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NCAA honors student-athletes with Sportsmanship Awards; Belmont’s Byrd wins Bob Frederick Award

Five student-athletes representing all three membership divisions have been honored with NCAA Sportsmanship Awards for notable displays of sporting behavior. The Association also recognized Belmont men’s basketball coach Rick Byrd with the annual Bob Frederick Award for the values he has instilled in his teams.

The winners of the division Sportsmanship Awards were Blake McJunkin, Southern Methodist football (Division I); Jessica Slagle, Bowling Green State women’s basketball (Division I); the Georgian Court women’s soccer team (Division II); John Sgromolo, Flagler baseball (Division II); and Erika McGuire, Rose-Hulman women’s volleyball (Division III).

The NCAA Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct selected the winners.

Blake McJunkin

Southern Methodist center McJunkin did not let the emotion of the moment interfere with his instinct to protect a vulnerable opposing teammate from potential harm.

After intercepting a Mustangs pass, Texas A&M defensive back Trent Hunter lost his helmet after being tackled by McJunkin and Kelly Turner. With Hunter’s head exposed, McJunkin shielded his opponent with his arms until the play concluded.

“It was just a natural reaction,” McJunkin told the Houston Chronicle. “When he lost his helmet, it was just the right thing to do, no matter the color of his jersey. I’ve seen people get hurt in that situation.”

McJunkin’s father Kirk wasn’t aware of the incident until a couple of days later. “By then,” he said, “Texas A&M’s students and blogs were all talking about it. Honestly, it makes me extremely proud because you raise your kids hoping they do the right thing.”

The next day, Aggie defensive back Hunter chimed in with praise for McJunkin on Twitter.

“(Shoutout) to SMU starting center Black McJunkin for looking out for me when my helmet came off during the game. You’re a class act, bro. Thanks!” he Tweeted.

Jessica Slagle

Slagle, normally a 2 guard who was forced to play point in leading the Falcons to their eighth consecutive Mid-American Conference championship, “maintained the perfect balance between aggressively doing what it necessary to win the game while being compassionate for every athlete on the court,” said Athletics Director Greg Christopher.

He cited one game during which two players collided going for a loose ball. An opponent was bleeding from a head wound, and Slagle rushed to her side, holding her up so she wouldn’t pass out and also holding a towel in place until a staff member intervened. “This player was able to come back and hit the game-winning bucket, making Jess’ concern and assistance all the more respectable,” Christopher said.

In another case, when it appeared an opponent had suffered a broken nose, Slagle stood with her until the athletic trainer arrived. Slagle later checked with the training staff to see how the injured player was doing. “She maintains the perfect balance between aggressively doing what is necessary to win while being compassionate for every athlete on the court,” Christopher said.

John Sgromolo

Sgromolo, a Flagler baseball player, is considered a “student ambassador” for the school’s athletics department. “He embodies character, sportsmanship, leadership, integrity and humility and is someone who is always going above and beyond for Flagler College,” said Assistant Athletics Director Ryan Erlacher.

Among other things, Sgromolo wears the Saints mascot at Flagler home basketball games. He also takes the lead in building school spirit at other events. Said Erlacher, “John has single-handedly become our halftime entertainment at athletic contests, inspiring the crowd and providing that much-needed energy at halftime, all with just a microphone. The majority of enhancements John provides he does without having to be asked. He truly loves Flagler College and makes it very clear he would do anything to make sure Flagler is a great place to be.”

Georgian Court women’s soccer team

Georgian Court women’s soccer team won a game in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference tournament, but what those student-athletes may remember the longest is their role in honoring a fallen opponent.

Chestnut Hill’s Lauren Riiff, a top player, suffered a knee injury in the final week of the regular season. In the first round of the tournament, Georgian Court defeated familiar rival Chestnut Hill as Riff sat somberly on the bench. After the match, Georgian Court players sought her out, shook her hand and wished her well.

At the CACC annual soccer awards banquet the next night, the Georgian Court captains and upperclassmen told coach Jim Moore that they wanted to honor Riiff, who was to be recognized as the CACC Player of the Year later that evening. “When CACC Commissioner Dan Mara presented the award to Lauren,” said Athletics Director Laura Leisman, “a small but growing ovation started in the corner as all 28 GCU players stood and applauded. Slowly, the applause grew louder as other women’s teams present joined the Georgian Court team. Soon after, the men’s programs in attendance joined in. Within a minute, the entire gymnasium was at attention, clapping and saluting one of their own. Riiff stood on the stage with a smile on her face and tears in her eyes. The standing ovation lasted more than five minutes.”

Erika McGuire

For Rose-Hulman volleyball player McGuire, an organized exercise regimen turned into a show of sportsmanship.

McGuire developed an interest in Zumba, a Latin aerobic dance, and led her team through a workout in the squad’s preseason practices. That evolved into an exercise preceding the team’s pregame warmup as a way to help the team relieve stress.

From there, the next step was to invite the opposing team to participate in the pregame dance. More than half of the opponents took advantage of the opportunity, creating a festive pregame atmosphere.

It even carried through the Heartland Conference tournament, where the entire Bluffton team joined Rose-Hulman for pregame Zumba. “Who would guess this tradition would carry into a championship match with an NCAA Division III tournament bid on the line?” said Rose-Hulman Athletics Director Jeff Jenkins.

“I greatly enjoyed being able to share it this year with my own volleyball team and even more with the other teams,” McGuire said. “I hope the positive environment that my team and I were able to create added to the positive attitudes and sportsmanship of each match.”

Rick Byrd (Frederick Award winner)

The Bob Frederick Award is presented in honor of the late Kansas director of athletics to an NCAA coach, administrator or staff member who demonstrates a history of sportsmanship.

In his student-athlete letter of support for Byrd, former player Wes Burtner (now head of the school’s Bruin Club) noted Belmont’s longtime success at the NAIA level before switching to Division I in the 1990s. The Bruins had been noted as a program that featured quality students, and one skeptic told Byrd that approach would have to go by the wayside if he hoped to compete at the Division I level. “Coach Byrd told him that he would just have to find something else to do then because he was not going to sacrifice what he believed was the right way to run a college basketball program just to win a few more games,” Burtner wrote.

Burtner also noted how Byrd suspended a player when he discovered on a replay that the player had thrown an elbow in frustration in a game the night before. “There was no league mandate, no requirement for coach Byrd to do this,” Burtner wrote. “He just thought it would be the right thing to do and important to send a message to the player.”

Another time, Burtner said he was with Byrd when the coach routed a walk across the campus to the food court, where he repaid a debt he owed the cashier. “The day before he had purchased a sandwich and a drink and was 37 cents short,” Burtner wrote. “The cashier told him not to worry about it, but here he was, with his quarter, dime and two pennies on his way to repay what he owed.”

Under Byrd’s leadership, Belmont has become a familiar entry in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, having reached the tournament five times since 2006. His teams stand 637-339 over his 31-year career.

“I like to say Rick is a builder of men, not basketball players,” said Athletics Director Mike Strickland.