11 NCAA Div. III national team championships
PELLA — John Elway. Bo Jackson. Vern Den Herder. All three were professional athletes who played two sports at the collegiate level.
But, in an age of specialization, these kind of multi-talented athletes are fast becoming an endangered species at even the high school level, let alone the collegiate. Sports are quickly becoming year-round endeavors with increased offseason training. With AAU and travel teams in almost every sport, now most athletes have to give up some of the sports they love to be able to compete at a high level. At Central College however, the two-sport athlete is not only alive, but thriving.
Annie Sarcone (Des Monies/Dowling Catholic HS), a senior this fall, and junior Eric Larson (Waverly/Waverly-Shell Rock HS) are among those Central College athletes not only competing but excelling in multiple sports. Larson, is actually a three-sport standout. An all-Iowa conference defensive back in football, Larson captured the 2013 NCAA Division III heptathlon title in indoor track and field, then claimed the Division III decathlon crown during the outdoor season. Meanwhile, Sarcone is a three-year letter winner in basketball, while in softball she is two-time all-Iowa Conference first-team shortstop, the 2012 Iowa Conference position player of the year and a 2012 NFCA Division III all-American. She helped lead the Dutch to an NCAA regional championship in May and a berth in the Division III national finals.Many people would be thrilled to compete in just one sport at the collegiate level, but for both athletes playing just one sport doesn’t compute.
“It would be weird for me just having one sport to focus on,” said Larson.
“Just dedicating yourself to one sport can be good,” said Sarcone. “But why not go out for more? I feel like I would get bored and burnt out playing just one sport.”
For both athletes, playing multiple sports began in high school.
“I did basketball, softball, and actually soccer for two years,” said Sarcone. “But then they kind of switched the seasons, so I did tennis for my last two years. I think being a multi-sport athlete in high school is important for students. You want to support your school, especially if you are a good athlete.”
“I did three sports in high school,” said Larson. “Throughout the entire school year, it was football, basketball, and track all the time. I’ve been used to playing a bunch of sports in high school, so this year hasn’t been too much different in college.”
When considering her higher education choices, Sarcone wanted a school that would accommodate playing two sports. Unlike most schools, even in Division III, Central’s coaches not only allow athletes to compete in two sports, they encourage it.
“There were a couple of them (schools) that wanted me just for softball,” said Sarcone. “But a lot of the schools I was looking at were typically Division III/NAIA schools, because I really did want to play two sports. I kind of made that decision early on.”
When Larson started look at colleges, he heard a different tune.
“Most schools wanted me for either track or just football,” said Larson. “But the football coaches here really promoted the idea of being in another sport. They liked the aspect of you competing as much as possible, which was really refreshing to hear. The track coaches felt the same way, so my coaches have been really great dealing with the two-sport aspect of things, which is something I really like about Central.”Training and competing for two sports is challenging.
“It is pretty tough, but once I’m done with football, (the) track coaches make sure I take a few weeks off which is really nice,”Larson said. “It’s nice for my body and for me to get physically and mentally prepared for track. It’s really great how the coaches let me take rest during the summer and after the seasons.”
But Central football coach Jeff McMartin embraces a student-athlete’s desire to play two sports.
“Our football team loves competitors,” he said. “And if a guy is truly a competitor and wants to be in the arena—or the batter’s box, or the track or the court--all the time, that tells me he’s a great competitor. And the more times you put yourself in that position, the better you’ll be at crunch time. So when it’s on the line in the fourth quarter, it’s easy for you because you’ve been there so many times, it’s part of your DNA.
“The other thing is that sometimes you get a young man who’s a starter in one sport and a reserve in another. It can give you a different perspective and help you understand that you’ve got a role to play and that every role is important. It’s not just about being the star but it’s about being part of the program and being a good teammate.”
For Sarcone the road is even tougher, as her seasons overlap. Some softball practices are held in September and then drills resume while basketball is in the middle of its conference season.
“Freshman year was kind of the first year to see how it went and it was difficult at times,” said Sarcone. “The two sports I do I actually really play all year, especially because for softball we have a fall season first, and then maybe have a week or two break until basketball starts. The overlap happens Feb. 1, when we start softball season while basketball is still going.”
Sarcone believes the environment at Central College is supportive.
“He (softball coach George Wares) knew when I came in that I was thinking about doing two sports, and there’s been nothing but support from him,” said Sarcone. “Same with Coach (Mike) Jacobsma. He has been very understanding that fall season is very important to me. I’ve had great coaches who have worked with me being a two-sport athlete.”
Academics remain the priority in Division III, even for two-sport athletes.. While having two seasons means less time for homework, both student-athletes have succeeded in the classroom as well.
“It’s a little hard sometimes,” said Larson. “All my weekends are gone, throughout the year. It’s challenging, but it’s absolutely doable too.”
“Academics are still very important to me, said Sarcone. “I came to Central because of the academics first, and the added benefit was to play sports. To be a two-sport athlete and still be successful in the classroom, I see that as a positive for myself.”
That means a lot to these student athletes.
“I have a very competitive nature, said Sarcone. I love to win, but I just love playing sports in general. I also have a great support system at home and with my teammates, they’re always behind me. I put a lot of effort into everything I do, so being a two-sport athlete is very important to me.”
Larson values the freedom that Division III allows to pursue any campus activities as he doesn’t have the obligations that come with an athletics scholarship.
“It’s important to me because I get to know my potential,” said Larson. “I don’t have to decide to quit a sport. It allows me to continue my career, and not make any hard decisions prematurely. I really like being able to be open to doing whatever I want and having free choice. If I want to play football I can, if I want to run track I can. No one is really pushing me one way or the other. I really like the independence of it.”
For Larson, sometimes not even two sports is enough.
“I actually miss basketball a lot,” said Larson. “My favorite sport is basketball. I wish I could play basketball throughout the year, too.”