Crediting college athletics as a “commitment” would be an understatement. Between practices, games and the requirement of acceptable academic performance, it’s safe to say that those who devote their collegiate years towards sports have a lot on their plate. Eckerd’s student athletes’ noticeable dedication was displayed last year (2020) when the Tritons held ninth place for national academic success in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
As the importance of sports and academics are equal, finding the balance between what to prioritize at each moment takes a while, even years. Morgan Flemming, a current junior goalie on the women’s soccer team, said she only recently began to stabilize her busy schedule.
“The first couple of years, it was really just school and soccer,” Flemming said. “Also, your friend group really is made up of the soccer team for the most part, so no matter what it feels like you're always with soccer.”
Flemming compared her athletics to a part-time job with extra stress as she has to always perform her best both during games and during classes.
Overwhelming pressure and mental health can be overlooked when considering the daily routines of an athlete. For most, the constraints of being in the spotlight linger off the field and into the everyday lives of these students, as they know any small mistake has career-ending potential.
There were a couple factors that led to senior and former shooting guard Doug Williams Jr. leaving the league. These factors included the departure of his head coach, the absence of a few close teammates and, of course, the pandemic.
“The worst part about it was the spotlight,” Williams said. “Anything you did was highlighted. If an athlete violated policy it's ten times worse than if a regular student did. So, just the aspect of all eyes on you 24/7 was sometimes bothersome.”
Similarly, Ivey Andrews, a senior who began her Eckerd career on the women’s volleyball team, left after her second year due to the pandemic. Additionally, Andrews felt it was time to pursue life outside athletics such as an internship or the ability to study abroad.
“I think it really was COVID that threw it over the edge for me because there was so much uncertainty in what was going to happen for sports,” said Andrews.
For would-be senior Becky Caraker, the pandemic didn’t help, but it was the team environment that pushed her off the soccer field. Specifically, it was during a game Caraker realized she was playing a position that wasn’t hers. Putting herself out there and feeling no self satisfaction led to permanent resignation from the Tritons.
“Soccer was always something I could escape to when everything else wasn't going well. When I came to college it was my whole life,” Caraker said. “I really did come to Eckerd for soccer, so being in that environment and noticing that I felt so alone on this team where I should feel the most support was triggering for me.”
Andrews shared that it is quite common for students to quit because the mental and physical health for a student can run short, especially for an athlete. Williams agreed that the health of a student must come first, even if that means leaving the team.
“A lot of people don't talk about mental health,” Williams said. “There's a lot of athletes across the United States or the world where they deal with mental health. They have to take some time off for themselves.”
For some, the uplifting light through the hardships of stressful seasons was the support of their teammates. Williams said he’d always be thankful for being a part of that brotherhood.
Ivey Andrews agreed, and was happy to say she too maintains close friendships to her team and is grateful for their time playing together.
“When juggling school and everything else that you have to juggle when you are a student-athlete, it's nice to have that community,” Andrews said. “You see those people all the time so they really do become like your family.”
Caraker said that a large portion of her pressure stemmed from being around the team such as during practices and games. “It was a constant battle with myself,” she said. “There was not a time where I could just play and have fun because I needed to prove to myself that I made the right choice.”
Morgan Flemming often finds a sense of community within her team, noting that they push each other to be their best for themselves and the team as a whole. She said the team encouragement wasn’t just during games and practices, but for academics as well.
On the contrary, Caraker did not feel as supported by her teammates: “It got to a point where I worked really hard and certain people wanted my position too, so they would say things that never happened,” Caraker said.
She continued to acknowledge that in schools with higher divisions, sports for athletes come before anything else and some will do anything to end up on top. This is especially true at a young age where the validity that comes out of athletics is so important, it can lead to selfish actions.
Off the field and on the volleyball court, Andrews felt a similar hostility from others in her position. “There was another girl on the team who was two years older than me, and there was a lot of tension between us because we both played the same position.”
Luckily for Andrews, the one who used to be her competitor now stands as one of her closest friends.
Andrews, Williams and Caraker agreed that leaving the suffocating schedule and intensity of the Division II league opened up opportunities they never thought they’d have. Andrews explored studying abroad options, Williams has more free time to spend with family and focus on school and Caraker can be seen DJing in the Tampa Bay area under the alias DJ Maskoff.
Furthermore, none of the three look back with regret, but are thankful for their experiences. They all continue to play with pressure subtracted from the equation. After devoting a large chunk of their lives to athletics, nobody let go of their sport completely. Williams plays pick-up games when he can and occasionally works the scoreboard, while Andrews and Caraker both play in local club leagues. Meanwhile, Flemming hopes to coach and continue her involvement with soccer as long as she can.
“It's so important and crucial to listen to your real values and your real opinions and your real thoughts because then you can create whatever you want,” Caraker said.
“Support Eckerd athletics,” Andrews said. “They're good people and they work hard.”