By: Heather Aadahl
This feature is the second of a three-part look at former JMU student-athletes currently competing in the professional ranks and their reflections on how JMU prepared them for where they are today.
Journey to the Pros
Many JMU athletics alumni indicated that the respect given to the athletics programs at other universities was a hard division to overcome. However, many of the players are on the teams that they are today because of the dedication they attributed to their respective JMU coaching staffs. The sports knowledge of the coaches led them to create competitive schedules during the seasons, which provided the athletes with ample amount of opportunities to compete against talented opponents and to also be seen by professional scouts. Munson reflected that the baseball coaching staff chose teams who had players with elite talent, which then allowed the scouts to watch players on both teams.
Center midfielder Teresa Rynier explained, "For three out of four years, we played in the NCAA tournament and did well in conference play, so we were able to make a name for ourselves. When your team does well, people notice players." Rynier is currently playing on Kvarnsvedens IK, a soccer team located in Borlange, Sweden. While at JMU, she earned a trio of all-time assist records, including the records at JMU, in Virginia and within the Colonial Athletic Association.
Rynier's former teammate, women's soccer alumna Corky Julien, is currently playing forward for Jitex BK, a top professional team in Sweden. After earning two JMU Athlete of the Year awards, Julien's soccer career continued past her time at JMU with the help of women's soccer coach Dave Lombardo. "I honestly owe my entire career to him for opening up so many doors professionally for me," said Julien. Lombardo was responsible for sending Julien's player profile to Team Canada, who later contacted her and invited her to play for the Canadian team, through which she earned her opportunity to compete in Sweden.
In football, scouts would automatically come to JMU on their list of programs to visit because of the program history at JMU. "Because of the winning tradition here, scouts had already heard of the school and came out to see me," said Buffalo Bills linebacker Arthur Moats. The talent showcased at JMU has created a winning tradition for various sports programs.
Moats has been a member of the Buffalo Bills since he was first drafted in the 2010 NFL draft as the 178th overall selection. "I had the label of being a really good player and very talented, but since I played at a smaller school, scouts questioned if I would be able to make plays at the professional level" explained Moats. "To this day, I'm still proving to scouts that I can play at this level and will do so for a long time!" The experience and skills that Moats acquired at JMU have been the backbone for his success in the professional leagues.
Men's basketball alum Juwann James has also experienced a journey to his current level of competition. After leaving Harrisonburg, James was not drafted by the NBA and instead chose to play basketball in the European circuit. He spent the first year of his professional contract in Ireland and then signed a second year-long contract with a team in France. After his first two seasons in Europe, James signed with a team in the French PRO B league, which is considered to be a top league in the European playing field. "Every year, I've made a step up in competition, league and money, which is the main goal for most professional players," said James. "I plan on continuing to work my way up."
Adjusting to Change
In addition to the athletics aspect of their time at JMU, the players also reflected on their years as a student-athlete. Sporting Kansas City forward C.J. Sapong described the experience of playing sports in college as possessing multiple challenges. "You have to find a way to excel in two things at once and deal with all the duties and responsibilities of living on your own," he said. But as a student-athlete, courses and degrees are simultaneously important in the college experience. During Sapong's time as a Sports Management major, the courses he took created an awareness of his tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
The hours and preparation time spent on studying, homework and exams during college is then transferred into workouts, games and competitions in the professional playing fields. The athletes must prepare themselves mentally and physically for the adjustment to a new lifestyle and daily schedule. "The mental aspect is more intense at this level," said Moats. "The hours spent preparing for a game is mind-boggling in comparison to the college ranks." The differences between competition at JMU and in the professional leagues are evident from the beginning.
"The biggest difference from JMU and in the pros is just that everyone here is pretty good; every pitcher you face pretty much throws 90 miles per hour, plus," explained catcher Jake Lowery. The level of talent in the baseball Major Leagues is comparable to the athletes in the major leagues of soccer. Since Sapong has been a member of Sporting Kansas City, he has learned that professional athletes are held to a higher standard. "You are expected to bring maximum effort everyday and to represent the organization in a positive way at all times," he described. "Speed of play at the professional level is also much faster than it was at JMU."
In addition to an increased speed of play, pitcher Kevin Munson described the time commitment in the Minor Leagues and explained that the length of the season is one of the biggest differences he has experienced. The regular season schedule for JMU features 56 games. "Last year was a real shock for me: a full month of spring training-about 20 games-then the regular season, which is 140 games in the minor leagues," he added. Munson's team then played an additional nine games in the season before he was sent to play another 39 games in the fall leagues. The changes that occur upon signing with a Major League team include potential changes of the mentality and physical techniques.
As a pitcher, Munson struggled during his first season playing at the professional level. "I struggled a lot with control; I had a ton of walks," he said. After working closely with his pitching coaches, Munson learned how to challenge the hitters and rely on the defense of the team behind him. "It might have been one of the best things for me though as I learned a lot through the failure," said Munson. He also recalled that the best thing he learned while at JMU was to believe in himself while on the mound. "Once you lose confidence or doubt yourself, things will almost always take a turn for the worst. Staying positive and believing that you can get the job done for your team is crucial for a pitcher."
Within the soccer realm, Rynier identified that the main difference she has experienced between collegiate and professional competition is the interactions. "The same work ethic is expected and the desire to win is there," said Rynier. "The relationships and the 'family atmosphere' would be a big difference. It's more like a job than friendships and 'fun.'"
Julien acknowledged a different challenge within the aspect of tactics involved in soccer. "NCAA soccer is a very physical league with an 'I will outwork you' mentality," Julien explained. "In the professional ranks, players are so skilled that just being physically fit isn't enough. You need to be tactically sound or teams will pick you apart." While at JMU, Julien learned how to read the game better and became a technically better soccer player. Her efforts and talents resulted in earning both the All-American and All-Scholar American awards, as well as State Player of the Year and Conference Player of the Year.
Tamera Young, the first JMU women's basketball player to be drafted into the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) as the eighth overall draft pick in 2008, has experienced a similar situation within professional basketball. "In college, you have a couple or a few great players on a team, but in the pros everyone is great," said Young. "The players in the pros are much stronger, faster and smarter." Young is a member of the Chicago Sky team during the summer and in the offseason, plays in various countries abroad. She is currently located in Israel with the Maccabi Ashdod team.
Please check back at JMUSports.com next week for part three of this feature.