Cal Poly Athletics puts student before athlete

"Our athletes know that if they don't get it done in the classroom, they're not going to be able to compete in their sport," assistant athletic director of academic services Shannon Stephens said.

It’s summer and most of Cal Poly’s student body is taking a reprieve from school. While the same can be said for many Cal Poly student-athletes, once school begins in the fall, it will be time to hit not only the books, but the field or court as well.

Cal Poly is often regarded as an exceptional academic institution with an athletics program to rival many on the West Coast. The Mustangs helped foster that image even further on June 29 when 23 athletes were named to Big West Conference winter and spring All-Academic honors.

The list was highlighted by nine total selections from the men’s and women’s track and field teams-five from the men’s and four from the women’s squad.

“The fact that we’ve had a very successful graduation rate and a team (grade point average) and individual accolades academically is very reflective of the quality of the student-athletes that we’re bringing into Cal Poly,” track and field director Mark Conover said in a phone interview.

A student-athlete must have maintained a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.2 while completing one full year before the award was given. The student also must have played in 50 percent of the team’s contests throughout the season to be considered for All-Academic praise.

To help the athletes stay on top of their game in the classroom and in their respective sports, the Cal Poly Student Academic Services office stresses the importance of academic success, according to assistant athletic director of academic services Shannon Stephens.

Stephens said there are a myriad of resources available to all student athletes, such as tutoring, the Learning Center in Mott Gym and study halls with coaches to help them balance academic work with their busy athletic schedules.

Stephens is tasked with reporting academic statistics like degree progress and GPA to the NCAA each quarter to strictly monitor athletes’ pursuit of graduation and eligibility.

“Our athletes know that if they don’t get it done in the classroom, they’re not going to be able to compete in their sport,” he said.

Some athletes require more monitoring than others, Stephens added. But in his five years at Cal Poly, Matt Titchenal certainly didn’t.

Titchenal, a former guard for the men’s basketball team, was no surprise for conference All-Academic billing this past season. His 14-time Dean’s List honoree mark at Cal Poly ranks as one of the best in school history. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and a cumulative GPA of 3.89—good enough to pursue graduate studies at Stanford University in the fall.

Titchenal noted that his ability to manage his busy schedule was the key to his success. There was little time for indolence.

“Everything was like a basketball practice,” he said. “It would be quick and clean. I would have goals when I was studying like what I was going to do; then I would do it.”

The Sonoma native also earned the Academic Excellence Award and Cal Poly Male Scholar Athlete of the Year on top of other distinctions handed out by the Big West Conference.

But, despite daily three-hour long workouts, game days during the week, film study and a tremendous course load, Titchenal found time for activities that he loved outside of school, such as fishing and surfing.

He added that he had to coordinate with professors weeks beforehand if he were to miss a test or a lab assignment. Sometimes he’d do homework on the road or after emotionally draining games, and even make up exams in office hours days after they’d been administered to the class.

Some professors are a bit more understanding than others when it comes to making up important assignments, Titchenal said.

Assistant professor of biomedical engineering Kristen O’Halloran Cardinal is one of those professors, perhaps because she is in a unique situation of interacting with athletes. As a former Cal Poly volleyball player, she was once in their position. Now, as a faculty member, she’s an invaluable advising resource for many student-athletes that were in her scenario as an undergraduate.

She admitted that her day-to-day life while in school was on a tightly regimented, yet manageable schedule.

“For me and a lot of people I played with, we were actually the most well balanced during season when you have to stay on top things constantly and you can’t let up for a second,” Cardinal said. “I lived and died by my (daily) planner.”

As an ex-player she understands the time commitment that playing an NCAA sport involves. Admittedly, Cardinal holds athletes to a higher standard than other professors might, but is conscience of letting them turn assignments in when it most makes sense.

She also believes that Cal Poly’s outlook on sports and academics adds merit to a student-athlete’s degree.

“Our athletes here do a really good job, as do the coaches, of recognizing that they are students and athletes,” she said.  “And I don’t think you find that at every school. At some schools they’re just athletes.”