By Brance Arnold ’10 MA

Now in their second season as members of the NCAA Division I’s Southland Conference, UIW’s student-athletes are setting the bar in academics. With 123 honorees named to the Southland Conference Commissioner’s 2014 Spring Academic Honor Roll and 17 student-athletes earning a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, UIW topped the list of all Southland institutions.

Across Southland, a record total of 1,254 student-athletes were named to the conference’s academic honor roll which included student-athletes who took part in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s golf, softball, men’s and women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field. Each of the 10 UIW programs eligible for the honor roll had seven or more student-athletes honored; the women’s track and field team led the way with 23 honorees.

Some of the top Cardinals include four academic all-district honorees. Ifunanya (Ify) and Kosisio (Kosy) Mora, who graduated in May, were each named to the Southland Conference Women’s Basketball All-Academic First Team, each with a perfect 4.0 GPA in biology. Both were Capital One Academic All-District VI First Team selections this year and Ify was also a Third Team Academic All-America® choice in 2013-14. Baseball player Jason Stone, who also graduated in May, was selected to the Academic All-District 7 team with a GPA of 3.84 in vision science and Taylor Johnson, senior softball player, earned all-district with a 3.98 GPA in biology.

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Outfielder Taylor Johnson during a game at Cardinals Field.

“It’s such an honor,” said Johnson. “There were a number of girls on our team who earned this award for working hard in the classroom and on the field.”

In fact, UIW’s softball team was named a 2013-14 National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) NCAA Division I All-Academic Team. The team finished eighth in their first year in Division I holding a team GPA of 3.57 and was the top program from the State of Texas and in the Southland Conference. The Cardinals achieved a 3.68 GPA average during the Spring 2014 semester.

“Being named the NCAA D1 All-Academic Team was a huge deal and a very big achievement for our team,” said Johnson. “Not only do we have physically gifted and talented women, but smart women who excel academically. Yes, we all made a commitment to play UIW softball, but we all realize that we made the commitment to be UIW students first.”

Eight student-athletes were placed on the 2013-14 Southland Conference All-Academic Cross Country and Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field teams; the Cardinals had the second most student-athletes on the list.

Senior Chris DeWitt, named to the Southland honor roll and the first member of the Cardinals track and field program to earn first team Academic All-America® honors as well as the first UIW student-athlete to earn first team All-America at the Division I level, said being named to the honor roll was a tremendous achievement.

“As a college athlete, people tend to forget that we are students as well, so to receive recognition for the hard work that goes into the classroom gives me a lot of satisfaction,” said DeWitt.

He shared that maintaining a correct balance between athletics and academics has been crucial to his success in both respects, and UIW helps him to accomplish this delicate balance.

“UIW has provided me with plenty of support to be successful on the track and in the classroom by always excusing me from the athletic side if I needed some time to focus on my academics,” said DeWitt, “as well as professors giving adequate time to complete assignments and projects if perhaps we have been traveling for a competition.”

“Being a student-athlete is, in my opinion, equivalent to working a full-time job because you invest so much time and effort into bettering yourself mentally and physically every day to perform your best on and off the field,” said Johnson. “I’ve really learned to manage my time and I always try and work ahead on my schoolwork so I don’t fall behind.”

Johnson said she also takes advantage of the resources provided by UIW and attends professors’ office hours on a regular basis.

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Chris DeWitt (left) competes at Gayle and Tom Benson Stadium.

“The support and encouragement from faculty and staff from various departments plays a huge factor in our students successfully balancing their busy schedules,” said Athletics Academic Advisor Ashleigh Smith. “We assist in scheduling so that they do have an opportunity to de-stress and enjoy the college experience. The coaching staff also reinforces the importance of maintaining a good academic standing with the university.”

Smith said the NCAA Division I academic eligibility rules also emphasize academics as a priority with UIW student-athletes.

“If the students want to play their sport, they’ll have to perform well off the field first,” explained Smith. “Now that they are competing with Southland Conference teams, the student-athletes can better analyze their performance individually and as a team. The competition will motivate the students to improve their skills to win.”

DeWitt, who carries a 4.0 GPA in business administration, said being a part of the UIW Track and Field team is one of his proudest achievements in life.

“I take a great deal of pride in telling people that I run track at UIW not only because of what we have done and what we are known for on the track but also because I strongly believe in the values of our team,” said DeWitt. “The team has a history of having excellent GPAs as well as a history of consistently volunteering and giving back to the community.”

Smith said she is proud to see so many student-athletes excel academically.

“It’s rewarding to know that the amount of time and effort these students dedicate to their commitments on and off the field have led to positive recognition for them and the institution,” said Smith.