Alongside a strong academic curriculum, the Academy’s athletic program has accelerated over the last few years creating more and more college bound athletes. The 2015-2016 year alone saw 41 student-athletes across 8 different sports commit, including basketball, football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, and field hockey. In addition, eight students will go on to play junior hockey for amateur programs around the country.
Why the increase in college bound student-athletes? According to Associate Head of School for Community Life and Athletics David Dykeman, it’s because, “Cheshire Academy has implemented a student-athlete strategy that helps to benefit all its athletic hopefuls from day one and makes sure they have realistic expectations and goals. At the end of the day, we go to work to fulfill their dreams of playing collegiate sports. It’s one of the unique characteristics of Cheshire Academy.” The strategy Dykeman is referencing is made up of several key parts, which when combined, give the Academy a unique differentiator from other schools.
RECRUITING TOP PROSPECTS
The first part of that strategy focuses on selectively bringing in top prospects across its major sports. It’s these stand out players who help open doors for other athletes to be noticed and gain the exposure they deserve from college coaches. Football players like Tarik Black ’17 and CJ Holmes ’17 (both from Hamden, Connecticut), and Sam Vretman ’17 (from Sweden) are prime examples. As rising seniors, they have collectively earned more than 100 verbal offers from top schools like Notre Dame, Alabama, University of Michigan, and more. Vretman has already committed to play for Rutgers University and Holmes for University of Notre Dame, both top NCAA Division I programs. In addition, basketball player Chol Marial ’20, who is a whopping 7’3”, already has interest from top programs in the country like the University of North Carolina (UNC). Dykeman elaborates, “This past year alone, more than 250 coaches visited the campus who were interested in our student-athletes.”
The strategy is paying off. In the 2015-2016 year, a number of seniors and postgraduates went from top high school prospects to top college-bound athletes, including varsity baseball pitchers Austen Michel ’16, who will be playing for Dartmouth College, and David Stiehl ’16, who will be playing for Northeastern University in the fall. The Academy’s basketball and football programs have similar results. Seyoum Settepani ’16 received a full scholarship to the University of Richmond for football, and Elijah Pemberton ’16 will be a starting point guard for Hofstra University’s NCAA Division I men’s basketball program. The newly founded Elite Hockey Program at Cheshire Academy is also extending student-athletes playing careers, including Remi Selerier ’16, who recently signed with the Junior “A” Nepean Raiders of the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL).
The Academy also focuses on ensuring that there is continuous communication between coaches, college counseling, athletics, and academics. “The academic office partners with the coaches and the athletic department to ensure that grades and school come first and that we are all working in concert to help the students achieve both academically and athletically,” said Associate Head of School Julie Anderson. “Academic importance is reflected strongly in all of our student-athletes, who are also very well-rounded taking on roles as student leaders, part of the arts program, and more.”
In addition to the academic office, college counseling is also heavily involved. “Academic preparation and fit is our first goal in college counseling. We ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards the same outcome in terms of positioning a student to play in college at a school that is right for them,” said Director of College Counseling Dan Monahan. “Our student-athletes receive the support they need through our small class sizes, daily extra help, and the Roxbury Support Program.”
Making sure the families of these student-athletes understand the communication between internal departments is also key. While a student may know they want to play collegiate athletics, there’s more to succeeding than just having the desire. Families must understand the importance of excelling academically, and they need to have realistic goals. “At Cheshire Academy, it’s not just about athletics, the academic piece is more important, and we make sure our students and their parents know that from the beginning,” said Dykeman. “Also, these students, and their parents, need to be realistic about what the student can achieve in an athletic career. Not every student can play Division I athletics, and sometimes we have to sit down with families and explain why. But, we don't leave them without options; we work with students to find a way to make a Division II or III experience possible.”
There a number of reasons student-athletes may not be able to play Division I sports, like Elina Hoivala ’16, a transfer student from Finland. While Hoivala is a top prospect in women's volleyball, she needed additional NCAA core course credits to reach the initial eligibility mark to compete at the Division 1 level. Hoivala worked with the Academy’s College Counseling and Athletic Departments to come up with a plan to continue her education at a NJCAA Division 1 junior college, gain the credits she needs, and then go on to play volleyball at a four-year school. She graduated after spending two years at the Academy and will enroll in junior college in the fall. Hoivala already has interest from top Division I programs in the country, such as Bryant University.
A COMPETITIVE SCHEDULE
The strength of a team’s schedule in a season is also a part of the strategy. Often times a school might play a weaker schedule in order to have a better record. “At Cheshire Academy, we try to play as many top tier New England teams as possible, which increases the chances of college coaches and recruiters visiting our school,” said Director of Athletic Operations Ed Banach. “They know we’re playing the best of the best, and they want to see how our student-athletes compete and perform.”
The Academy has performed well in the top classes of New England Prep School Athletic Council (NEPSAC). Just in the past year, boys varsity basketball made it to the final four in the NEPSAC Class A Division, varsity volleyball revisited the finals of the NEPSAC Class B Division for the third year in a row, and varsity softball made it to the finals in the NEPSAC Class C Division for the fourth year in a row. The Academy also added a couple new championships in 2015-2016. Varsity baseball won the Western New England Prep Baseball League (WNEPBL) for the first time in school history, and boys track and field won the New England Prep School Track Association (NEPSTA) Division III title.
Lastly, postgraduate (PG) programs have been a staple of private and boarding schools for years. The opportunity for students who have already graduated high school to attend school for one more year can be a key differentiator, both academically and athletically, at the college level. At the Academy, the PG program saw 19 student-athletes go on to play collegiate sports at schools like Bentley University, College of the Holy Cross, University of Delaware, Sacred Heart University, Northeastern University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College, and West Point. The success of the program stems from not just being a destination for these student-athletes to play another year and gain exposure from college coaches, but also through the Academy’s special focus on academics.
At many private schools, postgraduates simply repeat senior classes, which offers less than a stellar experience. However, Cheshire Academy has created a unique academic offering, to accompany the postgraduates athletic season, that offers up classes around entrepreneurship, business, and leadership. “We don’t want postgraduates to just show up at Cheshire Academy to play their season and hope for the best,” said Director of Summer Program and Football Coach Rich Ferraro ’71. “Our goal is to work with them both athletically and academically to place them in a win/win situation at the collegiate level.”
A great example of this can be seen with postgraduate Ben Vasta ’16, whose dream was to attend West Point. While Vasta ultimately thought football, in combination with stellar academics, would help him get in, it was through the rugby program that ultimately secured his attendance at the prestigious academy in the fall. “It’s a prime example of how we try to figure out a way to make these student-athletes’ dreams come true. Ben is an amazingly smart and talented student-athlete and everyone at Cheshire Academy really worked together.”
While not all students have collegiate athletics as a dream, the work by Cheshire Academy’s academic, college counseling, and athletic departments to make it happen for those who do is nothing short of noteworthy. As the late sports great Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a society work, a civilization work.”