On The Cover
30 Years of
University debuts fresh look and feel
Service-learning shapes students
On Top Of The World
Barry pride displayed around the globe
Fall 2013, Volume 18
Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin throws out the first pitch at a softball gameMen’s golf takes home the title in 2007Baseball Player Dave Alexander awaits the signSister Linda Bevilacqua throws out the first pitch at a baseball gameHaitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe played tennis at Barry from 1993 to 1996Volleyball Team Celebrates 1995 NCAA Division II ChampionshipMelisa Derden Reese Holds 1989 Women’s NCAA Division II Soccer trophy after defeating Keene StateThe 2008 softball team in the NCAA Championships elite eightMark Anderson, 2011 National Player of the Year, scores a goal
A Winning Tradition
In 1983 and 1984, Barry University’s first NCAA intercollegiate sports teams kicked off their inaugural seasons. For the past three decades, the sweat and sacrifice of student athletes, coaches and administrators have made Barry Athletics one of the top NCAA Division II programs in the country — and became the answer to one woman’s prayers.
By Evan West
It began with a vision. In the early 1980s, newly installed president Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin looked at Barry University and saw something of an image problem. Founded as a women’s college by the Adrian Dominican Sisters in 1940, Barry had been coed since 1975. But it was still perceived as a school for girls; indeed, women accounted for more than 80 percent of the student body. And despite having adopted the “University” moniker, Barry maintained a small-college character, with a relatively low profile and a sleepy campus atmosphere.
“When I got to Barry, we were in pretty serious trouble,” says O’Laughlin. “There was not a good image in Miami. We didn’t have the kind of things that were important to a student body.” O’Laughlin wanted Barry to feel more like a university in the fullest sense, a thriving, bustling, and visible institution that served a wide range of student interests. At St. Louis University, one of her previous stops before coming to Barry, O’Laughlin had seen firsthand the impact intercollegiate sports could have on a student community. “In college, young people need a place to vent their energy in legitimate ways and enhance their personal growth,” she says. “And it seemed to me that for American people in particular, sports nurtured teamwork. Athletics help people know how to relate to one another.”
At the time, organized sports at Barry were limited to intramural competition. O’Laughlin held the conviction that instituting intercollegiate athletics would benefit the University in numerous ways. For one, having sports teams — especially successful ones — would increase Barry’s visibility in the local community and beyond. It would boost the school’s appeal among prospective student athletes interested in competing after high school and enrich their experience once they got to campus. Finally, O’Laughlin says, “athletics give the community a reason to come together to celebrate.” Having teams to embrace, she thought, would help bring the institution closer to its people. It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely cheerleader for athletics than O’Laughlin. For most of her life, she had little interest in watching or following sports, and she didn’t play any herself. One of her most serious forays into athletics prior to Barry was coaching a team of seventh-graders as a teacher in her home state of Michigan, where, as she recalls, her duties consisted mainly of standing on the sideline and shouting “get the ball!” What’s more, O’Laughlin faced considerable hurdles in making her vision a reality. Not only would Barry be starting from scratch, school coffers seemed insufficient to fund such a bold initiative. In 1981, the year O’Laughlin came onboard, Barry’s annual operating budget was a modest $6 million, and the endowment stood at less than $1 million. It was barely enough to cover existing expenses — let alone pay for the travel, equipment, venues, and coaching salaries that sports programs would require.
“I am very pleased to have had coaches and staff who understood the student priorities and motivated me to study while playing the sport that I love at the highest level that I could. Thanks to them, I got my degree in marketing in four years and two amazing rings for winning the NCAA Division II National Championship in 2001 and 2004.” – Karla Bersano (volleyball)’05, Marketing, AVCA All-American, two-time National Champion
But if anyone doubted O’Laughlin’s ability to score a win, they didn’t yet know Sister Jeanne. With her considerable charisma, charm, and determination, she would soon prove herself to be an all-pro fundraiser. She reached out to the South Florida community, hat in hand, and roused enthusiasm for the idea of inaugurating sports at her small university. (Her popularity and influence eventually led her to become the first woman to sit on the heavy-hitting Orange Bowl Committee.) Barry sought inclusion in the NCAA’s Division II, which, unlike Division III, allows for a limited number of athletic scholarships. Barry Athletics were off and running. Well, sort of.
O’Laughlin put out a challenge to the new administrators, coaches, and athletes. They would have to “do more with less,” a directive that would become a kind of mantra for the fledgling program. Barry had a tiny athletic budget and part-time coaches, and the playing facilities consisted of a few hastily upgraded intramural fields (the basketball team would have to go off-campus for home games). “It was new to everybody, so you didn’t have the resources students have now,” says Stephanie Stallings Walker, who played on the first softball and women’s soccer teams. “I go back to visit now, and I think, ‘Wow, you guys are spoiled.’” When in-state rival Central Florida visited the old soccer field, she says, they complained about the ants and rocks and refused to return.
To encourage the school’s new athletes and coaches, O’Laughlin routinely showed up at practices in an old golf cart, greeting their hard work with blessings, prayers, and an indefatigably upbeat spirit. “No one has more love for people than Sister Jeanne,” says Mike Covone, who as head of women’s soccer, was Barry’s only full-time coach. “She loved everyone. And when she saw you, you were getting a hug.” One of Barry’s early student athletes remarked to O’Laughlin that “the Pope has his Pope Mobile, and you have the Hug Mobile.” The name stuck.
It was Covone who lobbied to include women’s soccer as well as men’s, leading to a fortuitous turn of events in the early history of Barry Athletics. He saw an opportunity for the new athletic program to get in on the ground level of a sport that was fast-growing in popularity, never mind that women’s college soccer programs were few enough in number that there weren’t even enough to support a Division II designation. Barry’s women would have to compete in Division I — with powerhouse state schools like North Carolina and Penn State. In the academic year of 1984-1985, the soccer teams and the rest of Barry’s first “Buccaneers”—men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s cross country, baseball, golf, and basketball— took the field for their inaugural seasons.
Surprisingly, both soccer teams had success right out of the gate, finishing with winning seasons. Women’s soccer would continue to separate itself from the pack. In 1987, in just its fifth year of competition, the team qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament. Division II was established for women’s soccer the following year. And Barry University dominated it. In 1989, the team won the NCAA Division II soccer championship and went on to win two more national titles in 1992 and 1993, setting an early bar for athletic excellence at the school.
Barry joined the Sunshine State Athletic Conference for the 1988-1989 academic year, and the 1990s brought another critical milestone for Barry Athletics — and the answer to another of O’Laughlin’s prayers. When the administration was still getting the sports program off the ground, O’Laughlin says she remembers driving past the field north of Miami Avenue. She stopped and prayed. Suddenly, a fully formed vision of a gleaming new athletic facility came before her eyes. “I saw the gym as clearly as I can see the seat I’m sitting in right now,” she says. “But I knew I had to fundraise, or it wouldn’t happen.” She did, and in 1991, Barry completed the $4 million Health & Sports Center, one of the top facilities in the Sunshine State Conference.
In terms of athletic success, Barry’s women continued to take the lead throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the volleyball team won Division II national championships in 1995, 2001, and 2004. Softball, too, was coming into its own, with standout Geralyn Elam winning National Player of the Year honors in 2002. It was no small accomplishment in a program that just a decade earlier, as Stallings Walker recalls, was comprised largely of fill-in players who struggled to win games and jokingly referred to themselves as “The Bad News Bucs.”
“But the recent story of Barry Athletics has been about the success of spring sports,” says Covone, who, since 1998, has served as the university’s director of athletics. In fact, as Barry has moved into the second decade of the 21st century, spring sports have largely carried the banner of excellence first established by the soccer women in the 1980s and 1990s. Men’s golf, under the leadership of Jimmy Stobs — twice named National Coach of the year by the Golf Coaches Association of America — won the first of two Division II national titles in 2007, with its second coming this year. And the future of men’s golf looks bright: Adam Svensson was named Division II’s Phil Mickelson National Freshman of the Year in 2013 as well. Men’s tennis has also won two Division II national titles in recent years, in 2010 and 2013, headed by George Samuel, who was named National Coach of Year by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association in 1999 and 2013.
The women of spring have made strong contributions, with the tennis squad taking a national championship in 2011, and with Nancy Vergara winning this year’s individual Division II championship in golf and bringing home the National Player of the Year Award for her efforts. And Vergara, for one, looks forward to more success in the future. “I would love to win the title as a team, and I know we can do it,” Vergara says. “We have talented players and we know we can beat the best. It feels amazing to be the 2013 NCAA national champion, but I will go back for the title this year.” For all the on-the-field triumphs, however, Barry Athletics’ emphasis on academics might be the school’s more impressive achievement. The department falls under the purview of an academic division, the School of Human Performance and Leisure Sciences, which, under the guidance of Dr. Darlene Kluka — has become a model adopted by other institutions such as Vanderbilt University. The standards of Barry’s athletic department exceed even those of Division II, requiring student athletes to maintain a grade-point average of 2.0 (compared to the NCAA’s requirement of 1.6). “For Barry student athletes, that’s a selling point,” says sports information director Dennis Jezek. “For potential recruits who would find that to be a hindrance — they wouldn’t do well at Barry, anyway.”
Barry is the only Division II program that can boast of having two Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship winners, one of the NCAA’s top academic honors. Eight athletes have been nominated finalists for the NCAA Woman of the Year honors — also the most of any Division II institution — an award that takes into account not only academic and athletic success but also character and community service. In fact, in the history of Barry Athletics, the number of athletic Division II All-Americans (261) has been eclipsed only by the number of Scholar All-Americans (299). “As thrilled as I am with the number of Sunshine State Conference and NCAA national titles our teams have earned for Barry, I am most proud of the academic achievements of our student-athletes and their outstanding record of community service,” says current university president Sister Linda Bevilacqua. “While playing sports they enjoy, they contribute to the vitality and vibrancy of campus life. They provide all of us with examples of self-discipline, the pursuit of excellence, and the creation of team spirit.” Covone says the academic strength of Barry’s athletes actually contributes to the far-reaching success of its sports teams. “We have stringent academic policies, and if you don’t abide by those policies, you’re not going to be a Barry athlete,” he says. “And there’s a correlation between the quality of our students and the play on the field. We tend to have ‘high-IQ’ teams.”
Taking stock now, O’Laughlin says Barry’s 30-year experiment in intercollegiate athletics has been more successful than she could have hoped. And yet, she admits to harboring one small disappointment. “I have to confess that I yearned for a football team,” she says. “They teased me about that. But it never came to fruition.” At least she has received some consolation: Her college alma mater, Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, recently named its football field O’Laughlin Stadium in her honor — a fitting tribute to a sports pioneer.
“The academic lessons learned in the classroom at Barry prepared me greatly for my career in education/athletics. However, what has been as equally beneficial to me was the education that I received socially as a result of Barry’s international diversity. What I learned about, and from, students who were very different from me is invaluable and has been one of the most important components leading to any of the successes that I’ve experienced throughout my working career.” –Ron Johnson (basketball) ’89, sport management, Barry’s all-time leading scorer; currently assistant coach at Marist College.