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Savannah College of Art and Design looks for Artist-Athletes

The NCAA Division III philosophy centers around development of the total student-athlete. Perhaps nowhere is that mission taken more seriously than at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, where every member of the 13 men's and women's athletic teams is carrying one or more of the school's 18 art and design majors.

The College, founded in 1978, wasn't created with intercollegiate athletics in mind, but Karen Ryan changed that and did so while operating within the academic mission of the institution.

"When I got here in 1990, there were only two sports, both for men." recalls Ryan, the school's athletic director and head softball and volleyball coach, who inaugurated 11 of the 13 men's and women's sports the school now offers. "I started the volleyball and men's and women's tennis programs that first year. The next year we added softball and then women's soccer." 

Since then, the school has also added big names to its coaching staff, notably ex-major league standout Luis Tiant (head baseball coach) and former NBA guard Cazzie Russell (head men's basketball coach). Ryan credits the latter two hirings to the efforts of the school's president, Richard Rowan, and to the chair of the SCAD Board of Trustees, ex-NFL tight end Bernie Casey.

Big name or not, one thing every new coach at SCAD learns quickly is that the recruiting process is, for lack of a better word, limited.

"We're looking for artists who want to be athletes," she says. "My assistant coach and I can't just go to a tournament and say, 'wow, what a great center fielder, we'd love to have her.' It's got to be somebody who wants to major in art and design."

Daunting though this task appears to be, Ryan has been largely successful, putting together a 14-player softball roster that opened the 1999 season by winning six of its first ten games. She credits junior captain Crissy Way with a major contribution.

"Crissy is one of our captains and one of our leaders," Ryan says. "She's the designated player when she's not pitching. We just want to keep her bat in the lineup." No wonder, since Way, who carries a double major of video and theater arts, leads the Bees in batting (.382), home runs (six) and RBI (25). Freshman catcher Brooke Piasecki, one of four first-year players on the roster, is another standout.

"Brooke has had to learn a lot," says Ryan."Not only about our pitchers but about the college game in general." At least part of that learning process must be taking place, if Piasecki's .365 average and 18 RBI, both second on the team to Way, is any indication. The freshman has yet to declare a major but, says Ryan, "she loves art."

It's long been clear to Ryan that what seems like a negative when she's trying to identify and recruit softball players turns out to be a positive once those artist-athletes arrive on campus.

"These kids are here because they love what they do academically," she says."They want to study and go to class. If you love what you're doing, studying and going to class is a piece of cake. Sometimes," she laughs, "I have to go in and get them out to the softball field and get them to play."

Ryan cites with pride the team's cumulative grade-point average of 3.42 on a four-point scale, which she describes as "about average for us."

"We give them a chance to play a sport they like to play and at the same time, they know they're going to get out of here with a degree and be able to get a job." Ryan says.

The Bees dropped to a 9-14 record after that 6-4 start, but Ryan isn't discouraged.

"We're getting better every year," she says. "If we can be competitive and continue to improve, I'll feel like I've been successful here."