Why Panthers Achieve Greatness in College Athletics
by Nathan Bander '09, guest writer
What factors contribute to an athlete's success both on and off the field? How does a small-by-design school like MPA foster athletes who go on to do incredible things?
I sought to answer those questions as I researched and interviewed more than 25 of the many MPA alumni who have competed at the college level and beyond. Their reflections centered around four hallmarks of the athletics experience at MPA: providing exceptional coaching, developing emotional intelligence, focusing on teamwork, and blending athletics, academics, and the arts.
PROVIDING EXCEPTIONAL COACHING
There was a time, long before national championships and the Olympic trials, that Mason Ferlic '11 had to be coaxed into running. Mason, who is among MPA's most decorated athletes of all time and one of the most accomplished distance runners in recent Minnesota history, grew up a soccer player. It wasn't until his sophomore year that he focused on running.
Mason's meteoric rise from a "scared sophomore," as he put it, to the first University of Michigan runner in 32 years to win the NCAA Championship in the steeplechase, wasn't without guidance. He attributes his success to the coaching he received at MPA. "My coaches, Ms. Docherty and Mr. Ethier, were both instrumental in my development and progression," he says. "They believed in my potential and helped uncover my unknown talent."
Evan Ferlic '14, Mason's youngest brother, chose to compete at the college level in both cross country and track and field for Michigan's conference rival, the University of Minnesota. In 2016, his second season at the U, he helped the Gophers to a top four finish at the Big Ten Cross Country Championships.
Evan echoes Mason, sharing his thoughts about Mr. Ethier and Ms. Docherty: "Mr. Ethier is easily one
of the best cross country coaches in the state of Minnesota. He gives equal support and attention
to each athlete, treating the youngest and least experienced runners with as much attention as he gave me and other more experienced athletes. And Ms. Docherty is the track and field coach, and person, everyone deserves to have in their life at some point. She has been, and still is, one of the most supportive people that I surround myself with."
At MPA, coaches are often teachers, and the fields and the courts are extensions of the classroom. Finding the best coaches for each sport was a founding principle of MPA athletics that continues to help produce top athletes.
DEVELOPING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
The athletics program at MPA encourages students to participate, engage, and dream big. Through
this, student athletes develop overall emotional intelligence, including qualities and skills like commitment, perseverance, initiative, leadership, and, as Beth Larson '08, notes: resilience. She strongly believes resilience is the quality that most successful athletes share.
A multisport athlete from a young age, Larson was the 2006 and 2007 Doubles State Champion with Amber Washington '12, and she led the Girls Tennis Team to their first State Team Championship in 2007. "Participating in athletics at MPA gave me resilience," shares Larson. "And resiliency significantly contributed to my athletic successes throughout my collegiate career since it helped me focus and maintain a positive attitude when I faced challenging opponents and daunting matches."
Larson's name now dots the record books at Lawrence University. She holds the Vikings' record for wins and winning percentage, she's the only player in Midwest Conference history to win two Conference Championships in No. 1 Singles and two in No. 1 Doubles, she was honored as Lawrence Women's Tennis Most Valuable Player in each of her four years in Appleton, and she was a three-time Academic All Midwest Conference honoree.
FOCUSING ON TEAMWORK
In the six years that Brenna Kelly '10 played on the Girls Varsity Tennis Team at MPA, the Panthers made five trips to the State Tournament, winning twice. Kelly, who's acclaimed by former Head Girls' Tennis Coach Justen Seim as "one of the smartest players I've ever coached," played a critical role in that success. She selected Emory University to continue her tennis career at the collegiate level.
She credits MPA for her success at Emory: "MPA athletics prepared me in many ways: from how to work and communicate with teammates and coaches to the importance of putting one's expectations aside in order to advance and support the team," she says. "I developed a 'Do what's best for your team' mentality that helped me immensely when I began playing tennis at Emory University."
Panthers soccer standout Helga Midelfort-Vognar '03 remembers playing the Section Championship late one night in October 2002. "Each person on the field was giving 100 percent to the point of exhaustion, watching the clock tick down. When that buzzer finally sounded and the official's whistle blew, one last rush of adrenaline propelled us toward each other in the middle of the field. WE WIN! Sweat, tears, and teammates all piled together celebrating an MPA first: We were going to state."
"The most important way that MPA prepared me for collegiate soccer was by showing me the importance of teamwork," Midelfort-Vognar remembers. "I learned that a team is greater than the sum of the individuals involved. It was with this mindset that I entered college, and it was this mindset that allowed me to succeed in college."
Midelfort-Vognar continued her soccer career at Carleton College. She was a four-year starter for the Knights, earning varsity letters from 2003 to 2006 and helping lead Carleton to the MIAC Conference Championship in 2006.
MPA's no-cut policy promotes inclusion and sportsmanship, encouraging all to participate and contribute to a team. In both team and individual sports, great emphasis is placed on the team as a way to foster school spirit and build community.
BALANCING ATHLETICS, ACADEMICS, AND THE ARTS
A balance between athletics, academics, and the arts is not found at every school. Often students' priorities conflict and they must choose one passion area over another. MPA students are encouraged to dive deep into many passion areas and the supportive environment makes doing so possible.
Brenna Bray '02 started her athletics career as an eighth grader on the Nordic Ski and Track and Field Teams. Over the next six years, she became one of MPA's most successful endurance athletes in both sports. Bray joined the Cross Country Team as a junior, recording the seventh best cross country performance in girls' team history and earning a Tri Metro All-Conference Honorable Mention Award.
It was cross country running that Bray decided to pursue at St. Olaf College, bringing with her what she learned as an MPA athlete. "I learned the importance of sleep and rest. It was sometimes challenging in high school to manage a heavy academic and athletic load, but the experience was ultimately helpful for me," says Bray. "When I was in college and had more control over my time, I was able to draw from my high school experiences to structure my time in a way that helped me perform well both athletically and academically."
Tri Metro Conference Champions, Section Champions, State Qualifiers: MPA's 2010 Boys Soccer team will go down as one of the Panthers' all-time great teams, and midfielder Nick Campanelli '11 was the glue that held the team together.
Like many MPA student athletes, Campanelli was more than a brilliant soccer player. He also excelled at the French horn, playing in MPA's most select music ensembles as well as in the Tri Metro Conference Honor Band and the Minnesota Music Educators Association All-State Concert Band.
"MPA helped prepare me for collegiate soccer by giving me an environment in which I could be successful on the field while still maintaining a high level of academic success. This proved to be tremendous preparation for succeeding as an NCAA student athlete," says Campanelli. Following an outstanding career for the Panthers, Campanelli chose to play collegiate soccer at Division III University of Puget Sound.
Few athletes earn All-State Honors in even one sport. However, Nick Gardner '14 earned All-State Honors in three sports, excelling in cross country running, Nordic skiing, and track and field.
Not only was Gardner prepared to succeed as a college athlete, continuing his Nordic skiing career at Williams College (which competes at the Division I level), he also felt academically ready. "MPA instilled in me a sense of balance that has become my mantra in high-level competition," he says. "Instead of choosing between athletics and academics, I believe both can embolden the other. Instead of defining myself as an athlete or a math major or putting myself in any other box, I define myself as a whole person. And I have MPA to thank. Though I've been a 'math person' since first grade, Ms. Buck, Ms. Conway, Ms. Kunze, and Ms. Sommer taught me that I could also be a ceramics person, a history person, a language person, and a literature person, too," he says.
This foundation steered him toward Williams College. Gardner explained, "In touring other college ski programs, it often seemed that around their sophomore years, athletes needed to make the decision to focus on studies or sports, but at Williams, athletes didn't 'sacrifice' skiing for grades, or vice versa. They strove to be the best at both. This mentality has created one of the best teams in the nation and for me, it is in perfect alignment with my MPA education."