Outstanding scholars put Retrievers at head of pack

May 22, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

It's not man-bites-dog news for the athletes at UMBC to excel more in the classroom than on the field. Still, all things considered, two such athletes have carved out a special place for themselves.

Yes, two teams achieving milestone victories this season is impressive enough. But how about a distance runner winning a national academic award and a basketball player earning salutatorian honors in the same year?

Isaac Matthews, named Arthur Ashe Jr. Male Sports Scholar of the Year by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine, and Erin Voss, with the second-highest grade point average in UMBC's senior class, graduate Thursday, and they elevate the school's academic reputation as they do.

They also validate the ideal that school president Freeman Hrabowski has held since taking over in 1992: Outstanding performance in sports and school are not mutually exclusive.

"It can be done, and everyone wants it to be done," he said last week. "Parents and alumni want to hear that academically the athletes do really well. When they see that our students are on the dean's list, they get excited. ... Our teams are a true success story. So are these two athletes."

Voss is believed to be the first UMBC athlete to earn either salutatorian or valedictorian honors. Matthews is the second from a Maryland institution to win the Ashe award since its inception in 1995; University of Maryland gymnast Carlla Johnson won the female award in 2002.

The Catonsville campus has been celebrating the rise of the women's basketball team, which reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in March, and the men's lacrosse team, which won an NCAA tournament game for the first time. Among other things, it was proof that grades didn't have to be compromised in order to compete. Matthews and Voss proved the same thing.

In fact, both acknowledged that their compromises went in the other direction.

"It just takes a lot of focus," said Matthews, a native of Oxon Hill in Prince George's County - where he attended a performing-arts middle school and plays the cello. "I could potentially have been a better track athlete, but I can rest easy in that I contributed as much as I could to my team, and I'm happy with my choices."

Said Voss, who graduated high school in Brookfield, Wis., and finished her eligibility in 2006: "I knew I could not become the best possible basketball player I could, because I didn't have the extra two hours to be in the gym or the extra hour in the weight room. But that's where I had to draw the line. ... I decided it was more important for me to excel more academically than to be an all-conference basketball player."

Thus, their statistics in their sports don't blow you away. Matthews ran indoor and outdoor track, everything from the 400 meters to the 3,000, and was part of a quartet that once held the school record for the indoor distance medley. Voss, a forward, started 42 games in her career and averaged 2.4 points a game, with 3.6 a game being her best, as a junior.

These stats stand out a bit more. Matthews took a 3.88 grade point average into his final semester as a mechanical engineering major, after getting a 4.0 in high school. Voss' GPA is, as she put it, "3.9998 ... one B, in a one-credit class." Her degree will be in biochemical engineering.

Matthews' next stop is not the Olympic trials, but MIT graduate school to study aerospace engineering. Voss is going not to the WNBA, but to University of Wisconsin medical school.

Both got where they are by having accommodating professors, coaches and, of course, a school president. Both have tales of coaches who either excused them from practices or rescheduled the sessions to meet class and exam obligations, and teachers who allowed makeups for missed assignments, projects or tests. "I could not do this without [all of] them," Matthews said.

Voss even had a morning practice pushed back so she could prepare for her medical-school entrance exam her senior year. "We made it work," said Katie Rokus, who has been an assistant to head coach Phil Stern for three years and who recruited Voss to UMBC. "It was kind of tough, but it was best for her and in the long run, it was best for us."

Their success reflects well on the school in its quest to enhance its growing national reputation for science and technology, particularly one that reverses the perception that those fields are not open to women, like Voss, and African-Americans, like Matthews. Matthews actually went through school not on an athletic scholarship but a Meyerhoff scholarship designed for minorities in science.

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