Column: Truly making the grade

As the new school year begins Monday at St. Johns River State College, in come a new group of student-athletes that are going to be held to an awfully high standard.

It would be nice if they won, too.

Where it is normal for people in my line of work to suppress a snicker at the mere mention of the term “student athlete,” there is new and compelling evidence that it has real meaning at St. Johns.

It comes in the form of an annual report recently filed with the state’s department of education. The report shows, among other things, the following:

n A 96.3 percent graduation rate, meaning that 26 out of 27 second-year athletes left with associate degrees. 

n Twenty-three sophomores – 13 baseball players, five volleyball players and five softball players – are headed to four-year schools.

n Thirty of 60 St. Johns athletes had grade-point averages of at least 3.0, thus qualifying for academic all-conference honors – 14 in baseball, eight apiece in volleyball and softball. Twenty of the 30 also earned academic all-state distinction with a 3.3 GPA or higher.

n The volleyball team, with a 3.32 GPA, was an NJCAA Academic Team of the Year – a first for SJR State.

“Here’s the interesting part. In the ’14-15 academic year, three sports won 104 games. This year, three sports won 99 games. In the last three years, all three sports have set program highs for wins,” said SJR State athletic director and baseball coach Ross Jones. “We’re doing it with high academic kids.”

“Obviously, I’m incredibly pleased with the academic progress that are athletic programs student athletes have made over the last number of years and especially the most recent historic academic achievements,” said college president Joe Pickens. “Athletic director Ross Jones and our coaches deserve a great deal of credit for fostering an environment where academic achievement is as important as athletic achievement.”

It’s not as if emphasis on academics is new at 5001 St. Johns Ave. St. Johns’ academic standards have long been perceived as higher than at many junior and community colleges. Its founding athletic director, the late Bill Tuten, was critical to establishing strict academic eligibility standards not only for his school, but the entire state.

And over almost three decades during which the Vikings struggled on the field and on the court, only occasionally challenging for state playoff berths, there were those who found solace in the notion that for all their struggles, there was no compromising on academics.

There isn’t now, either, and guess what? The baseball team has gone to state the last four years, three times as Mid-Florida Conference champion. The volleyball team was 25-9 last season. The softball team, which made state in 2015, is coming off its best two-year stretch since going to fastpitch.

Some of this success, certainly, lies with recruiting.

“You’re a 17-year-old kid, you’re looking at the success they’re having on the field – and where they are sending their kids,” Jones said. “When you’re sending kids to Alabama (Hunter Alexander) and Missouri (Andy Toelken) and Florida State (Dustin Hersey in 2015), that’s a huge determining factor.”

The only sophomore on the 2016 baseball team that didn’t receive athletic aid to a four-year school was utility man Collin Morrill, who is attending the University of New Orleans with a boatload of academic assistance.

Pickens made major investments in both facilities and scholarships for the athletic program, which had operated for decades on a shoestring budget. That was extended to provide Viking athletes with academic support, notably a program that provides a math tutor, a science tutor, an English tutor and a math/science tutor.

“The important thing is that they have first-hand help,” said Jones, who has been an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, Florida and North Florida. “I’m very fortunate to have been in a couple of places where I understood the value of education.”

Athletes have a required number of hours each week in study hall with the tutors. There are consequences if they don’t meet the required time. “If a freshman has six hours and he puts in five and a half, I know by Friday afternoon,” said Jones, who kept a pitcher out of an all-star game last fall because he fell short on study hall.

“It is obvious that our investment in these young people has been well worth it,” Pickens said. “Preparing them for life after athletics is absolutely fundamental to our mission as a college.”

“I’m more proud of this than wins and championships,” Jones said. “This is preparing them for life. This is something you can’t take away from them.”

Andy Hall is sports editor of the Palatka Daily News.

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