Pioneers

Conversation with Greg Wallace

For the first 20 of Greg Wallace’s 28 years at Grinnell, he was head football coach. He has also coached golf and baseball, and he is an associate professor of physical education. For the past eight years, Wallace has served as director of athletics and recreation. 

Wallace is currently developing a new approach to recruiting student-athletes at Grinnell. He is laying the groundwork for a five-year senior faculty project that will begin after he retires as athletics director this fall and becomes coordinator of student-athlete recruitment for the Office of Admission. We asked him about his plans:

Is this a new role? 

It absolutely is a new role. I tested the waters last fall. I did some of my high school visits at that time and scheduled meetings with athletics directors at high schools in Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Los Angeles. 

How did you come up with this idea? 

I felt like we needed to get our name out there, because a lot of schools I visited knew of Amherst, or maybe Oberlin or Pomona, but we weren’t necessarily in that same conversation. My hope is that when somebody is looking at one of those schools, either the athletic director or a coach will say, “If you’re looking at those schools, you ought to look at Grinnell.” 

So, you are giving schools the tools to point students to Grinnell? 

Exactly right. And as you go through the process, you learn a little more each time you go to the school. One of the things I tried to do at all of the schools was not only to visit the AD [athletics director], but also to stop in and introduce myself to people in the counseling office. 

Where do you recruit?

It’s interesting. We really don’t have very many of what you would call feeder schools. The whole key is name recognition. We want to be in the same conversation for student- athletes whether they’re looking at a NESCAC [New England Small College Athletic Conference] school or they’re looking at an Ivy school.

Are there NCAA rules specific to this kind of role? 

Once students become juniors in high school, you can have direct contact with them. That’s not always been the case. Now, juniors can actually come to your campus to visit in the spring of their junior year. 

By invitation or on their own?

Either way, but in most cases it would probably be by invitation from the coach. I think it’s a good thing simply because schools like Grinnell are really working hard to get early-decision students, and you can’t get early-decision students unless you’ve made contact sometime during their junior year. 

How does this dovetail with other recruiting efforts?

Many of our coaches are going to academic elite camps and showcases where junior athletes are participating. A lot of times there is academic information available to coaches who attend those. As soon as we get that information, we bring it back and put it into our system, which automatically takes it to the admission office so students will start receiving information from Grinnell College, as well as from our athletics program.

Does Grinnell actively recruit students who are pursuing Division I athletic programs?

We send our coaches to some of the Ivy League camps, because if there are 150 kids at an Ivy League camp, that Ivy school may sign two of those. That leaves 148 of them who are looking for someplace to go. 

A lot of our coaches in team sports are getting YouTubes [YouTube videos] that the kids have put together themselves or that show game highlights. Coaches are getting a pretty good look at the potential of student-athletes in competition. The recruiting of student-athletes has always been intense, but it takes up so much of our coaches’ time and energy now that they are working as hard or harder during the recruiting process as [they do] during the coaching of their actual sport. Recruiting never stops for us. 

How else is the recruiting process different for a Division III school?

Division I and Division II have a national signing date the first week of February, so they have their class at that time. We’re recruiting all the way up to May 1, when students have to declare what schools they are going to attend. If we’re only working on seniors at that point, then we’re not doing justice to the next year’s class. So we’ve got to have a plan to address this year’s class and also a way to monitor and communicate with next year’s class.

Have student-athletes changed over the years?

I think student-athletes are the same, but there is more information available to them than ever before. For example, the Midwest Conference was one of the first Division III conferences to require webcasting of home contests in football, basketball, and volleyball. That’s been a big recruiting tool. 

We do webcasting now for almost all of our contests, so I can assure parents that they’re not going to have to miss a home contest or an away conference contest. It’s a big plus, even for prospective students who are able to watch and say, “I think I can play there,” or “I can see that guy’s graduating so that position’s open next year.” 

Final thoughts on your new endeavor?

I’m just very excited about it. I’ve had some very good response. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to get the type of student-athlete that we want at Grinnell College. It’s a way to get the brand in front of more people so that more coaches will say to students, “You could probably play at Grinnell. Have you thought about that?” 

Reaching Out

Daria Guzzo ’19 plays center for the Grinnell women’s basketball team. She is among the one-third of Grinnell’s student body that participates in varsity athletics. For service-oriented students like her, it can be a challenge to fit volunteerism into a jam-packed schedule that includes intercollegiate competition and weekend travel. 

By heading up Student Athletes Leading Social Change (SALSC), Guzzo is helping ensure that student-athletes have access to quality opportunities for community involvement. She is building participation and continuity into SALSC, which was started three years ago by Grinnell athletes Ariel Keller ’17 (basketball) and Dana Sherry ’16 (swimming).

“They wanted to provide a way for athletes to stay involved and give back to the community by working around their schedules,” Guzzo says. “There are a lot of great organizations at Grinnell for volunteering, but a lot of them either conflict with practice hours or involve heavy commitment times, which is a little bit harder for athletes.” 

SALSC’s mission is “to catalyze and connect college student-athletes to use their passion and platform to inspire and transform communities through sports, education, and leadership.” A few other colleges and universities — such as Illinois College, North Carolina, and Lehigh — have SALSC groups as well. “We gave [the mission] some Grinnell tweaks, because each college town is different and has different needs,” Guzzo says.

“We have a really great committee of 20-plus members who come continuously,” Guzzo says. “It’s always understood that if you’re an in-season athlete you’re a lot busier, and so some will participate more in the spring or the fall. That is totally fine with us because we understand their schedules. We just try to stay involved.”

Focusing on what matters

Pushing a cart full of donation items.

Having limited time means organizational efficiency is essential. The group meets twice a month, with a chairperson named to each of SALSC’s annual major projects. Emily Jordan ’19 is campaign chair for SALSC’s human trafficking campaign, and Carson Dunn ’18 took charge of the sexual assault awareness work. An expanded annual community field day for Grinnell area youth is being planned for spring 2018 by chair Noah Jacobson ’20.

In setting its priorities for the year, SALSC partners with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), Student-Athlete Mentors, and Grinnell Advocates, among others. Guzzo surveys SALSC membership at the start of the year to measure interest in various topics. “We see what’s feasible, what’s relevant to our campus and our community,” she says.

“I want to do things people are passionate about because people get involved and stay caring when the topics come from something that matters to them,” Guzzo says.

Hurricane relief

SALSC relies on effective planning for its major events, but it is also agile enough to respond to emergencies. When Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas and Louisiana in August, SALSC quickly organized a drive to help victims of the storm. 

“That actually came about through Ariel, who emailed me and said this would be great for SALSC to do,” Guzzo says. “Everybody was really on board, and we had a ton of support from the athletic department.” 

Student-athletes went to work collecting cash donations, gently worn shoes and clothing, cleaning supplies, and other nonperishables at football and soccer games during Family Weekend. Their efforts netted more than $500 and “five or six big boxes” of donations. Guzzo says the Student Government Association helped SALSC with shipping costs, and the donations were sent to Catholic Charities in Houston in October. The monetary funds were donated to victims of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“I was really happy with the donations we received,” Guzzo says. “That so many other areas were touched by hurricanes made it even more important that we did it, and I think people realize the impact. Our small contribution in the grand scheme of things is only so big, but if you think about other people doing similar things all over the country, hopefully it helps.”

Inspiring choice

Guzzo likes the concept of SALSC because “it’s an opportunity for all athletes to be a leader.” She explains, “In athletics, captains are always upperclassmen who’ve shown certain leadership traits that apply to certain things. SAAC and the Student-Athlete Mentors are great, too, and we need those, but SALSC is a way for people to develop their leadership, give back, and have a different role if they want. It’s open to everyone.”

A political science and Spanish major, Guzzo says her personal sense of volunteerism comes from her parents’ commitment to community service and her high school’s emphasis on volunteer work. 

“Volunteering matters a lot. People help me out, I should help others out. It’s just part of being a community,” Guzzo says. “I grew up in a town that’s a little bit bigger than Grinnell (Coal Valley, Ill.), but you can see the effects it has in a small town especially. It gives you a lot personally, but it also helps people along the way.

“That’s why I am passionate about volunteer work, passionate about giving back,” she says. “There are a lot of other things people could choose to do with their time, but when people choose to volunteer, that’s inspiring.” 

A Culture of Learning

Eric Ragan ’12 first came to Grinnell in 2008 knowing little more than that he wanted to keep playing sports in college, and he wanted to do it in a “high academic” environment. 

By the end of his undergraduate career, Ragan had earned a degree in history, completed the teacher education program, and garnered all-conference athletic and academic honors in track. Most importantly, he was completely certain about launching a career as a coach and teacher.

This summer, Ragan returned to Grinnell with a master’s degree in sports studies and a passion for learning theory as the Pioneers’ new head volleyball coach. His hiring completes a circle, the arc of which began forming alongside family members in his hometown of Lander, Wyo.  

“My parents were teachers and coaches, so I learned at a very young age how fulfilling that can be,” Ragan says. “My mom was our town’s volleyball coach and athletic director. I helped coach my little sisters in volleyball, and those were tremendous experiences to me. I’ve seen how sports in their lives have been so important in developing the people that they have become. Being able to give that experience to other girls and women is super important to me.”

Ragan’s relatively fast rise to a head coaching post was expedited by four years in the Division I ranks, first as a full-time assistant volleyball coach at Bucknell University and then as director of volleyball operations at Loyola Marymount University in California. 

“I jumped on the opportunity at LMU because the head coach was one of the national team assistant coaches,” Ragan says. “I got to learn from one of the best coaches in the world for a year.” 

Focus on process

Another post-Grinnell opportunity — also with family ties — further developed Ragan’s coaching philosophies. He and his brother Trevor founded Train Ugly, an organization dedicated to the science of motor learning, mental growth, and performance in sports, business, and life. Trevor runs the show now but Eric remains involved in summer volleyball and basketball camps for young athletes.

“The biggest part of skill development is mental, and that science tells us that focusing on outcomes is detrimental to growth,” Ragan explains. “If I’m worried about winning or getting an A on a paper, then I’m not necessarily interested in learning. But if I’m focused on the learning process, I’m going to keep getting better; and if I’m always learning and getting better, then I’m going to be improving my outcomes as well. 

“That’s the kind of culture that we’ll be trying to create here,” Ragan says. 

Academics and community first

The idea that skills developed in athletics should be applicable to any pursuit in life is integral to a liberal arts education, Ragan says. As a head coach building his first recruiting class, he says it’s an advantage that student-athletes who choose to come to Grinnell tend to be “self-selecting” for all the right reasons.

“I’m recruiting with the philosophy that students need to find the right fit,” Ragan says. “That means academics first. It means community culture first. Volleyball is the icing on the cake.”

That does not mean winning isn’t part of the equation. Indeed, that would miss the point of athletic competition. “If we automatically knew the outcome of a contest, sports would be boring,” Ragan says. “We love sports because there is a scoreboard; it’s about using it as a yardstick to see where we are in our process. 

“Sports are great because they let us test ourselves in situations that really matter,” he says. “The magic happens when an athlete sees progress and sees they’re able to do something that they couldn’t do before. That’s when the real buy-in comes.”

To be great learners

Ragan envisions a high level of process-oriented achievement for his student-athletes at Grinnell, and he is his own best example of what success looks like. 

“My experience at Grinnell as a student and as an athlete shaped my career path,” Ragan says. “I loved my experience, and I wanted to give that experience to future student-athletes. 

“I saw sports here as an extended classroom — as another place to learn. At other institutions, coaches feel like they have to win or they’re going to get fired. Here, it’s about how we can facilitate learning for our student-athletes,” he says.  

“Our focus is to be great learners in everything we do. That’s the culture that I wanted to be in. I saw it here as a student, and I wanted to be a part of it as a career. I’m really thankful that it happened this soon.” 

Playing for Fun

In spring 2014, Isaiah Tyree ’15 made a name for himself, literally, while trying his luck at soccer  forward. Our team affectionately referred to him as “Torres,” after Spanish striker Fernando Torres, Tyree’s favorite player. Coach Jaws (Brian Jaworski) suggested that our team’s Torres make the transition from goalkeeper to forward during his senior season.

“I had a tough previous season, and so my goal for my senior season was to have fun and recreate my love for soccer,” Tyree says.

A full-time goalkeeper during his first three seasons, Tyree eagerly prepared to play forward, leaving goalkeeping duties to teammate Major May ’17.

Throughout the intense preparation for his final chance at college soccer, Isaiah barely looked at his gloves, much less stepped between the pipes.

With high hopes of a season to remember, we began our campaign with our alumni game. Passes looked crisp and the team was in shape.

Then everything changed in one heart-stopping moment. A ball snuck past our defense. Major May charged in goal and collided with the knee of an opposing forward. 

With Major dazed on the sideline, Torres transformed back into our starting goalkeeper. After taking no repetitions in preseason, Tyree became the only healthy goalkeeper on our roster.

“Luckily [my skills] came back naturally,” Tyree says. “It probably helped that I was not overthinking it.”

As the season wore on, the shutouts piled up for Tyree and Grinnell’s defense. One day Coach Jaws announced that Tyree had achieved the best save percentage in the nation for NCAA Division III goalkeepers.

“It wasn’t something that was even on my mind,” Tyree says. “I thought it would be cool to say I had been No. 1 for a week in my career. I never expected that it could last all season.”

Aware that we had the chance to accomplish something special, the team made it a point of pride to keep the ball out of our net.

Isaiah Tyree ’15 with the 2014 men’s soccer teamPart of this accomplishment can be attributed to two starting defenders, Joey Saenz ’16 and Rockne DeCoster ’15, who came up with the term “Back Bros” for the unbreakable back line. “It started as a joke, but over the course of the season it became serious,” Saenz says. “Being a Back Bro meant being a good defender and a good teammate. A lot of that success comes from personal accountability. We didn’t want to be the one that made the mistake that gave up the goal.”

Grinnell did not allow a single goal in its final seven matches. In fact, Grinnell’s opponents went scoreless for the final 742 minutes of the season.

While parts of the season felt like a fairy tale, the ending was a harsh blast of reality. Despite losing only three games, and winning or tying our last eight games, Grinnell did not qualify for the conference tournament. The season was over.

Yet, the team achieved more than it could ever imagine in the record books. Tyree finished first in goals-against average and save percentage, after conceding only three goals all season. His save percentage of .959 was an NCAA Division III record and ranks second all-time among all NCAA divisions.

With the help of the Back Bros, the team set additional records. The Pioneers established a new Midwest Conference record in fewest goals allowed with only eight. Team goals-against average was 0.44, fourth nationally. Grinnell tied the MWC record for shutouts in a season with 11.

The most remarkable aspect of these accomplishments was the team’s process of getting there. From the bench erupting in applause each time the ball landed safely in Tyree’s gloves, to our backs eagerly willing to lunge in for a sliding block, it was apparent how much this meant to us.

“The point of any team sport is that you do things as a team. That’s not necessarily captured by these accolades, but it’s inherent in them,” Tyree says. “These are shared awards, and they represent what we did as a unit.”  

Leading the League in Academics

Grinnell College landed a league-best 286 student-athletes on the Midwest Conference (MWC) All-Academic Team for 2014–15. Grinnell led MWC schools in All-Academic picks during all three sports seasons: 112 selections during the fall, 99 in the winter, and 75 in the spring. 

To be eligible, students had to achieve a minimum GPA of 3.33 during the awarded academic year and letter in any of the conference’s fall, winter, or spring sports. 

Training for Boston

It’s pitch-dark in Columbus, Ohio, when the alarm breaks the wintery stillness at 5 a.m. Instead of hitting “snooze” and burrowing further under the duvet, Sarah Burnell ’14 laces up her running shoes and heads outdoors. 

It’s all “part of the allure” of training for the Boston Marathon, she says. But it’s also much more than that.  

“This year my goal is to break 3 hours,” Burnell says. The former Grinnell track and cross country star felt she had trained to do just that in her first Boston Marathon last year but Patriots’ Day brought warmer-than-expected weather.

“It threw me off a bit and I ended up running a time (3:10:44) that was quite a bit slower than what I’d been training at,” Burnell says. Her time was still significantly faster than her previous best of 3 hours 24 minutes, which she’d run the previous fall at Rochester, Minn., and which served as her qualifying time for Boston. 

“This year we’re going to try it again,” Burnell says. 

Help from the ‘team’

Burnell is not using the rhetorical “we.” Tim Butterfield, former assistant director of admissions at Grinnell, is her running and training partner. Her coach and teammate from afar is Jennifer Latham, wife of Mike Latham, Grinnell’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. Besides Burnell’s record-setting career as a student athlete, she is also a former Pioneer assistant track coach as well as a former staff member in admission and conference operations. 

Burnell welcomes the training advice, since her specialties in college were indoor and outdoor middle distances (800 and 1,500 meters) and as a Pioneer harrier. She is second all-time in cross country program history.

“Jennifer has been helping me with last year’s and this year’s Boston Marathon training plan,” Burnell says. “She’s been really great because she’s run Boston a few times and qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon, so she’s knowledgeable about long distance events.”

One change Burnell has made is to run shorter distances in the fall prior to Boston rather than a full marathon as she had done previously. “The issue with doing a marathon the season before is that it takes a full month until your legs are back,” she says, “whereas you can run a couple of half-marathons and still practice the pace with less recovery time required.”

Burnell says she checks in regularly with a chiropractor to keep her aligned and sees a physical therapist if an ailment pops up. One month before the race, she put in a 22-mile run — her longest of the training cycle. Incorporating cross-training days, bike work, and days off, she’s trying to avoid the little injuries that she says were “creeping up” at the end of training last year.

Growing to the challenge

Adding to the overall challenge is that Burnell started a new job in early February as assistant director of alumni relations at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Balancing a commute with running daily and lifting in the gym, it helps that her supervisor is a distance runner and swimmer who “totally gets marathons and endurance sports,” she says.

“It’s taking more thought now to coordinate everything, and it’s definitely pushed me to be more flexible and grow in ways that I thought I’d already grown,” says Burnell, who made the move from her native Grinnell to Columbus last November. I’m fortunate to have had some time between when I moved here and started working to have some adjustment time.”

Burnell points to her passion for running and solid coaching at Grinnell as key factors in her evolution as a distance runner. “It started off as a challenge, something new,” she says. “I’d never run a marathon distance before, or even a half-marathon, so I think it was just trying a new distance. From there it just kind of folded into enjoying the time outside, the long runs, and the feeling that you’ve accomplished something.

“Part of it is just having really good coaching,” Burnell says. “Will and Evelyn [Freeman] are fantastic coaches. One of the things that they teach, in addition to being a good runner for whatever distance you’re training for in the moment, is how to be a runner for life. It’s not easy in a post-collegiate running life to find 800s and the 1,500s, so while it was a big jump in terms of distances and types of training, the foundational things that they teach about being active for life have really shown through with my venturing off into marathons.

“It’s that basis of running being a part of one’s lifestyle and having goals for yourself — that you’re always creating every time you accomplish something and readjusting every time you don’t meet goals.”  

Patriots’ Day 

April 17, 2017, Boston, Mass. – Burnell finishes at 3:12:05

276th among females 18–39 and 317th among all women in the race

Sarah Burnell with medal“I was aiming for an average of 6:50 per mile, which means I would have finished just under 3 hours, but with the heat I had to readjust my goals and I’m happy with 3:12:05,” Burnell says of her 7:20-per-mile pace. “I think that if the weather had been cooler, I could have run a pretty fast time. I felt like I was more in control of the race compared to my experience last year, and I didn’t feel as depleted post-race this time around. There will definitely be a few more Boston races in my future, but now I have my sights set on New York, Chicago, or one that’s been on my list for a while, Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn.”

 

 

Best of Both Worlds

Nick Curta ’17 first heard about Grinnell when his high school basketball coach was thinking about introducing the “System” (the “System,” as in Coach Dave Arseneault and Grinnell College) as a style of play at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Ill. And because the coach was his dad, Curta got a unique perspective on the rationale behind using it.

“My dad had been coaching probably 15 years when he realized he was doing what everyone else was — playing six or seven guys with the rest sitting on the bench,” says Curta. “They were winning games, but not everyone was having fun. It was kind of a day-in, day-out basketball grind.

Nick Curta jumps to dunk the basketball“When Grinnell played on ESPN, my dad saw that game and it was always in the back of his head,” Curta says. “My sophomore year it was like, if we’re going to have 20 guys on the team, why not have them all play more and have fun with it? So he went to Coach [Arseneault’s] clinics and learned the System.”

Fun worked. Eisenhower won its conference, broke a national record for 3-pointers attempted, and broke the state record for 3-pointers made. “We scored 120 points a couple times,” Curta says. “In eight-minute quarters, that’s pretty unusual. Around the south side of Chicago, it got to where people were saying we had the team to go see. That’s where I fell in love with the System.” 

As he researched colleges as a high school junior, Curta decided Division III athletics was the right move. “I didn’t want to go to a program where I’d be a walk-on,” he says. “I wanted to go to a program where I’d play and be an integral part of the team.” But the National Honor Society president and AP Scholar in high school didn’t choose Grinnell solely because it is the mecca of System basketball.

Academics first

“Academics was first and foremost in my college search,” Curta says. “I’ve been lucky enough to grow to 6 feet 6 inches and have some ability on the basketball court, but the academic environment of Grinnell really attracted me. Everybody here wants to learn, and everyone wants each other to succeed.” 

A double major in economics and political science, Curta has earned academic all-conference status in each of his first three years. His plans are to attend law school after graduation.

On the court, Curta is a force under the basket. He finished 2015–16 as the Pioneers’ leading rebounder (111, 4.8 per game) and tallied 26 blocked shots. While scoring is not his primary role, he converted a healthy 78 percent of the 65 shots he took from the field last season.

“My field-goal percentage has gone up with skill work, but I’m more the grunt guy who likes to get in there and mix it up,” Curta says. “What I look forward to in games is setting screens, getting guys open for different shots. My brother (6-foot-5-inch guard Vinny Curta ’19) has the same mentality, but he’s put it more toward scoring and skill play. I’ve put the focus on getting to the glass, diving on the floor, taking charges, taking pride in the small things.”

Full effort, full commitment

Curta credits his parents — Michael, geography teacher and coach, and Dana, middle school teacher and former Division I volleyball player at DePaul University — for instilling in him a mindset for success. “In a very positive manner, they pushed us to be the best we can both academically and athletically,” Curta says. “And they still do that. If I have a test and they know about it, it’s ‘Good luck on the test, make sure you’re studying.’  

“They’re always at all our games, so before a game it’s a good-luck text, ‘Go out there and play hard.’ They’re very motivational and supportive of everything that we do.

“Growing up in a household where you have two coaches and two athletes, you get that never-quit, get-after-it attitude of full effort and full commitment.” 

Exclamation point(s) on a record day

A lot of Thanksgiving holiday calories were burned off when Greenville College — a team that also employs the System — invaded Darby gym Nov. 29 for a matchup of college basketball’s two highest-scoring teams.  

Grinnell prevailed 151-128 over the previously unbeaten Panthers, who had entered the game with a national-high 140 points-per-game average. Along the way the Pioneers set a Division III record of 54 free throws made, topping the old mark of 53 set in 1988 by University of California-San Diego. 

Grinnell’s final scoring play of the contest was a Vinny Curta dunk on an assist by Nick Curta. 

Hand-drawn outline of Gates Tower with text Become a Grinnellian

Best of Both Worlds

Nick Curta ’17 first heard about Grinnell when his high school basketball coach was thinking about introducing the “System” (the “System,” as in Coach Dave Arseneault and Grinnell College) as a style of play at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Ill. And because the coach was his dad, Curta got a unique perspective on the rationale behind using it.

“My dad had been coaching probably 15 years when he realized he was doing what everyone else was — playing six or seven guys with the rest sitting on the bench,” says Curta. “They were winning games, but not everyone was having fun. It was kind of a day-in, day-out basketball grind.

Nick Curta jumps to dunk the basketball“When Grinnell played on ESPN, my dad saw that game and it was always in the back of his head,” Curta says. “My sophomore year it was like, if we’re going to have 20 guys on the team, why not have them all play more and have fun with it? So he went to Coach [Arseneault’s] clinics and learned the System.”

Fun worked. Eisenhower won its conference, broke a national record for 3-pointers attempted, and broke the state record for 3-pointers made. “We scored 120 points a couple times,” Curta says. “In eight-minute quarters, that’s pretty unusual. Around the south side of Chicago, it got to where people were saying we had the team to go see. That’s where I fell in love with the System.” 

As he researched colleges as a high school junior, Curta decided Division III athletics was the right move. “I didn’t want to go to a program where I’d be a walk-on,” he says. “I wanted to go to a program where I’d play and be an integral part of the team.” But the National Honor Society president and AP Scholar in high school didn’t choose Grinnell solely because it is the mecca of System basketball.

Academics first

“Academics was first and foremost in my college search,” Curta says. “I’ve been lucky enough to grow to 6 feet 6 inches and have some ability on the basketball court, but the academic environment of Grinnell really attracted me. Everybody here wants to learn, and everyone wants each other to succeed.” 

A double major in economics and political science, Curta has earned academic all-conference status in each of his first three years. His plans are to attend law school after graduation.

On the court, Curta is a force under the basket. He finished 2015–16 as the Pioneers’ leading rebounder (111, 4.8 per game) and tallied 26 blocked shots. While scoring is not his primary role, he converted a healthy 78 percent of the 65 shots he took from the field last season.

“My field-goal percentage has gone up with skill work, but I’m more the grunt guy who likes to get in there and mix it up,” Curta says. “What I look forward to in games is setting screens, getting guys open for different shots. My brother (6-foot-5-inch guard Vinny Curta ’19) has the same mentality, but he’s put it more toward scoring and skill play. I’ve put the focus on getting to the glass, diving on the floor, taking charges, taking pride in the small things.”

Full effort, full commitment

Curta credits his parents — Michael, geography teacher and coach, and Dana, middle school teacher and former Division I volleyball player at DePaul University — for instilling in him a mindset for success. “In a very positive manner, they pushed us to be the best we can both academically and athletically,” Curta says. “And they still do that. If I have a test and they know about it, it’s ‘Good luck on the test, make sure you’re studying.’  

“They’re always at all our games, so before a game it’s a good-luck text, ‘Go out there and play hard.’ They’re very motivational and supportive of everything that we do.

“Growing up in a household where you have two coaches and two athletes, you get that never-quit, get-after-it attitude of full effort and full commitment.” 

Exclamation point(s) on a record day

A lot of Thanksgiving holiday calories were burned off when Greenville College — a team that also employs the System — invaded Darby gym Nov. 29 for a matchup of college basketball’s two highest-scoring teams.  

Grinnell prevailed 151-128 over the previously unbeaten Panthers, who had entered the game with a national-high 140 points-per-game average. Along the way the Pioneers set a Division III record of 54 free throws made, topping the old mark of 53 set in 1988 by University of California-San Diego. 

Grinnell’s final scoring play of the contest was a Vinny Curta dunk on an assist by Nick Curta. 

Goal-Driven, Team-Oriented

Ibuki Ogasawara ’17 first got the notion to play American football when, as a newly arrived first-year, he saw Grinnell’s team eating together in the dining hall. “I wanted to be a part of that,” he says. “That was my motivation.”

Coach Jeff Pedersen ’02 regarded Ogasawara’s request to join the team with understandable caution. The student from Takasaki-Shi, Japan, had obvious athletic ability — at home he’d played baseball, soccer, and finished sixth nationally in a 110-kilometer bicycle road race — but he was a bit undersized for football and completely unfamiliar with the game. 

“There is a very limited amount of high school football in Japan,” Ogasawara says. “College football is not even close to the scale of what it is in the United States, so I wasn’t exposed to that culture when I was growing up. I would say most people in Japan don’t know the rules of football or how it works.”

Pedersen first observed the enthusiastic prospect in a beginning weight lifting class. Ogasawara worked out with the Pioneer gridders during his second semester and stayed in Grinnell during his first summer to lift weights and train. Favorably impressed, Pedersen allowed Ogasawara to participate in pre-season practices. In the fall of his second year, Ogasawara was playing cornerback on Saturdays.

“At every step I had reservations about whether he’d ever be able to contribute, and at every step he’s proven me wrong,” Pedersen says. “He brings an energy and excitement to practice every day that is a great example for all our guys, and he’s filling his role very well this year, as a kicker and a defensive back. We’re fortunate to have him on the team.”

Ultimate Teamwork

In his senior campaign, Ogasawara is Grinnell’s starting kicker. Halfway through the season he’s logged a respectable 53 yards per kickoff and has not missed an extra point. His one missed field goal was blocked. 

Not bad for someone who had never booted a football before the 2016 season. “I started from zero,” Ogasawara says. “I’m surprised at how complicated it is. There are so many factors. It’s a very sensitive process to kick the ball straight.”

Mastering the more aggressive aspects of football is a significant challenge, Ogasawara says, but it’s the team play that he finds most appealing. “It’s assignment football,” he says. “If you do what you’re supposed to do, it works out as a team. I really love that ultimate teamwork.” 

Pioneers defensive back Joe Galaske ’17 says, “Over the last three years I have gotten to know Ibuki very well both as a teammate and as a friend. He is one of the most hardworking, intelligent, and talented people I have ever had the great fortune to meet.”

Ogasawara’s achievements attracted national attention in September when he was named a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation’s William V. Campbell trophy. Open to players at all levels of college football, the award cites athletic performance, team contribution, academics, leadership, and citizenship.

Stars Align

It’s a rapid ascendancy in only three seasons, but then, when Ogasawara focuses on a goal it seems destined to become manifest. As a high school student, he’d already formed a preference for going to a liberal arts college in a rural setting rather than a big city. He learned of Grinnell in the process of being accepted for a scholarship from the Grew Bancroft Foundation, which specifically aims to help Japanese students attend liberal arts colleges in the midwestern United States.

When his counselor at Chuo Secondary School turned out to be Douglas Emmett ’98, Ogasawara says, “I couldn’t believe that was the case. He helped me a lot.” If that wasn’t serendipitous enough, when they called Grinnell’s Office of Admission, “it was like a coincidence, but Jon Edwards [Grinnell’s coordinator of international admission] was in Japan at that moment. We met outside Tokyo, and that sealed my intent,” Ogasawara says. 

Big Opportunities, New Challenges

In addition to having fun with football, the mathematics major is celebrating a recent internship that produced “an incredible offer” to work for Amazon after graduation. He plans to return to his home country as an area manager for Amazon Japan operations after a six-month training period in the States.

But not so fast. Track season is coming and Ogasawara is focusing on yet more athletic challenges at Grinnell. “I never pole-vaulted before last year,” he says. “My goal this year is five meters. I’m aiming at the school record.”

Ogasawara’s personal high is 13 feet 6 inches. The school records for indoor and outdoor pole vault are 15 feet 3 inches and 15 feet 3/4 inch set by Lee Kraemer ’92 in 1992. Considering Ogasawara’s trajectory over the past four years, no one is discounting the possibility. 

Olympic Flag-bearer

Joshua Tibatemwa ’19 stands on starting blockIt would have been enough for Joshua Tibatemwa ’19 to be Grinnell’s first modern-era Olympian during his college career. But two days before the 2016 Rio Olympics began, the swimmer from Kampala, Uganda, learned he’d also make College history another way.

“Imagine my surprise when I found out 48 hours prior to the opening ceremony that I’d be holding the flag,” says the first Grinnellian to lead his nation’s Olympic team in an opening ceremony. On August 5, Tibatemwa proudly guided the 21-member team into Maracanã Stadium to join the opening ceremony, which he describes as “unique and quite a spectacle.”

The soft-spoken member of Grinnell’s men’s swim team noted that because teams entered Maracanã alphabetically, Uganda was 196th of 208 squads. “So I had plenty of time to calm down,” he recalls, smiling. “But it was exhilarating to finally emerge from the tunnel into the light. Also it was unreal to consider that millions of people around the world were watching you walk. Needless to say, I was focused on not tripping.”

He didn’t. While Tibatemwa didn’t medal, the Olympic experience was an education in high-stakes competition for him and Tim Hammond, assistant men’s and women’s swim coach. Hammond and Erin Hurley, head men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach, trained Tibatemwa during two-a-day workouts after the College swim season ended.

After Tibatemwa returned home to train and also intern at Kiira Motors, Hammond sent him workouts and advice on technique. Thanks to the generous support of Grinnell Trustee Tobi Klein Marcus ’87 and Michael Marcus ’86, Hammond then traveled to Rio de Janeiro to help Tibatemwa with final preparations.

“It is a great honor to help develop swimming, and sport, and the opportunity in general in another country and across Africa,” says Hammond, who is coaching Tibatemwa again this year at Grinnell. “Joshua shared with me that during the opening ceremonies he was speaking with a USA Swim Team member about how exciting it is to have swimmers from Africa participating in ever greater numbers at the Olympics.”

The worldwide attention from spectators and media may have contributed to Tibatemwa’s inability to beat his national record of 25.54 seconds in his sole event, the 50-meter freestyle. He swam 25.98, finishing sixth in his heat.

“Joshua hadn’t been part of a meet with so much pomp and circumstance and was caught a bit off guard by the camera in his lane when he dove in,” Hammond says. “He told me all this afterwards with a bit of frustration as well as excitement. Although it interrupted his performance, he has now experienced it and therefore can plan better for the future.”

Tibatemwa tried to treat the Olympics as an ordinary meet. “But I will be honest,” he says, “the gravity of the situation was well known to me. There was a lot of pressure riding on the race. However, truth be told, sometimes you have a good race and sometimes you have an OK race. I’m not too disappointed with the time, but I will strive to do better.”

He spent most days in the Olympic Village but accompanied Hammond to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue above Rio along with Uganda’s other swimmer, Jamila Lunkuse; Grinnell swimmer and friend Ana Karin Kozjek ’17; and her mom, a Slovenian team doctor. The Village, Tibatemwa says, “felt like a large university. All the athletes seemed to be normal people who decided to do extraordinary things.”

The exhilaration has faded, and Tibatemwa is pleased to be back at Grinnell, looking forward to helping Grinnell repeat as conference champion. “It’s going to feel good to be back in the pool with everyone as opposed to just me by myself,” he says. “Plus, the team keeps things lighthearted and entertaining.

“From this point on I just want to enjoy a normal college swimming experience. It was great to compete at Rio, but it took a lot of mental energy throughout the year, and I figure I’m up for a break. As for [the 2020 Summer Olympics in] Tokyo, who knows? Ask me again in three years.”

If he goes to Tokyo, he’ll have plenty of support, at Grinnell and across the world. After all, not every college has an Olympian on board. 

Finding a Way to Win

When Dana Harrold became head coach for Grinnell women’s basketball in 2013, she told her players she wanted to go from being a basketball team to a basketball program. The difference, she said, is a year-round commitment.

The payoff became apparent this season as the Pioneers earned a trip to the Midwest Conference Tournament for the first time since 2004.

Harrold knows that citing her team’s “never-quit mentality” sounds like a sports cliché. But it does take a certain something to go from only three wins in her first season to 10 wins in 2014–15, to a 15-9 record and legitimate respect this year.

“They were working just as hard on the last day of practice as they were on the first,” Harrold says.

Four-year starters Anne Boldt ’16 and Alissa Hirsh ’16 were this year’s captains and floor leaders. “They were the building blocks,” Harrold says. “Anne was our vocal, positive leader, and Alissa our gritty, hard-nosed competitor.”

Point guard Hirsh earned first team all-Midwest Conference honors for the second year in a row. She had a field goal percentage of .491 and led the team in minutes played, points, scoring average, assists, and steals. Hirsch ends her career third in all-time Pioneer scoring, first in assists, and fifth in steals.

“She’ll go down as one of the best players in program history,” Harrold says. “She has been a lot of fun to coach. The tough part of my job is finding another Alissa Hirsh.”

Harrold bids farewell to three seniors – Boldt, Hirsh, and guard Jordan Matosky ’16. Always on the lookout for high-academic basketball prospects, the coach can now add Grinnell’s winning trajectory to her recruiting pitch.

“My biggest goal for kids who play in our program,” Harrold adds, “is that they graduate and have a plan after four years.”

An economics major, Hirsh played most of this season secure in the knowledge that she had a job after graduation — she’ll be doing investment research for an asset management firm in San Francisco. She says the team’s success this year was partly due to the chemistry it developed during the tough times.

“When we were going through that 3-20 season, I sometimes didn’t even realize that we were losing so many games because there were so many positive moments,” Hirsh says. “We just kept chugging no matter what and let our love for each other and the game really fuel us. So it wasn’t as hard for us as I think it would have been for other teams to climb out of that.”

Indeed, they started producing wins through court awareness, play-making, energy, and team chemistry — things that don’t necessarily show up on stat sheets. Hence the team motto, “Find a Way.”

“We had talked so much about being process-oriented, not worrying too much with the product or specific goals,” Hirsh says. “After my third year when we were around .500, we could feel ourselves getting over the hump — and we were like, process isn’t enough. We need to start turning in product, getting wins. Every game we need to find a way to do that, no excuses. I think that got us through a lot of close games this season.”

For Hirsh, starting a new career in an international city doesn’t completely take the sting out of hanging up her uniform in Darby Gymnasium for the last time.

“It’s definitely a loss in the sense that it was a source of so many positive and emotional and intense things for four years,” Hirsh says. “I am sad about this part of it being over because it was so special, but I think I’m still going to grab a ball after work and go to the park. I’m going to try to find adult leagues. I’m going to teach my kids the game. I think this is just the start of a new relationship with basketball.”