Covering All the Bases
Women’s athletics teams are crushing it on the field and in the classroom
By Shelley Catalano and Adam Rubin with Cameron Boon
Stony Brook women’s athletics is on a hot streak, especially our basketball, soccer, softball and lacrosse teams. And while the pandemic threw them a few curveballs, they kept their heads in the game and persevered, notching three America East championships and securing the league’s Commissioner’s Cup as the top-performing athletics program in the league for a second straight year.
But what’s even more impressive is their collective GPA, their contributions to the community and their ability to make an impact beyond their sport.
How have these teams managed to do it all and so well for so long?
It’s no secret. It’s part of the fabric of Stony Brook Athletics. It’s teamwork and a relentless desire to be the best in everything they do — play, study and lead. And backed by an incredible support system and a dedicated Academic Success Team, the sky’s the limit as the athletes take to the field and lecture halls for the 2021–2022 school year.
Getting the Ball Rolling
The pursuit of excellence has long been at the heart of Stony Brook Athletics, but that focus intensified in 2014 when Shawn Heilbron joined SBU as director of athletics. Shortly after his arrival, he implemented Together We Transform, a strategic vision that has invigorated the Seawolves’ athletics success and led to new and revitalized facilities and a transformative student-athlete experience that provides significant advances in academics, mental health, life skills and nutrition. The plan aimed to address all aspects of what a student-athlete would need to reach their full potential at Stony Brook.
“We’ve set the bar high and our goal is to keep raising it every year. Our expectations include more wins, more championships and higher GPAs. That can only happen if our student-athletes and coaches have the tools and support necessary to succeed at the highest level.” Heilbron said. “We’re committed to delivering a transformational experience for our student-athletes. They are the center of our universe, and everything we do is about them.”
That’s evidenced by the outstanding additions to the program. In the past seven years, SBU Athletics has expanded the Goldstein Family Student-Athlete Development Center to accommodate more students and academic support staff; opened the $11 million, 100-yard Indoor Training Center in early 2020 to allow athletes to train on turf year round in temperature-controlled comfort; tapped new coaches with impressive records for women’s basketball, soccer and swimming and diving; and thanks to donors and the many scholarships they help to provide, recruited the right athletes to net a conference high 19 America East championships.
“You win with the right people, so the recruitment of talented student-athletes who are committed to academic and athletic success are crucial as is the development of a team culture that emphasizes accountability, effort, discipline and teamwork,” said Megan Bryant, head softball coach since 2001. She has led her team to two America East championships.
Dawn Bodrug ’21 was one such student, recruited to Stony Brook softball from Ontario, Canada. “Every single person on the team is committed. We show up every day and give all we have,” said Bodrug, who is now pursuing her MBA after graduating with her degree in multidisciplinary studies this past December. The right-hander, who has pitched two no-hitters in her career, was four outs away from a third in the sixth inning of the team’s America East Championship game versus UMBC. That was when UMBC got their lone hit of the game, driving in a run to end the Seawolves bid for the trophy. “We all have tough days,” she continued, “but if you focus on what is in front of you and trust in the process, your teammates and coaches, it will always pay off.”
We always tell our athletes that to be successful after sports, they need to learn how to adapt and that is certainly something that everyone got a lesson in this past year.
– Kate Velys, Director of Academic Success
Recruitment has been a secret weapon for Joe Spallina, now in his eighth year as head coach of the women’s lacrosse team. Through the recruiting of players often overlooked by other well-known lacrosse college teams, he has built one of the best college sports programs on the East Coast. It has now won 54 straight games against America East opponents. That is the longest conference winning streak of any team in any sport tracked by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Under Spallina, the program has won eight straight conference titles and has reached the NCAA’s Elite Eight in three of the past four tournaments. The Seawolves appeared on the verge of their first-ever Final Four berth back in May, leading North Carolina in the final minutes, before the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels rallied for a narrow victory on their home turf in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“The key to our team’s long-term success is our work ethic and our drive to play for each other. The amount of hard work and effort we put in is different compared to most, if not all, teams,” said Rayna Sabella ’21, defender, women’s lacrosse and a 2021 America East Player of the Year. “When you look around, you see your teammates and coaches working toward the same goal — doing it for each other — and that gives us a deeper purpose and creates a different type of atmosphere.”
The Stony Brook women’s basketball team’s sense of purpose took on a new urgency after its 2020 season was dashed by COVID-19 just one day before it was to compete for the America East title. But it came back stronger than ever in 2021, winning its second America East championship this past March and finally reaching its goal of making it to the NCAA Division 1 Tournament. While its historic NCAA trip to San Antonio ended in a tough first-round loss, the team has its sights set on another visit to the big dance.
“I’ve been here for five years, and I have been through many different batches of teams, but one common factor each year is the love that we have for each other,” said McKenzie Bushee ’21, a forward, returning to the team this fall to work on toward her MBA. “This team is a family. We are connected more than just on the court, but also in our everyday lives.”
And with new head coach Ashley Langford on board, the Seawolves’ upcoming season again holds promise. “I’m excited to continue the success and just do it in my own way,” Langford said. “I’m glad that we’re going to have the target on our back as the returning America East champs. I’m up for that. I like the challenge. And our players are ready for that, too. They worked really hard to get to this position. I’m going to work just as hard to make sure that we get another championship and return to the NCAA Tournament.”
Making Championship History
Chelsie DePonte ’21, a midfielder from Honolulu who is returning for a fifth year as a graduate student to pursue an MBA, believes the culture that the program’s alums have created for them “planted the seeds of our program and now we’re the lucky ones to help it grow.” DePonte continued, “We all have the mindset that we want to leave the Stony Brook women’s soccer program better than when we arrived. We push each other to be the best version of ourselves and I think that environment allows everyone to grow both individually and collectively as a team.”
That push to excel on the field has been matched by lofty accomplishments in the classroom and in the community. Amid remote learning and other challenges presented by the pandemic, Stony Brook student-athletes produced a collective 3.25 GPA during a mostly virtual academic year with the median GPA for the women’s teams coming in at 3.52. This is an impressive accomplishment any year, but even more so given the new world of Zoom classes.
“Our high graduation numbers and academic progress rates are something to be proud of,” Bryant noted. “Our student-athletes have a great track record of beginning and completing their degrees and athletics careers at Stony Brook University.”
Members of the women’s soccer team know the feeling of being a target. This past spring, the team earned its second straight America East championship and second straight NCAA Tournament berth under head coach Tobias Bischof, now entering his third season at SBU. The team was recently named the preseason favorite by an America East coaches’ poll, so the pressure is on for a repeat performance.
Critical to SBU’s student-athletes’ graduation journey is the specific support they receive from virtually the first moment new recruits step on campus. “Our first-year student-athletes start their life at SBU with a Summer Bridge program, which helps them to acclimate to the various campus partners and support systems that will aid in their success as a future Seawolf,” said Kate Velys, director of academic success for Athletics. “This program takes place prior to their first semester with us and leads nicely into their First-Year Seminar, taught by our Director of Life Skills Izzy Fortuna. Throughout their four years at SBU, we not only get to know them as students, but as whole student-athletes, who each have a unique story and skill set to offer.”
“The support and dedication that the Stony Brook Athletics department displays to their athletes is unmatched,” said Sabella, who graduated with her bachelor’s degree in business management this past May but will be continuing at SBU as a graduate student. “Everyone there makes it well known that they will do anything they can to help you athletically, academically and personally. The department has helped me grow as an athlete and student leader by being extremely supportive, encouraging and teaching me so many different lessons throughout my years here so far. They are a huge reason why my experience at Stony Brook has been as good as it is. I’m so grateful to have one more year!”
I think every single person on our team would run through a wall for the
person beside them.
– Chelsie DePonte
Beyond Game Time
Being a leader off the field and contributing to the SBU community is a vital element of the student-athlete experience. “Our student-athletes already possess so many innate leadership qualities, which stem from their participation in sports growing up, but it is so important to empower them in using them,” Velys said. “Our goal as a student development staff is to teach them and lead them to opportunities within the department to hone those skills, such as the various student-athlete leadership groups they can be a part of (SAAC, Black Student-Athlete Huddle, Academy of Leaders, PACK mentors), and bring them to the larger parts of the campus and Stony Brook community.”
For example, Stony Brook student-athletes had a massive presence at a Black Lives Matter march on campus in October 2020 that had been sponsored by the local chapter of the NAACP as well as the Black Student-Athlete Huddle group. The women’s soccer team developed a relationship with the Sunshine Prevention Center for Youth & Families in Port Jefferson Station, resulting in multiple visits to the nonprofit, which builds social skills and educates everyone in the family and community in order to prevent substance use and abuse. And all the athletes are looking forward to returning to one of their most meaningful activities, visiting the patients in Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, something they did regularly before COVID.
“Stony Brook Athletics has helped me grow so much,” said DePonte, who was recognized by America East as its Woman of the Year for her leadership on and off the field. “Our Life Skills staff, academic support team and our administration have all connected me with valuable networks and internships that have shown me what I truly enjoy. They have helped me figure out my desired career path and what’s to come when I do hang up my cleats. Without them I would not be the person I am today.”
“Being an athlete at Stony Brook has taught me so much more than just making sure I’m on time for everything, but how to be a better person,” said Bushee. “I’ve been shaped by Stony Brook, and most definitely for the better. I have learned hard work, but also working together gets you farther than working alone. My favorite saying is `If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.’ Stony Brook Athletics is about shaping athletes into better people, for the future and for the better.”