It may seem odd to open a story of this nature with an apology, but I'm going to do just that. My apology goes out to Malina Howard who was named the NCAA Elite 89 winner for women's basketball earlier this season. The honor deserves its own story but I merely included it as one element of this story. I intended no slight, Malina.
Why the Elite 89 is a big deal
The NCAA promotes its sponsorship of 89 championships across its three divisions and, as part of that promotion has created the Elite 89 Award. To qualify for the award a student athlete must be a "sophomore or above who has participated in their sport for at least two years with their school." They must also be an active member of the team, traveling and competing at the championship. The award is then presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site.
So to wrap this up for perspective, the student athlete who wins the Elite 89 must not only be an athlete who is participating on a Final Four team and has been a member of that team for at least two years but must also excel in the classroom beyond every other student participating in that particular Final Four. Only one student athlete from the rosters of the the 376 teams who participates in one of the 89 Final Fours across all sports and all divisions - only one - qualifies as and an Elite 89 winner. And think about this: Maryland sent three teams to a Final Four and two Terps have won the honor.
Zoe Stukenberg - The athlete
Maryland's Zoe Stukenberg was the Freshman of the Year in Maryland's final year in the ACC. She scored 35 goals and dished out 12 assists. Starting 23 of Maryland's 24 games, she finished fifth in goals and points on a team that featured three 60 goal scorers and a fourth who surpassed 50.
In 2015, Stukenberg has started 19 of 20 games and has already bettered her freshman numbers. Quietly, and with little fanfare, - if being named All Big-Ten and to the IWLCA All-Regional team can be considered little fanfare - Stukenberg is fourth on the team with 37 goals and second with 20 assists. Her 57 points are fourth best on the team behind first team All-Americans Taylor Cummings and Brooke Griffin as well as this year's freshman phenom Megan Whittle. To this she has added 16 ground balls and 15 draw controls.
In a press conference leading up to championship weekend, Stukenberg's coach, Cathy Reese said, "One player who hasn't received the recognition of some of the others is Zoe Stukenberg. She's been playing really great this last half of the season."
Zoe Stukenberg - The scholar
Sometimes when student athletes excel in the classroom, the perception is that they've done so without facing the most challenging course of study. And perhaps, on occasion, that is the case. But simply participating as an athlete places demands on a student that the average student doesn't face. Add on the level of work, effort, drive and dedication needed to play on a team that reached a Final Four as well as the extended season and any academic excellence becomes a bit more noteworthy.
Well, in addition to being a true standout player and playing in her second consecutive Final Four, no one would look at Zoe Stukenberg's major and think, "not the most challenging course of study." Stukenberg is a biological sciences major. And, the cumulative grade point average she carries that earned her this award: 4.00.
Said Reese, "She works so hard on the field and in the classroom, and we're so happy she is being recognized for this achievement. Zoe plays such an important role for this program, and we're so proud of how she's representing Maryland lacrosse."
And so should we all be. So should we all be.