UPJ athletes brightest in conference


Brandon Zeris, Managing Editor

Three years ago Zach Vignero started his Pitt-Johnstown career like many student-athletes – with a desire to continue playing sports and little care for academics.

But, like many of his peers, he said he quickly realized that he needed to change his priorities.

“You get to a point where you realize that sports aren’t going to be there forever,” Vignero said. “You have to look toward the future.”

The senior baseball player said that, like many Pitt-Johnstown coaches, his coach, Todd Williams, influenced him and his teammates to make academics their first priority.

That influence has helped many Pitt-Johnstown student-athletes to excel in the classroom.

At a Sept. 19 Faculty Senate meeting, Faculty Athletics Representative Ray Wrabley presented NCAA statistics showing that, as of 2011, Pitt-Johnstown student-athletes had a higher six-year graduation rate and GPA than the total student bodies’.

Pitt-Johnstown student-athletes have had a higher GPA for five of the past eight semesters, averaging 1.7 percent better grades.

The statistics follow a nationwide university trend, which shows that student-athletes have a higher graduation rate than the total student body.

Wrabley said, among students who began their freshman year during the 2004-05 school year, athletes graduating by 2011 had a 63 percent graduation rate, while the Pitt-Johnstown total student graduation rate was 56 percent.

NCAA and federally calculated graduation rates are based on six-year rates to factor in students who may have taken time off from school, Wrabley said.

Athletic Director Pat Pecora said that, while many students drop out and pursue other career options, student-athletes have added motivation to stay in school to continue playing sports.

“If they want to continue doing what they love and playing sports, then they know they have to go to school and keep their grades up.

“They may think, ‘I want to be around my junior or senior year and start,’ so they have to get their work done to do that,” Pecora said.

According to Wrabley, a large reason for the comparative success is that most Division II athletes are told by coaches to strive to become a professional in something other than sports.

“It’s kind of the Division II slogan,” Wrabley said.

Student-athletes also have a benefit of extra help and academic guidance. Freshmen, first-year transfer students and some upperclassmen must log six study hall hours weekly.

To be graduated from the study hall requirement, freshmen must earn a 2.8 GPA in their first semester. Upperclassmen who have a 2.5 GPA or lower must stay in the program.

“Student-athletes are fortunate to have the help,” Pecora said.

Vignero said the required study hall allowed him to have a set time where he could focus on his class work.

“If I didn’t have to go, I probably would have gone back and taken a nap and not do my work,” he said.

Wrabley said that although student-athletes have added help, they also have added responsibility, noting eligibility requirements.

“The NCAA requires that they pass 24 new credits each year to stay eligible,” he said.

Amid controversial stories of athletes taking improper benefits and losing eligibility, Pecora said it’s reassuring to see local success.

“In this day and age, you see a lot of bad things about athletes … but the student-athletes here are doing well and working hard, and it’s not like they’re getting a lot of money,” Pecora said.

Division II athletes receive significantly less than typical full-ride scholarships given to many Division I athletes, Wrabley said.

Room and board costs are covered, but not every student-athlete gets additional aid.

Student-athletes have added pressure to do well in school because, if they don’t, they may be risking their team’s success by being ineligible, Pecora said.

“They have more accountability for their coaches and their team,” he said. “They don’t want to let anyone down.”

Pitt-Johnstown student-athletes have done well compared with West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference schools, academically.

Among West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools, Pitt-Johnstown ranks first out of 15 in student-athlete graduation rate.

Pitt-Johnstown also should be academically competitive with Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference schools next year when it joins that conference. It would have ranked fifth among the 16 schools.

Although 2012 figures are not yet available, Pecora said he expects future data to be similar to that of 2011 because athletes are encouraged by coaches to make academics their first priority.

“We’ve always told them, ‘It’s academics, then athletics,’” he said. “They’re here for the right reasons.”