did my work whenever I had a free moment. Basketball keeps you very busy, so when I wasn't playing, I always made sure that I was getting my classwork done."
Junior guard Michelle Kurowski plans to follow in Colabella's footsteps and graduate a year early. Kurowski has excelled both on the court and in the classroom since she stepped onto campus – she has ranked among the America East's top 10 scorers each season, averaging more than 13 points per game in her career, all the while maintaining an outstanding 3.8 GPA.
Kurowski credits her organization and time management skills for her success in both areas.
"I get ahead when we have days off or when I know a big week is coming up with travel and games," she said. "I really take advantage of off days because I can get a lot done during the time we usually have practice."
Colabella, a team captain, admits this season has been a bit more challenging now that she is taking three graduate-level classes because of additional outside research and discussion classes that require active participation. Kurowski, a psychology major who plans to study early childhood education in grad school and earn her teaching certificate, recognizes next season will be more difficult, as well, but she is looking forward to it at the same time.
"I think it will be harder, but I think I'll enjoy it more because it is what I am really interested in," she said. "It has a lot to do with my future, so it'll allow me to see if being a teacher is what I want to do."
Stern has been impressed with both players' commitment to their academic success and ability to maintain a high level of play on the court while preparing to graduate early.
"I think it shows how dedicated we are academically as a whole and that we do put academics first," he said. "It's easy to say that, but we actually do that here. For them to get ahead like they have without taking a lot of summer school classes is a testament to how hard they work academically and how much they want to succeed when they are done at UMBC."
Both players acknowledge that the coaching staff's commitment to the team's success in the classroom played a major role in their decisions to attend UMBC during the recruiting process. Colabella was a Distinguished Scholar from New Jersey, while Kurowski, a Long Island native, graduated seventh in her high school class.
"I did not want to be challenged only in basketball but also in school," Kurowski said. "Academics has always been a top priority, and when I was looking to come here, the coaches told me how academics was really important and that doing well is expected, so it helped my decision."
"The fact that UMBC had a good academic reputation and the fact that the team itself always had high academic standards was a plus when I was deciding where to go," Colabella added.
Freshman center Dana Lewis was the valedictorian of the Brodhead (Wis.) High School Class of 2010 and echoed the sentiments of her upperclass teammates.
"The team's academic reputation played a huge role in me choosing UMBC," she said. "Some of the other schools that I was looking at had an average GPA of 2.8-3.0, and that was not up to my standards."
Lewis is a biology major and has aspirations of becoming a pharmacist, which means taking a variety of difficult science courses, but she feels that UMBC has provided her with all of the tools she needs to be successful, such as tutors, advisors, study hall and study groups.
"Next semester will be a true test because I am taking three very challenging classes for my major," she said. "I knew going in that it would be tough, but I just have to maintain a good work ethic and manage my time efficiently."
Lewis is not the only Retriever who hopes to work in the health field one day. Sophomore guard Kristin Coles aspires to become a pediatrician, while junior center Topé Obajolu dreams of becoming an obstetrician/gynecologist. Coles, a health administration and policy major, plans to pursue a master's degree in public health before attending medical school, while Obajolu is a psychology major with a biology minor on a pre-med track.
Coach Stern has been impressed not only by so many of his players' decisions to major in such difficult fields of study at a university with such high academic standards, but also keep up their grades and their level of play at the same time.
"It shows that they can keep their focus throughout the long basketball season and keep their priorities in order," he said. "They're the true definition of student-athletes."
Editor's Note: The women's basketball team achieved a GPA of 3.31 in the Fall 2010 semester, and nine players earned a 3.0 or higher.