The Athletic Ability of And

This fall, a long-awaited friend will return to DeVos Fieldhouse. Its presence will be warmly welcomed, even affectionately embraced, and then it will be shown to its preferred place of honor, right alongside 36 other “colleagues” who also live in the rafters. In traditional Hope orange and blue, a 37th banner — that friend whose reappearance was passionately pursued every year but whose materialization was delayed since 2014 — will say what every other swathe hanging there says: that as a whole, Hope College athletics achieves broad-based success across all of its 22 sports and is once again the winner of Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Commissioner’s Cup (previously known as the All-Sports Award). It is the highest honor the MIAA bestows, since the award is based on the cumulative performance of each member school in the league’s 23 sports.

Hope has won this MIAA honor 22 more times than any other league school since the award’s inception in 1934-35. The past four years have been the longest time the award has been away from Hope since a drought from 1967-68 to 1978-79.

Hanging a new Commissioner’s Cup banner in DeVos this year, and celebrating the overall population of those banners, is not an achievement ever assumed or taken for granted by those who coach, play and lead Hope teams.

“It’s hard every year to win that thing,” says Tim Schoonveld ’96, director of athletics. “The competition in our league is very good. So, winning the Commissioner’s Cup again is awesome. It is one of the things we’re most proud of because it shows success across the board. Our goal is always to say, ‘When one wins, we all win.’ We’re really one big team here. We’re all in this together. So, the Commissioner’s Cup is something that everybody takes a lot of pride in.”

In 2018-19, seven Hope teams won a league championship — women’s cross country, women’s soccer, women’s indoor track and field, women’s swimming and diving, women’s tennis, men’s golf and men’s lacrosse — while no team finished below fourth place in the league.

Yet, concentrating on athletic excellence would be only half of what the Hope athletics success story is all about. In fact, focusing on winning might only be a quarter of it. The Hope sports story is one of multifaceted forms of success. And it’s all due to the place the word “and” has in Hope’s athletic vernacular.

First, though, to fully understand and appreciate the ability of the Hope athletic “and,” let’s address a misnomer.

There is a patent tendency for many who (think they) are familiar with the collegiate athletic scene to regularly define NCAA Division III athletics by what it does not have rather than what it does. In Division III, and so then at Hope College, there are no athletic scholarships, no athletic dorms, no training tables, no elaborate free gear packages, little to no air travel, no heavily-populated national fan bases. No this, No that. Blah blah blah. It sounds like a glass-half-empty manifesto.

To define something by what it isn’t does it an incredible disservice. So, let’s reframe to a cup-runneth-over quality in Hope’s sports philosophy. It makes no mention of “no,” of course, and uses that most inclusive of all conjunctions, the word “and.” It goes something like this: In Hope athletics, coaches, administrators and student-athletes strive for and engage in athletic excellence and academic success and service to others and study abroad and spiritual growth and co-curricular activities.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. But Schoonveld have no qualms with any of it. It’s all a big balancing act, he knows, not just for student-athletes but for coaches, too, and he and they welcome it. “At our coaches retreat recently, we talked exactly about this, about the power of ‘and.’ I know it sounds cliché, but you can’t achieve anything really great without having high goals,” he says. “There will be times we are disappointed because we missed the mark, but disappointment is a good thing. It means that we set high standards in all that we do. And we’re really trying to achieve them as opposed to never being disappointed because we never really try to risk anything or keep pushing. That’s not what we want to be about.”

Any good sports story is supported by statistics to back up its examples of a team’s winning ways. Ever since the first baseball statistician clapped onto the fact that an RBI means something important, numerical evidence in sports revolve around objective preferences because they are just so hard to argue with. Here are just a few stats that prove how athletic “and” can be.

[Infographic] 444 earned all-time national academic honors, 234 student-athletes made the MIAA Honor Roll with at least 3.5 GPA in 2018-19, 24 student-athletes earned a prestigious NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship since 1974, 14 student-athletes won the MIAA Team GPA Award with at least a 3.3 in 2018-19, 121 student-athletes served on a Hope SEED (Sport Evangelism to Equip Disciples) trip in one of seven different countries since 2017, Countless hours serving the community, conducting research, leading organizations, and studying on the team bus.

Admittedly, that last stat isn’t really one. It’s impossible to calculate an exact measure for the seemingly infinite number of times and ways that Hope student-athletes serve, learn and lead. Such as how former volleyball standout and current occupational therapist Jenna Grasmyer ’15 Holwerda, four hours after winning an NCAA national championship in 2014 and being named the tournament’s most valuable player, took a physiology exam on the team’s return flight back to Hope.

Men's Golf - Josh Gibson ’19
Men’s Golf – Josh Gibson ’19

Or, how golfer and electrical engineering major Josh Gibson ‘19, an NCAA Division III national champion and two-time national player of the year, welcomed the chance “to get away” from the pressures of his sport by being involved in Dance Marathon or the Dew Crew.

Men's Lacrosse - Brayden Blackburn ’22
Men’s Lacrosse – Brayden Blackburn ’22

Or, how men’s lacrosse player and business major Brayden Blackburn ’22, who scored the last-second, game-winning goal to give his team an MIAA title this spring, appreciates the life lessons about commitment and pursuit that he’s learned in both his sport and fraternity.

Women's Track & Field - Mitchel Achien’g ’20
Women’s Track & Field – Mitchel Achien’g ’20

Or, how track and field student-athlete, economics major and dean’s lister Mitchel Achien’g ’20, an MIAA MVP, works four campus jobs to support her education, makes no complaints about it and instead values every experience for instilling time-management skills.

So many other more student-athlete stories to tell, so little time. . . and page space. So, what do they all mean? What is the underlying value in each? Schoonveld offers a summation.

“Look, we want to succeed and win, but we also want our student-athletes to know and then model Colossians 3:23: ‘Whatever — whatever — you do, work at it with all of your heart as working for the Lord, not for humans.’ We’re called to give God our best and I think that’s the piece we’re all really striving for here. So, when people say, ‘You’re all about winning,’ well, we’re not really all about winning, but we are all about giving God our best.”

“To be honest,” he adds with an even stronger, more emphatic tone, “I think the world needs that now more than ever right now, and I think our ability to shape and send out student-athletes into the world with everything that Hope taught them is a big piece of how we can help change the world.”

A sports philosophy like that is win-win for everyone, everywhere, not just for or at Hope. Perhaps that’s the real meaning behind all those rafter decorations, anyway.