Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Is Emerson a sports school?

Arthur Mansavage
Emerson fans cheering on the men’s basketball team during their 2022 NEWMAC Semifinals game vs. Babson.

Emerson College is known for a lot of great things—from its creative programs, outstanding alumni network, or even as the school Nancy Wheeler chooses in “Stranger Things.” But one area that may not be as popular is its athletics. The Lions boast 14 Div. III varsity teams—and a Div. II “Quadball” squad straight out of Harry Potter—all of whom have achieved varying levels of success over the years.

Still, aside from the athletes, the majority of students who apply to Emerson hardly pay attention to its athletics, and most students don’t usually include the Brown-Plofker Gym or Rotch Field in their weekend plans.

Considering these factors, it’s worth exploring Emerson College’s sports culture and addressing the question: “Is Emerson a ‘sports school’?”

In an interview with the Beacon, Athletic Director Stephanie Smyrl posed an intriguing counter: “Has anyone defined what it means to be a ‘sports school’?”

“Sometimes, when we say ‘sports school,’ we think about the teams that we see on TV,” Smyrl said. “[Alabama], Gonzaga, UCLA, they tend to be your larger Div. I football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball [schools] … So I think that if we’re considering that as a sports school, I think that we’re going to be chasing something that is not Div. III. So us as a Div. III institution, it really is about the student-athlete experience, and a holistic view.”

“For our student-athletes, being an athlete is a huge part of their identity,” she continued. “And if they can walk on the sidewalk, if they can be in their classroom, if they can wear their sport across their chest and be proud, and that’s what we’re saying is a sports school, then sign me up.”

Smyrl, who previously served as the athletic director at Lesley University for five years, has observed similar traits in Emerson student-athletes as those in high-level athletics institutions. She emphasizes the sense of responsibility, competitiveness, and genuineness that Lions from various sports exhibit. According to Smyrl, the drive to succeed in practice is fueled by the desire to win, and even when faced with setbacks, the focus shifts to learning and improvement for the next opportunity. 

Men’s basketball forward Jerry Lawson believes that Emerson’s reputation as a sports school holds up because of the work multiple parties put in.

“Within the sports circle and the community between athletes, it is a sports school,” Lawson said. “That goes from the coaching staff, trainers, [to] every member of the team. And we’re also a small school. Are we a sports school like [the] University of Kentucky? Obviously, there’s a different scale. But the effort and commitment are the same.”

Lawson, a graduate student, transferred to Emerson from UC Santa Barbara, a Div. I program in the NCAA’s Big West Conference. He noted various similarities and differences between both institutions.

“[It’s] definitely unique, as far as a vertical campus, being in the heart of the city like Boston,” he said. “But [there are] a lot of other great similarities, such as high-character guys, where you’ll find really competitive sports at the college level. Guys who have great principles, they work hard, they’re dedicated, and they’ve got their priorities straight.”

Among the features of Emerson’s unique campus is the Bobbi Brown & Steven Plofker Gym, which sophomore men’s basketball guard Jacob Armant believes has its perks despite the limited capacity.

“You get a couple hundred people in here, it feels like a couple thousand,” he said. “Spread the word around campus. Make the games fun to come to, make it a bigger event than just basic basketball.”

He also mentioned that the school’s prestigious alumni in the sports industry—among them NBA General Managers Sam Presti ‘90 and Will Dawkins ‘08—factored into his decision to don the purple and gold.

The school’s major alumni network is another aspect that deserves more attention, according to assistant soccer coach Colin Connolly, who agrees that Emerson is a sports school.

“To define Emerson as a single thing would be silly—Emerson is a lot of things, and I think athletics is a great part of that fabric,” Connolly said. “We have some really dedicated players and dedicated teams. We’ve seen success in multiple sports. I think our alumni go on to do really great things outside of college and athletics. Just looking at basketball, I heard a stat that the only college with more NBA executives than Emerson is Duke University.”

Connolly is proud of the work that Emerson alumni accomplish after their playing careers.

“The students are super driven, super focused,” he said. “I think they’re dedicated to both athletics and their craft in school, and seeing what they grow up to become after college is really impressive to me. It makes me really eager to work with future recruits and the kids we have now.”

Emerson athletes join a successful program, boasting seven NCAA tournament berths and 17 conference championships, including recent wins in men’s basketball in 2019 and women’s soccer in 2022.

At the helm of those talented programs are Emerson’s coaches, who have varied answers to the “sports school” debate. Unlike Connolly, men’s lacrosse head coach Matt Colombini and baseball head coach Nick Vennochi ‘11 disagreed with the classification of Emerson as a “sports school.”

After three-years as a goalie at Ursinus College and coaching at Wheaton and Colby, Colombini notes the biggest difference in Emerson’s sports culture; the emphasis on  “being a student first and an athlete second”—a mantra echoed across Div. III.

The Lions have heard that message loud and clear, recording 120 Academic All-Conference selections last year and 39 this Fall.

“The athletes do a great job of being involved in things on campus,” Colombini said. “Whether you’re filming or editing, coming up with creative ideas, interviewing coaches … our players really take advantage of that and they put as much time into all those different areas.”

“Our location being in the city and what our facilities look like makes the athletic community unique in that it’s very close knit,” he continued. “[But] with all of that, there [are] some additional challenges that our student-athletes face, whether it’s baseball and tennis being off campus, even us going down to Rotch [Field], that you really have to be committed to what you’re doing here to be good at it.”

Vennochi said the school’s sports culture has shifted tremendously from when he played for Emerson.

“It’s a world different,” he said. “These resources, these facilities, we’re in a great conference … At that point [during his playing days], it was a club program, basically. It was varsity sports, but it was run so differently …  And now—these athletes don’t have everything they could want—but they have a lot, and the school has definitely invested in the programs, as they should.”

Vennochi recalled when nearly all of his Emerson baseball practices were in the gym—the only two he had on an actual field came during the team’s tournament in Florida. Now, his team takes buses to practice facilities 30 to 40 minutes outside of Boston, including spending the month of February in Northborough three days a week.

“Now, we have a significant budget for practice,” Vennochi said. “We could not compete with what we used to have, and now we can compete, because we have what we need.”

But where the rest of the teams are able to feel the support of the Emerson community firsthand, the baseball team is one of the programs where that’s simply not possible due to the travel constraints, and Vennochi noted that it’s been tough for his players.

“I think it hurts our team, emotionally,” he said. “I think that they would love people there. I think we understand, I think we know. We’ve definitely had some students come, but there are very few. It’s a huge endeavor to get out there. It’s part of where we’re at right now. We’d love to be closer, that would be an option. We don’t have that relationship with the city where we could get on a field that would be playable for us [in Boston].”

Despite the challenges, Vennochi has encouraged his players to support the teams who are able to play on or near campus.

“We’ve showed out for soccer, volleyball and basketball—men and women’s [teams],” he added. “That’s what’s most important—paying it forward. And then, when there is an opportunity to get people [to our games], hopefully we can. […] We just rely on ourselves to create our own culture, our own environment. Our team is big enough that we can make our own noise.”

Meanwhile, Emerson’s student population has varied takes on the “sports school” question.

In two polls taken across the Beacon and Beacon Sports Instagram accounts, 81 percent of participants voted that Emerson isn’t a sports school, while 19 percent supported the notion.

Among those in the minority of believers is senior media arts production student Hallie Gould, who can often be seen on the sidelines of Emerson sporting events. She believes that Emerson “absolutely” is a sports school.

“Athlete culture, at least among the athletes, is really important,” she said. “We have a really strong—even if the rest of the school doesn’t know it—athletic community … We’re always trying to make a better sports program. You can see that with women’s soccer winning the championship last year, or the men’s basketball team going to the championship the year before that.”

Gould was introduced to the athletics culture at Emerson while playing on the women’s volleyball team her freshman year, and since then, she’s formed bonds with a plethora of Lions.

“It’s really easy to get wrapped up in [Emerson’s sports culture] once you know a few athletes,” Gould said. “And also, it’s always a good time at the sports games.”

Gould also believes that the sports culture at Emerson isn’t well-received among other students.

“You’re either at theater performances or sports performances,” Gould said. “Developing more of a community between those two worlds would be really important in expanding the audience that we get.

Gould explained how last year, a theater group did a sports-themed play and shadowed the women’s soccer team. This led to a positive connection, with both groups attending each other’s events. Athletes reaching out to the community can make a positive impact.

First-year Lions—men’s soccer forward Luke Maxwell and men’s volleyball opposing hitter Riley Goldman—are on the other side of the aisle.

Maxwell believes that Emerson isn’t a “sports school” because of its lack of a sports culture.

“There is some support for the sports teams from peers, and the administration,” he said. “However, in general, there isn’t a whole lot of excitement that’s generated when there’s a big game. I’m not saying Emerson needs to be like SEC schools in having everything revolve around sports. But it might be nice to at least show some support.”

He added that it could be improved in multiple ways.

“Some of them include increasing support for sports teams amongst peers attending games,” Maxwell said. “An increase in resources that are easily available that the administration can provide. And lastly, [there has to be] prolonged success in athletics. The No. 1 way to create a sports culture at a school is to first create a winning culture that people want to be a part of.”

Similarly, Goldman believes that the lack of offseason resources doesn’t make Emerson a sports school.

“When you’re in [the] off-season, you don’t get trainers during practice,” he said. “There’s also no support from the staff and from the school itself. When you’re registering for classes, there’s no athlete priority. Especially for in-season, we can’t get classes in all of the slots [we want] because of practices and games, and we’re just stuck with whatever classes—whether you can take them or not.”

Goldman agreed with the need for continually promoting Emerson athletics.

“A lot of students come into this school not even knowing there’s sports,” he said. “But beyond that, just giving priority to athletes, because there’s certain things [athletes can’t control]. We can’t get around classes, we just have to have certain classes at certain times … They could [also] dull some money out to keep trainers there [during offseason practices].”

As athletic director, Smyrl actively promotes Emerson’s sports culture by discussing recent games and highlighting achievements in meetings beyond the sports domain.

“There’s a really, really strong foundation here with the athletic administration,” Smyrl said. “And all the work that the coaches and the student athletes have done to really cement Emerson Athletics.”

Smyrl plans to empower Emerson’s coaches and athletes to strengthen their identity within the athletics community, solidifying the college’s status as a sports school.

“[I’m thinking about] increasing alumni engagement, increasing … [the interaction across teams], supporting each other to drum up more excitement,” she added. Smyrl also said that when considering ways to organize specific games, they could explore activities between the workday’s end and the game to keep students on campus.

Colombini and Vennochi had notable messages for the Emerson community—student-athlete or not.

“Our student-athletes put in the effort toward their sport with as much intensity and passion and energy as they put toward their academics,” Colombini said. “It’s just another piece of the ‘student’ here. They’re going to put in the extra time. They want to be great at it just like they want to be great at all of the creative stuff they’re doing here.”

“They’re really good, and they’re bought in and they care about the school,” Vennochi said. “They want to fit in with the school, they want the school to embrace them. And they want the school to know these are student athletes, no joke. My team had a 3.6 GPA last year.”

“No one’s on a scholarship here,” he added. “Everybody takes time out of their day, just like people do to be in the comedy troupe or the film shoot. It’s the same exact mindset these guys have … We have multiple guys on our team that are doing skits in the improv group [junior outfielder Nick Favazzo and senior catcher Chris Lowe] and doing film shoots and journalism packages [junior infielder Briggs Loveland] and everything every other Emerson student does. ”

Gould wants to remind the Emerson community that “Athletes at Emerson aren’t what everyone thinks they are.”

“It seems there’s a bit of a stereotype—and with most schools I’m sure—that athletes are all one kind of person, and there’s obviously no way that’s true,” she continued. “Just try not to be biased against people, and check ‘em out. The sports teams are fun, and they’re a good group of people.”

At the end of the day, Armant and Lawson aren’t fazed by Emerson’s lack of perception when it comes to athletics.

“Support is always nice, but you get that support from your internal cast—your family, friends, teammates, supporters,” Armant said. “What other people have to think about Emerson sports—it’d be great if they love it. But if they don’t, at the end of the day, we all came here to get a degree. That’s first, and sports is just a benefit for that.”

While the question of Emerson’s “sports school” status may never have a clear answer, there are still a multitude of ways to approach the topic, and solutions are being pioneered within the community to ensure that student-athletes’ voices are respected and heard.

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About the Contributor
Jordan Pagkalinawan
Jordan Pagkalinawan, Managing Editor
Jordan Pagkalinawan (he/him) hails from Burbank, California, and is the Beacon’s Managing Editor for news and sports. A junior journalism student with a minor in Sports Communication, Jordan previously served as the Kasteel Well Bureau Chief, sports editor, and staff writer. Outside of Emerson, he has interned with the CBS Sports Editorial team and currently writes for Last Word on Sports and YRMedia. When Jordan isn’t working on a story, you will find him either playing basketball, listening to music, reading multiple books, or buying a cup of coffee.

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