The South Arkansas College Stars will travel to Enid, Oklahoma this weekend for the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II World Series, an incredible feat for a baseball team still in its infancy.
With only two years under their belt, the Stars have exceeded expectations on the diamond, but that's not all. On Wednesday, 15 members of the team were honored for their academic success in a "mini-commencement" ceremony that recognized five graduates and 10 more who earned technical certifications.
During the SouthArk Stars Sendoff held Wednesday, local residents got a chance to meet the team and celebrate their season's success as they prepare to head off to the World Series. Mid-way through, 15 team members left the SouthArk Gym for a wardrobe change, and attendees saw them recognized for completing their educational goals.
"We basically did it half-and-half – half-pep rally celebrating their accomplishments so far, and then we kind of paused in he middle and we did a full graduation, essentially, for those grads who missed out on graduation a few weeks ago," said SouthArk Athletic Director Justin Guerin.
The 15 Stars who were honored would have been recognized during SouthArk's spring commencement on May 11, but they were busy winning the Plains District Tournament, which won the team entry in the World Series.
Guerin also serves as Dean of Arts and Sciences at SouthArk, and he said academic success is paramount for SouthArk's athletes.
"We preach to our athletes: the same rigor, the same effort and mentality that you approach your athletic career with is how you should approach the classroom," he said. "I try to stress that with all my coaches. We want to have successful athletics, want to win games, but if they're not going to compete as hard in the classroom as they do on the field, they're not the kind of student-athletes we're looking for."
Five players – Clayton Burrows, Donald Miller III, Jackson Regan, Ryan Riggs and Hunter Royal – earned associates degrees, while 10 more – Gage Bellatti, Steffan Fak, Ryekeyisz Hawthorne, Brennan Jones, Robert Kuttenkuler, Daniel Lively, Elijah Nichols, Trace Shoup, Brayden Spedale, Aaron Warriner – earned technical certificates following the spring semester at SouthArk.
"All five of our guys who got Associate's degrees graduated with Honors, so that means, just for the basic cum laude, that's a 3.5 cumulative GPA or higher, all while playing competitive college baseball," Guerin explained.
Burrows and Royal graduated cum laude, Miller and Riggs graduated magna cum laude (minimum 3.75 GPA) and Regan graduated summa cum laude, having maintained a 4.0 GPA through his time at SouthArk.
Additionally, Kuttenkuler, Shoup and Spedale earned their certificates with honors, Fak, Bellatti, and Nichols, with high honors, and Jones and Warriner with highest honors.
Several of the players are planning to continue their studies – and baseball careers – at four year universities as well, Guerin noted.
Hawthorne and Miller plan to continue studying at the University of Arkansas at Monticello; Burrows, Regan and Shoup at Southern Arkansas University; Jones at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Nursing School; Lively and Warriner at Arkansas Tech University; Riggs at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; and Royal at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
"All five of them (Associate's degree earners) have committed to playing to continuing their playing career at a four-year institution," Guerin said. "My technical certificate guys – some of the are potentially coming back next year to continue playing – one for sure –, four are already committed to four-year universities to keep playing, three more of those are still actively in conversations with four-year schools, so they could get signed any day."
Being a community college, Guerin says it's easy for SouthArk staff and faculty to get close to their students, which makes saying goodbye bittersweet.
"I've joked with a bunch of our sophomores, athletes or not, that I wish they'd get another Associate's degree and stay two more years," he said. "We get excited and emotional because they're great kids. We wish we could keep them."
The Stars are here to stay, and next year, local residents should expect to see players from all sports – SouthArk is home to a softball team and men's and women's basketball as well as baseball – in the community helping out.
"All four of my coaches have done a great job recruiting great kids who show up on the field, in the classroom and in the community as volunteers," Guerin said. "I get compliments from all over town, from the teachers. Obviously it's really fun to sit here and hold up championship trophies, but as athletic director and an academic dean, it makes me even more proud to hear all the positivity about how great they are off the field."
SouthArk President Dr. Bentley Wallace agreed.
"The number of baseball players who are graduating on time and with honors speaks to the level of commitment our players and coaches have to their success as well-rounded members of South Arkansas College – both on the field and in the classroom," Wallace said. "I continue to be amazed by the maturity, willingness to engage the community and, of course, the amazing, meteoric rise to a nationally-ranked championship-winning team."
Guerin said he appreciates the community's support, and will continue to seek it as the Stars shoot higher.
"We have an absolutely incredible group of students and student-athletes here at SouthArk. The calls we're getting, the level and quality of athletes we're continuing to bring in – I have every intention of SouthArk athletics becoming a force in JUCO (junior college athletics) and I really want people to take some time and see these guys playing. Get involved and support them," he said.
The team has an ongoing fundraiser for its trip to the World Series this weekend. If all goes well, the players could be in Enid for up to a week, since they play their first game Saturday and the final game of the tournament is scheduled for the next Saturday, June 3. Any funds can help the Stars athletic programs ensure their players can travel to games, Guerin said.
"The community has been very generous," he said. "But the reality is, we need more fundraising at all times – for future travel, improving our facilities, more scholarships for student-athletes. Anybody who's interested in any kind of donation, from $10 for this trip to corporate sponsorships, get in touch with me and we'll find a way to make it happen."
To contribute to the World Series fundraiser, visit bookstore.southark.edu/category/baseball-event. Learn more about athletic and educational opportunities at SouthArk at southark.edu.