Players cash in extra time

Student-athletes find ways to take advantage of extra NCAA eligibility.

Tiff Clements

Heather Horton has planned on being a dentist since she started college.

What the varsity track and cross country runner didn’t plan on was an injury forcing her to sit out her junior year and leaving her with extra NCAA eligibility.

“I really didn’t need five years of undergrad to finish my degree,” Horton said.

So she applied to the University’s School of Dentistry and used her remaining eligibility as a dental student.

“Had I not had that year of eligibility left I probably would have applied other places,” she said. “But I wanted to be able to run my last year here.”

Finishing undergraduate degrees in four years or less, some University student-athletes are starting graduate programs and continuing studies while using remaining seasons of NCAA eligibility.

According to NCAA regulations, student-athletes are allowed to compete in four seasons of any one sport during five consecutive calendar years.

The practice of red-shirting – choosing to sit out competition for a season – allows many student-athletes to remain eligible for five years.

NCAA rules allow students to finish their eligibility while enrolled in graduate programs at the university where they studied as undergraduates.

Of the more than 700 student-athletes at the University, only 15 are in graduate programs. The University does not have records of what those numbers have been historically.

According to Jenn Townsend, an academic counselor for student-athletes at the University’s McNamara Academic Center, many student-athletes take five years to finish their undergraduate work because of athletic time commitments.

“I think we’d have a higher number of graduate students if they didn’t have the hindrances,” she said.

Townsend said student-athletes who have completed undergraduate degrees with remaining eligibility find ways to stay at the University.

NCAA rules allow students to enroll in as little as one course in the last semester of their final year of eligibility, she said, as long as it counts toward their degree.

“Some students plan it out so that they only have one class in the last semester,” she said.

Finance and accounting senior Jenny Hasling said she took a heavy course load last year to graduate in four years and is only taking one course this semester.

“Technically, I graduated in three and a half years, and I’m just finishing up a second degree to stay eligible,” said Hasling, who is a varsity swimmer.

Other student-athletes with eligibility to burn begin graduate programs at the University.

Varsity baseball player Taylor VanderAarde said if he hadn’t had remaining eligibility he would have probably entered the workforce after graduating with a degree in communication studies last summer.

“Instead of stretching it out, I just went on to grad school,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”

VanderAarde red-shirted his first season and said balancing his studies in the master’s degree program in sports management and athletics is easier than his undergraduate work.

“It’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Mikey Kantar, a varsity tennis player and graduate student studying plant breeding and genetics, said he is glad to have one last season to play and planned on graduate school anyway.

“I finally reached a point where I was good,” he said. “And the team was going to be good.”

Kantar said he doesn’t see allowing graduate students to compete in NCAA competition as a flaw in the system.

“I think having the ability to have a fifth season while in grad school is rewarding them for being good students,” he said.