Passion Play: D3 at Juniata

Will Hafen and Larissa Lienig

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One-third of students at Juniata are intercollegiate athletes at the Division III level. A very small fraction of these students will go on to play at a professional level. Division III schools aren’t allowed to give scholarships, which raises the question: Why are so many Juniata students playing collegiate sports?

Whenever I meet someone new at Juniata, they ask me a question I dread. They ask me where I am from. When I say I am from Las Vegas, they usually gasp with surprise. Then, one of two questions are asked. One is mild — “How did you find out about Juniata?” The other one is the one I seriously dread — “Why the hell are you here?” My answer to both of these questions is sports — men’s volleyball to be specific. The reaction that follows may differ depending on if the person cares about sports or not. A person who does not care about sports may express pity, confusion, or both. They may not understand the intrigue of dedicating all the time I do into smacking a sphere around.

I’m writing this article to try to build a bridge of understanding from an athlete to anyone interested in learning more about an athlete’s mindset. Division III athletes are not competing to pay for their schooling. In most cases, they aren’t playing in the hopes of making it to the professional level either. Division III athletes play because they, like so many in our country and our world, love sports. But why do we love sports? I hope to have answered that in some capacity by the end of this article.

Passionate athletes love to challenge their teammates and themselves. They continually try to get to another level within the game. This is often not easy to do for many reasons, and it may seem slightly masochistic to an outsider, but we push through and are rewarded by capturing success with our friends. I got to talk to Austin Montgomery, who has a pretty thorough understanding of the hardships sometimes required to achieve in sports.

Montgomery is the starting quarterback of Juniata’s football team. Last year, as a junior, he dislocated his elbow and tore his UCL playing against Franklin & Marshall in the second game of the season. This injury sidelined him for the entire season, and the football team failed to win a single game last year. I asked Austin what the rehabilitation process was like for his body and how being unable to play the sport he loved affected him mentally.

About rehab, he answered, “…I was lucky to not have to get surgery… it healed on its own. The toughest thing was having to slowly regain all my gains in the weight room. I became mentally stronger from working through it all, however.” He also stated, “It’s one thing to lose a game when playing, but the feeling of helplessness on game day makes it even worse. Mentally, it took a huge toll on me… But, after getting through the semester, I had a greater appreciation for the opportunity to play the game.”

When talking to Austin about football, it becomes really apparent that he loves the game in all of its complexity and difficulty.

He asserted, “I can tell you that understanding plays, defensive alignments, and weekly game plans requires more effort than almost every class at Juniata. After the first game, almost no one is playing at 100% health. Put bluntly, it’s really, really hard. But I think that’s what makes the game so special — that you [and] your teammates worked together to accomplish something spectacular.”

Teams are made during practice. In almost every sport, it is important for players to be competing with their teammates in order for everyone to improve. It is understood that as a player on a sports team, it is not selfish for me to compete as well as I can and get better during practice. It is actually quite altruistic.

This is because as I become a better player, players around me are learning how to succeed against my improved self. In turn, this makes them better, and the cycle continues. The mutual altruism of competition is part of the complex beauty of the team.

I asked senior outside hitter and Resident Assistant Sean Cavanaugh about what motivates him to play volleyball for Juniata. Sean stated, “I continue to play volleyball because I love competing. I compete for the guys next to me. When I see them working their tail off, it motivates me to continue to work harder… The drive to be better and make everyone else better is hard to overlook…Every year it’s a new team and a new opportunity for us to achieve greatness.”

I can personally attest that what Sean had to say about being motivated to compete for our teammates is true within the men’s volleyball practice gym. When we compete with each other at a high level, we raise the overall level of play that we are capable of.

One of the reasons that athletes play sports is because they are in love with the rewarding feelings that come from improvement. Their improvement can be measured by winning or making plays they previously could not make.

Junior left wing Charles “Chuck” Kovach, a star on the men’s soccer team, talked to me about why he loved soccer. He said, “…just like life, being part of a team is surrounding yourself with those you love and trust and working hard for them, as they are gonna work hard for you… the happiness that comes from it is worth working and fighting for.”

In sports, and with any skill we learn in life, hard work pays off and we feel that we’ve accomplished our goal. In my humble opinion, the cause-effect relationship between hard work and success is an important thing to simulate in college. Sports can provide us with a safe and healthy environment to fail, improve, and eventually succeed. This three-step process is how progress in life is often made.

While it may bring us feelings of accomplishment to improve within sports, most of us will not be playing professional sports after college. Therefore, most of us will not be able to use the technical capabilities we built in sports in our professional careers. So, which skills gained through participating in collegiate sports can be used after college?

I reached out to Quinn Looper, a member of Juniata’s class of 2017 and an alum of the men’s volleyball team, to ask him this question.

He answered, “On the Juniata men’s volleyball team, I gained many important skills needed to excel at professional life after school. First and foremost was responsibility and discipline. If we wanted to compete at a high level against the best of the best, we had to have a rigid process every day that we diligently followed. Secondly, [we learned] the ability to receive both constructive criticism and perform self-reflection (e.g. what could I have done better? what do I need to do to improve myself?). Lastly, [we learned] the ability to adapt. There is no way you can attempt to navigate the world around you unless you are willing to adapt to variables you do not control. These are only some of the skills I learned, but man have they been helpful.”

We’ve heard some voices of athletes with positive attitudes towards collegiate sports. But what about those that have decided they are better off without sports? I interviewed Genevieve Wittrock, a Juniata student, passionate artist, and ex-volleyball player. Genevieve, or Gen, was recruited by Heather Pavlik, the head coach of Juniata’s women’s volleyball team, when she was a freshman in high school. Gen expressed that she “loves” Coach Pavlik and Coach Casey Dale, the assistant coach, and she is grateful for the experience they allowed her to be a part of. However, circumstances for Gen became such that she felt it was in her best interest to leave the team.

Gen suffered a concussion during her freshman season at Juniata that kept her on the sideline for the whole season. She ended up leaving the team after the season ended. I had a chance to speak with her about what happened that caused her to make this decision.

Gen is seriously passionate about sports, saying, “I really liked playing. Being on a team. Being athletic… I really like competition.” She expressed strong feelings for competition, but then declared, “But I can find that in other places. Competition with myself primarily — challenging myself, especially in school. When I found that I could find competition elsewhere, I drifted away from volleyball.”

After Gen’s concussion, she realized that she was intensely passionate about creating art. She had found friends with similar interests: “I found a new niche where I could express myself creatively.” Spending more time with these friends was not received gracefully by all members of the volleyball team.

Gen explained, “The pressure to be with the team all the time was too much for me. I never experienced that in high school. There wasn’t such a huge strain on my social life to be with the team at all times.” The team’s culture was not congruent with (or accepting of) Gen’s desires to express herself creatively with her newfound friends. Gen now feels more at peace with her ability to be productive in the disciplines she wants to be productive in.

In 2019, the cumulative GPA of all Juniata athletes was 3.250, while the cumulative GPA of all Juniata students was 3.190. I do not claim to know why this is. It may have something to do with athletes being forced to have extremely structured schedules. The support of teammates, who can often double as tutors, certainly does not hurt. It can also be seen as a byproduct of the NCAA eligibility rules, which heavily deter athletes from getting poor grades.

In conclusion, Division III athletes all over the country play their sport purely for the love…