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The Wide World of LVC Alumni in Athletics
07.28.15 |

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Mike Rhoades ’95, one of the most celebrated athletes in Lebanon Valley College history, lost his dad, Jim, in a car accident in 2008. Before long, his phone began to ring.

One after another, his teammates on LVC’s 1993–94 NCAA Division III-champion men’s basketball team (the only team national champion in school history), called, knowing full well how devastating this loss was.

His dad, a Pennsylvania state senator, was the one who told Mike to always play hard, but also to comport himself like a gentleman off the court. Jim’s death would not be easy to overcome, but Mike’s teammates were there to help him through it.

All of them either called or attended Jim’s funeral.

“It didn’t stop within those two or three days of my dad dying,” Mike, now the head coach at Rice University in Texas, said. “It lasted for a year. It was awesome. It was one of the toughest times of my life but also one of the neatest times.”

Once a team, always a team.

That’s what comes through in conversations with former LVC athletes. Some say that competing in college helped them meet the challenges of life after graduation. Others discuss how it taught them the value of discipline and hard work.

The thing that is emphasized most often, however, is the bond shared between teammates—how they stood shoulder to shoulder then, and still do.

That ’93–’94 men’s basketball team, as it happens, was inducted into the College’s Hall of Fame last fall.

“Within five minutes of getting back together,” Rhoades said, “we were busting chops and telling stories. Nobody’s changed. We’ve changed in appearance, but we haven’t changed in the way we’ve looked at everything. We have a bond that we’ll have forever.”

Here are the stories of several other graduated athletes:

Spiros Anastas ’10 found himself part of an LVC ice hockey team that was without a coach 16 games into his senior season. A four-year captain, he shed his skates and ran the team the rest of the way.

The Ontario native draws on that experience now, as the head coach at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta. Though he is no doubt pleased to know that LVC is returning to NCAA competition in 2016 after a brief—but successful—stint in the ACHA under four-year Head Coach Don Parsons, Anastas learned a lot from his junior and senior seasons, each of which saw the Dutchmen go 0-25. 

“It was a tough experience,” he said, “but it’s the old cliché: Everything happens for a reason. It taught me to be a better person and a better coach. You learn what not to do, or what could be done better.”

Anastas, who is also the coach of South Korea’s Under-18 men’s national team and an assistant on that country’s national team, said that he particularly learned the importance of attention to detail.

“If I ever feel myself slipping,” he said, “that’s what I think back to—my days at LVC.”

John Brennan ’01 and his wife, Beth Light ’01, both achieved All-America status at LVC—Brennan when he finished 61st at the NCAA Division III golf championships his senior year (the same year he placed fifth at the MAC Championships), Light in field hockey.

They both play golf now. “It’s a way to spend time together,” he said.

Brennan, who teaches social studies and coaches boys’ tennis at his alma mater, Spring-Ford High School in Royersford, Pa., nonetheless said it is the sport’s solitary nature that has always appealed to him.

“It’s you against the golf course,” he said.

Brennan wins that battle often enough, emerging with the Golf Association of Philadelphia’s Middle-Amateur title in 2012 and the championship at his home course, the Philadelphia Cricket Club, in 2014 and 2015.

Joe Buehler ’89 began coaching while still playing, serving as a Little League baseball coach in his days at Palmyra High School. His passion for the profession is such that he still coaches that sport, in addition to football.

He will begin his 12th season on LVC’s staff this fall, serving as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. He is particularly attuned to the latter positional group, having once played along the line himself.

“There’s a ‘Band of Brothers’ mentality offensive linemen end up with that is fun to be around,” he said.

Before returning to his alma mater, he served on the staffs at three Central Pennsylvania high schools, and then went back to Palmyra as head coach in 1996. The Cougars went 0-10 that year, but won their opener in ’97 to break a three-year long losing streak, the second longest in the state. Buehler then, in 1998, led the team to the program’s first winning season since 1976.

“They got the fire trucks out in Palmyra,” he said, “and drove us all over the place.”

He hasn’t stopped driving since.

J.D. Byers ’05, an assistant to Rice University men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades ’95, still remembers the chants of “overrated” directed his way during a game at Franklin & Marshall when he played point guard at LVC. He responded with a flurry of points, leading his team to victory.

“It seemed to always motivate me when I felt like I was kind of being disrespected, I guess,” said Byers who will be inducted into LVC’s Athletic Hall of Fame during Homecoming Weekend in October.

Byers, who scored 1,898 points and sank a school-record 301 3-pointers for the Dutchmen, first worked for Rhoades at Randolph-Macon in 2007. It was one of Byers’ four coaching stops before the two of them were reunited at Rice in 2014. He now puts his competitive instincts to good use on the recruiting trail.

“You just don’t want to lose to certain schools,” he said, “or don’t want to lose out on kids that can really help your program, so I think it directly correlates.”

Nate Davis ’00 has everything he needs now as a men’s and women’s track & field assistant at the University of Wisconsin, and appreciates how his coaches at LVC made it work with far less.

The Dutchmen boasted few full-time coaches when he competed in football and track & field, so everyone improvised. 

When he set a school record in the decathlon as a freshman, student assistant Ross Denisco ’95 was the one who worked with him on throws. When Davis decided he wanted to get into coaching, he sought the counsel of then-football coach Mike Silecchia.

“One thing he told me was, ‘You better marry the right woman,’” Davis said. “That was the best advice I ever received.”

That woman was Ann Musser ’00, a five-time All-America in the field events at LVC and a member of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Nate’s career took them from Pennsylvania to Arizona to Kansas, before they landed in Wisconsin.

They now have three young children, and he appreciates the journey more than most.

“I think about my experience at Lebanon Valley all the time,” he said. “Everybody cared and wanted us to be good.”

Becky Elliott ’98 has been an LVC field hockey assistant since 2008, serving under Head Coach Carol Miller since 2011. And there are times during practice scrimmages, Elliott said, when Miller asks that all her assistants gear back and let the players figure things out for themselves.

“It’s very hard to stay quiet,” Elliott said, “and not say things.”

She is geared toward leadership, whether it is in her job as a math teacher at Cocalico High School or as a former youth leader at her church. She also has much to share, having been a back on Final Four teams in 1996 and 1997 at LVC. 

She was named to the NCAA all-tournament team the second of those seasons.

“We try to stress to the girls, ‘There’s a legacy behind you. Take from that, build from that, and move on,’” she said.

Jess Finlayson ’14 teaches eighth-grade math in the Northampton (Pa.) School District these days, but when she sits in on meetings with those who teach the other disciplines on her grade level, she feels much like she did when she played volleyball at LVC.

“We have to collaborate,” she said of her fellow teachers, “just as you would on the volleyball court.”

She majored in math for secondary education at Lebanon Valley. It was, she said, “the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.” She negotiated the academic gauntlet, and was no less successful in volleyball. Her first two years the Dutchmen made the NCAA Tournament—“an amazing experience,” she said—and her last two she was among the team leaders in digs.

She still plays in outdoor leagues and summer tournaments. And she’s still very much part of a team.

Matt Grodzinski ’12 still remembers a youngster, William, some five years after he worked with the youth as the head tennis pro at Lebanon Country Club.

William, then 9 or 10, would spend his time during tennis lessons goofing around, spraying the ball all over the place. 

“We had a couple conversations,” Grodzinski said. “I told him, ‘I see some raw potential.’”

In time, William began practicing with a purpose. A year later, he won his first match.

“I could tell he kind of found his niche,” Grodzinski said.

It is for such reasons that Grodzinski, a two-time MAC All-Commonwealth tennis player for LVC, was drawn to coaching. He serves as an assistant to Dave Remsburg for the Dutchmen.

“It’s a complete flip-flop in perspective,” Grodzinski said. “Now you’re the influencer, instead of the influencee.”

Sarah Grodzinski ’10 enjoyed tennis’ individuality during her undergraduate career, when she was named Commonwealth MVP twice and became the first LVC player to record 100 combined victories, going 75-10 in singles and 43-29 in doubles.

“It’s just you out there in singles,” she said. “You don’t have anyone to blame if you mess up, other than yourself.”

At the same time she has always savored the sport’s communal aspect. She and her twin brother Matt ’12, now an assistant for the LVC men’s team, played for hours on end at home growing up, as did their younger brother Ethan ’13.
It has drawn her to coaching as well, as an assistant to LVC women’s Head Coach Joy Graeff. Grodzinski prepared herself for the role by giving lessons while still in college.

“I love coaching,” she said. “I get just as excited as when I played during a match.”

Chris Hall ’12 shares the LVC soccer team’s all-time goal-scoring record of 32 with Grant Walter ’03, but believes that pales in comparison to the lessons he learned about unselfishness from Head Coach Charlie Grimes.

Hall keeps them in mind while playing professionally for the Harrisburg Heat, and tries to impart them to his players as an assistant to Andrew Raudensky ’10 at Manheim Township High School.

“At times when I’m playing, I still hear things he said in my head,” Hall said of Grimes. “He couldn’t care less if he won every game. Though he definitely wants to win, he’s more concerned about making you a better person while achieving that.”

Jenn Parks Hildebrand ’07 had a firm foundation in the game of softball, in large part because her dad, Bill Parks, coached her at a young age. Now he’s helping her build a foundation as her assistant at Woodstown (N.J.) High School, her alma mater.

“I tell the players all the time, ‘I know you don’t want to hear this, and I’ve said it 100 times…’” she said. “Those are things I remember Dad saying after every game and after practice. And he just smiles and says, ‘I told you so.’”

He taught his daughter well; she remains among LVC’s all-time leaders in three offensive categories. Now dean of students for an elementary school, she has been a head coach the last four years.

“I think ultimately you’re not just creating a team that year; you’re creating a culture,” she said. “You’re not just building a varsity team; you’re building a program.”

Jackie Kain ’10, co-head coach of LVC’s cheerleading squad with Tara Neiheiser ’11, would like to make one thing perfectly clear.

“I guess one of the biggest challenges,” she said, “is that people don’t always see cheerleading as a sport—getting everybody to recognize this is a group of athletic individuals. We put in practice time much like other athletic teams do. You can’t fail to appreciate that.”

She holds LVC degrees in math and physics, as well as a master’s of science from Columbia University, and now works as a diagnostic medical physicist at Lancaster General Health.

“I’m responsible for quality control of diagnostic imaging equipment and the overall radiation safety culture of the hospital,” she said.

Then there is the chemistry on the cheerleading squad—the “special bond” that exists on the team, as she put it. That too must be appreciated.

Tommy Mealy ’00 calls himself “a process-driven person.” Now the athletic director at his high school alma mater, Bishop McDevitt (as well as the head boys’ and girls’ track & field coach and a football assistant), he believes wins and losses should not be the sole focus.

Representing the school in a positive fashion and making steady improvement should also be goals for students, he said, as well as “having a good, enjoyable experience.”

He regards his experience at LVC as such, even though Mealy—a running back early in his career and receiver later—played for three coaches in four years at The Valley, and was part of teams that went 4-36, including an 0-10 finish in 1997.

“I’m proud of myself and my teammates who stuck it out,” Mealy said. “It was one of the hardest things in my life—stick with football there and weather the storm of three coaching changes.”

Tim Mehl ’09 likes to tell the goalies who he coaches as an assistant on the LVC soccer team that they have a unique vantage point, and because of that they can see possibilities others cannot.

He has been able to explore his options himself, in many arenas. Besides his coaching duties, he teaches special education in the Palmyra School District and plays professionally for the Harrisburg Heat, an indoor team.

“It’s a smaller goal,” he said, “but guys are hitting the ball so much harder. You’re playing against the best players in the area, and you need to be on your ‘A’ game all the time.”

He hopes to make the players with whom he works a better version of themselves as well, to get them to buy into the values of LVC Head Coach Charlie Grimes—“values,” Mehl said, “that really developed me into the man I am today.”
As he put it, “It’s easier to communicate to them once they see you live by what you preach.”

Tara Neiheiser ’11 was seemingly always destined to become the kindergarten teacher she now is, in the Lebanon School District.

“This sounds really nerdy,” said Neiheiser, who is also the co-head coach, with Jackie Kain ’10, of LVC’s cheerleading squad, “but I loved being in school. I really did. I loved learning. As I grew older, I loved helping out. I have a younger sister, and I always checked her papers and things like that.”

Her interests were wide-ranging when she was an undergrad. But cheerleading held a special place in her heart.

That hasn’t changed a bit, now that she’s coaching. “You become a small little family,” she said, “and get to really know them.”

James O’Brien ’07 remains in Lebanon Valley’s record book, if barely. He owns the 10th-fastest indoor times in the mile and the 5,000-meter run in school history, meaning the next person to crack the top 10 will knock him off the list entirely.

He doesn’t mind, though—far from it.

“I’m very proud every time somebody passes me and bumps me back,” said O’Brien, LVC’s head men’s and women’s cross country coach, as well as the distance coach on the track & field teams. “I get more pride out of seeing my athletes excel.”

He majored in political science at LVC, and went to law school for a year before discovering it was not for him. It appears, however, that coaching is.

“I feel a lot of pride as an alum when my athletes are doing well,” he said. “It comes full circle for me.”

Mike Rhoades ’95 became head men’s basketball coach at Rice University in 2014 fully aware that the Owls had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1970, and that they had gone 12-49 over the previous two seasons.

He was unfazed.

“A lot of people won’t go to a next challenge because they’re afraid of the unknown or the fear of failure,” he said, having gone 12-20 his first season. “I’ve just never been that way.”

Rhoades had his No. 5 jersey retired after scoring 2,050 points at LVC, now the second-highest total in school history. He became an assistant coach at Randolph-Macon right out of college and assumed the Yellow Jackets’ head coaching job two years later, at the age of 25. After 11 years in that position and five as an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth, he landed at Rice.

“We’re trying to change a culture of a program that hasn’t been changed in a long time, to make it a basketball school,” he said. “I’m excited about that, every day when I wake up.”

Tamika Rogers ’05 brought toughness to the floor as a forward for LVC’s women’s basketball team. She brings the same thing, along with a healthy amount of compassion, to her position as the behavior interventionist for the Baltimore County Public Schools.

“I love my job,” said Rogers, who also serves as the girls’ basketball coach at Chesapeake High School in Essex, Md. “It can be a challenge at times, because of the type of kids you have to work with, but I’m used to it. I have a skill set to deal with it, and I also have the patience.

“There’s a correlation to coaching. It’s just a natural ability in me. It’s not for everyone. If you can do it, you can do it.”

She often sees a younger version of herself in the kids with whom she works, and always wants to bring the best out of them.

“I’m a people person,” she said. “I love people, and I love to help people.”

Brian Sapienza ’05, ESPN’s senior financial analyst since July 2012, does not have to search too far to find parallels between his soccer career at LVC and his current post.

“The biggest thing that still influences me is the team aspect of everything,” he said. “Being able to rely on your teammates translates directly into business. Here at ESPN, I have great co-workers who give me the information I need to do my job properly and at the highest level.”

Sapienza, third on the Dutchmen’s all-time list in goals (26) and points (63), is responsible for forecasting and tracking costs for ESPN’s coverage of college basketball, the women’s NCAA tournament, the College World Series, and various high school events.

Sapienza, who often travels to events, said there’s “very little not to like” about his job. The biggest challenge, he added, is finding the most cost-efficient way to do things, and “making sure fans’ experience is top of the line.”

Wes Soto ’88 has such regard for basketball that he coaches the sport at two schools, working at the junior high level in the ELCO School District (where he also teaches high school social studies and recently received the school’s Distinguished Faculty Award as selected by the students) and serving as a varsity assistant at Warwick, his alma mater.
He believes such a connection is not unusual for someone who played at a place like LVC.

“A lot of us who wanted to compete at the college level, especially the Division III level, you’re not getting your education paid for,” he said. “The athletes who are doing it, it’s so pure, for the love of the game. That probably is reflected in a lot of alumni at Lebanon Valley, or any school at that level.”

He played point guard at LVC, and he and his wife, Mariann ’87, later saw their son Vince ’15 do the same.

“Being part of a team is a great thing,” Wes said. “You learn so much extra. It gives you a leg up in terms of the expectations you have.”

Jessica Cooney Wilt ’04 has used her elementary education degree in a way that even she might not have envisioned after graduation, having taken a job as the Philadelphia Phillies’ educational coordinator in 2007.

“It’s definitely not a traditional job,” said Wilt, who played softball at LVC. “I had no idea Major League Baseball had programs like this.”

Wilt, who runs educational programs and softball clinics falling under MLB’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI) initiative, was working as a teacher in Philadelphia when she volunteered to coach the Phillies RBI Softball team in the summer of 2006. Learning of a full-time opening, she applied for the position, and the rest is history.

“I wanted to see what else I could do with my degree,” she said. “I’m using my degree, just in a totally different way.”

Nate Yinger ’09 began his sportswriting career at La Vie, LVC’s student newspaper. He has continued it as the assistant director of communications at his high school alma mater, The Hill School, in Pottstown, Pa., writing stories about athletics on the school’s website and for the alumni magazine.

The appeal, he said, is learning more about the students, many of whom he coaches on the junior varsity boys’ soccer team, as an ice hockey assistant, or while mentoring the throwers on the boys’ and girls’ track teams.

“I like to learn the stories, and learn more about the students,” he said. “It’s a neat way to get to know the kids on a more personal level.”

His career as a middle-distance runner at LVC was cut short by a back injury his senior year, but he relishes his continued involvement in the sport.

“It doesn’t feel like my track career ended,” he said. “Remaining involved as a coach has allowed me to get past the frustrations of my senior year.”

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