Hopscotch and jumping rope likely weren’t the warm-up activities student-athletes had in mind the day before they competed for a spot in a college national championship.
But as LIU Post women’s field hockey coach Raenee Savin observed, the hour her team spent with a bunch of elementary school kids before the Division II semifinal game in November was just what the women needed to loosen up.
To Bayside Elementary School third- and fourth-graders in Virginia Beach, the team from Long Island, New York, stressed the importance of education and an active lifestyle. They taught the kids field hockey and challenged them to races. They signed autographs and posed for pictures. For the hour, Savin said, the student-athletes felt like Olympians.
“It made my team feel special, just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces,” the coach said. “We left there thanking the people from the school for allowing us to do it.”
LIU Post was one of four teams vying for the field hockey title that visited an elementary school at the start of the championship weekend. Similar community engagement events were held in conjunction with 24 championships in Division II this year – the first for such an initiative.
Jill Willson, a former athletic director at Texas A&M Kingsville and the division’s organizer for the community events, said the idea to have student-athletes interact with members of the hosting city during championships grew from the division’s commitment to service. “We can’t expect those communities to support us if we’re not willing to support them,” she said. “We don’t need to be on national television to be valuable to our communities.”
The division’s championship community events hinge on social interaction: visits to retirement homes, children’s hospitals, Boys and Girls Clubs and the like. Before last fall, football and softball championships already included community events in their festivities. But for 22 other championships, community engagement marked a new addition.
“At the beginning of the year, I expected someone to say, ‘I’m not doing that,’” Willson said. “I did not have one single complaint from a coach. For them to come back and say, ‘Wow, this was really great,’ that has been the most pleasant surprise.”
Community members expressed support, too. Joel Matherly, the manager of veteran support services at Southern Indiana, helped organize military appreciation activities throughout the men’s Elite Eight in Evansville. Teams visited a veterans hospital and a shelter for homeless veterans, and a battalion of Vietnam veterans was honored at halftime of the national championship game following a pregame tailgate and street festival.
“To have the whole Ford Center stand up and applaud them, they were really humbled,” Matherly said. “Even days after the event people were calling, emailing and talking about how much fun they had.”
Strengthening ties with the military remains a Division II priority. The Championships Committee in May voted to continue the community engagement events, and Willson aims to include the military at each one.
For Savin and her team, the elementary school visit provided perspective. “Sometimes you get caught up in, ‘Hey, we’re here for a national championship; it’s all about us,’” Savin said. “It was nice for the girls to say, ‘It’s not all about us.’ There are so many people who are less fortunate than our student-athletes, and to take an hour out of our day means a lot to them.”