By Charles Awalt
Six Arizona seniors made school history this season by accomplishing new levels of academic and athletic excellence, breaking a school record that stood for six years. Runners Elvin Kibet and Lawi Lalang, swimmers Margo Geer and Giles Smith, softball standout Kelsey Rodriguez, and women’s tennis player Lacey Smyth have all been named Pac-12 Scholar-Athletes of the year.
This is the highest number of Arizona student-athletes to be recognized during a single season, tying with Stanford for the most scholar-athletes on the year. The 2013-2014 class topped the previous school record which was set during the 2007-2008 season when four Wildcats were given the distinction.
In order to be named a Pac-12 scholar-athlete, a student must be a senior (in athletics eligibility), maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher, participate in at least 50 percent of the scheduled contests in the sport, and have some sort of athletic achievement or success.
“We’re extremely proud of the hard work these young men and women have put into both their academics and athletics while at Arizona,” said Director of Athletics Greg Byrne. “There are a number of honors our student-athletes can earn and being named a Pac-12 Scholar Athlete ranks right at the top of them.”
Each one of these athletes has distinguished him or herself academically, but they have also made a name for themselves within their sport. They represent some of the best collegiate athletes in the country.
Kibet was the 2013 Pac-12 Cross Country runner-up and finished 15th at the NCAA Championships, helping the Wildcats to a school-best second-place finish.
Lalang won the 5K at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, setting a meet record with a time of 13:18.36. He was the Pac-12 Champion in the 1,500 meters and the 5K. As a result, Lalang was named Pac-12 Men’s Track Athlete of the Year and received first-team All-America honors in the indoor mile and 5K as well as the outdoor 1,500 meters and 5k.
Geer won the 100 free at the NCAA Championships with a time of 47.10 after setting a school record of 47.00 in the prelims earlier in the day. Geer broke the school record in the 100 free with a lead off time of 46.86 in the 400 free relay, the third-fastest time in American collegiate history.
Smith earned All-America honors in the 100 fly, 200 free and 200 medley. He finished this year’s regular season with the fastest time in the country in the 100 fly at 44.73, and he won Pac-12 titles in the 100 fly, 200 medley, and 400 medley relay.
Rodriguez led all Pac-12 softball players in doubles (20) and batted .419, which was third-best in the conference. A starter in 56 games Rodriguez was instrumental in helping the Wildcats to their ninth super regional in 10 years.
Smyth led the Arizona women’s tennis team to one of the best rankings in school history and a 17-win season. She went 16-6 in singles play matches, played in the No. 1 spot all year, and was selected to play in the NCAA Singles Championship for the third-consecutive year.
The coaching staffs at the U of A play a significant role in making sure that all Arizona student-athletes understand the emphasis of maintaining good grades from the start.
“It starts with the immediate recruitment of that type of person,” head track and field coach Fred Harvey said. “Our philosophy in our program is that we are not going to compromise one (athletics) for the other (education). If you’re going to come to the University of Arizona, you’re going to be a student-athlete. It’s stated as ‘student-athlete,’ so you’re going to treat both with the same amount of respect, and my expectation is that you’re going to seek greatness in both areas.”
The student-athletes have a large support base, including academic advisors and coaches who make sure there is always time for school work.
“I am extremely present in the academic progress of athletes and so is every one of my coaches,” Harvey said. “We do everything possible to give them the best opportunity to succeed. We schedule our training so that they have an opportunity to go to particular labs and classes. Our training schedules sometimes go from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., so they know that we are serious about them attending all of their classes.”
Tutors are also available in McKale a majority of the time and academic advisors frequently work with student-athletes to figure out their best plan for the future.
“We have a writing center where you can take in your papers, and get people to look at them,” Rodriguez said. “It’s really nice to have the extra set of eyes. A lot of services we do get are also available to the entire student body; ours are just more accessible to us. Our tutoring services and computer lab are located in the gym and have flexible hours to work around our tough schedules. Student-athlete academic support is made available to us, so we have absolutely no excuse for not seeking help.”
These six athletes took advantage of the services available, and went above and beyond what has been asked of them.
“This is not only a reflection of the hard work and commitment these student-athletes have made,” Byrne said. “But also the emphasis our coaching staffs and administration have placed on education. Combined with the guidance and mentorship of our C.A.T.S Academics staff, we’re fostering an environment of growth and individual development that this group exemplifies.”