Feb. 11, 2010
By Nicole Chavez - Media Relations Assistant
It's a travel day, and the New Mexico women's basketball team is waiting in the airport for their flight. Watching movies or zoning out with some tunes could be a good way to pass the time, but this group of Lobos is doing something else entirely. They're writing papers, trying to find wi-fi, studying for tests, and spreading books out on the floor. The two hour block before the flight leaves is precious time that can't be wasted, because UNM's women's basketball players are some of the most academically ambitious students on campus.
"You have to get your priorities set as far as what you want to do," said Best. "I could go out and have fun, but I probably wouldn't get A's. I'd get B's instead. I've always been a good student and I want to do well. You can do anything if you set your mind to it."
Best isn't the only one, either. The team has three Biology majors in the ranks with Nikki Nelson (Biology major, Chemistry minor), Lauren Taylor (double-major in Biology and Spanish), and Best. There are five science-related majors on the team and four students pursuing communications/journalism in addition to a few social science, education, and business-related majors.
The team's Spring 2009 GPA of 3.41 was ranked 10th in the nation by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association and the squad's latest graduation rates are incredibly high at 92 percent for 2009. After Fall 2009, three members of the team had GPA's above 4.0, eight were above a 3.5, and 12 were above a 3.0. The future looks bright as well -- the freshman class cumulative GPA after Fall 2009 is 3.67.
There's nothing worse than watching your teammates goof off during a hotel stay, realizing that you will have to do homework all weekend instead of having fun. Best recalled one trip in which she stayed awake studying practically the entire night because she had a test the next day. Fortunately for this team, they usually all have homework and that helps them stay focused.
"You have to go to class because it's part of basketball. It's like having a job."
Lauren Taylor, sophomore Lobo women's basketball player
"There's such a strong group of us that are really academic," said freshman center Emily Stark. "There aren't that many distractions. When you're ahead you know what you have to get done to stay there. If you really need to go study there are probably five other girls who will go study too."
Even though these student-athletes have a self-imposed will to succeed in the classroom, UNM also has many forms of educational assistance readily available. The team speaks extremely highly of the Center for Academic Program Support (CAPS), a free program that hooks younger students up with upper-division undergraduate and graduate students for tutoring in various courses. Nelson, a sophomore guard, said CAPS helps her work smarter instead of harder to make the best use of her time.
"They have great tutors," said Nelson. "If you go, you're not staring at a problem for an hour when you're stuck. You can get the help you need, move on, and get your homework done quickly. Since we have so much homework in every class, it's nice to have direct help."
In addition to taking advantage of UNM's support system, a key to success in the classroom is opening the lines of communication with teachers to avoid possible problems. Some professors automatically help student-athletes work out scheduling problems, while others may not help until the student shows marked initiative to communicate their needs. Other professors may inadvertently think of student-athletes negatively because they will inevitably miss class. In any case, student-athletes have to work exceptionally hard to stay organized.
New Mexico's coaching staff also holds academics in high regard. Each coach is assigned four girls to meet with regularly. They check out class syllabi for potential conflicts, talk about progress in tough classes, and set up tutors when necessary. These coach-player meetings are additional to sessions the players have regularly with their academic advisor, Katie Scanlon.
Assistant coach Shane Flanagan also meets the underclassmen for breakfast every weekday morning before they go to class -- a ritual the program has dubbed "breakfast check." The most common reason students don't make it to class is that they want to sleep in, obviously. So if the team is required to meet with Flanagan for breakfast, they'll most likely make it to class. Breakfast check is something Flanagan has done all four of his years with the program and something that his father, Don Flanagan, instituted when he became the head coach in 1995.
"A lot of the girls are very self-motivated," said Shane. "With our schedule and the amount of travel that we do, it's amazing to see the ways these girls study and get the grades they do. It shows what kind of kids we get to come here. You have to be well organized, and a lot of them grow up fast because they have to be responsible."
Nelson is bubbly and talkative in person, and it's easy to imagine her interacting with various types of people when she talks about a prospective career as a physician's assistant. When she laughingly says that she has no social life because of basketball and academic commitments, it's hard to believe. But Nelson and her teammates have learned to buckle down and get their work done on the court and in the classroom. It's evident that it will pay off in the end.