BERKELEY - Olympic swimmer Caitlin Leverenz and former goalie Lauren Hein were multiple honorees at the annual Student-Athlete Academic Honors Luncheon on Tuesday at Haas Pavilion.
Leverenz, who won a bronze medal in the 200-meter individual medley during last year's Summer Olympics in London, led Cal to consecutive NCAA championships in 2011 and 2012 and is a Pac-12 champion in multiple events. Tuesday, Leverenz was honored with a Pac-12 post-graduate scholarship as well as being named the recipient of the Anna Espenshade Award, given annually to a female student-athlete for "successful integration of academic and athletic pursuits."
Hein, who graduated early in December, won the Neufeld Scholar Athlete Award for having the highest GPA of any graduating female student-athlete on campus (3.982). She also was the recipient of an Oscar Geballe Postgraduate Scholarship, which recognizes devotion to Cal and the combination of scholarship and athletic competition. Furthermore, Hein received the Golden Bear Individual Award for having the highest GPA on the women's soccer team.
The luncheon, held on the gym floor, honored the best student-athletes on campus with several awards and scholarships. Athletic director Sandy Barbour handed out the Tom Hansen Pac-12 Conference Medals to swimmer Tom Shields and women's basketball player Layshia Clarendon. The conference medal is awarded to a male and female student-athlete at each Pac-12 institution who best exhibits the combination of performance and achievement in scholarship, athletics and leadership.
Four student-athletes received Pac-12 post-graduate scholarships. Along with Leverenz, conference scholarships also were awarded to women's volleyball's Robin Rostratter, men's swimming's Isaac Howell and men's soccer's Kyle Marsh.
There were two other recipients of the Oscar Geballe scholarship - women's swimming's Sara Isakovic and softball's Lindsey Ziegenhirt.
Leilani Alferos of the women's gymnastics team won the Walter A. Haas Jr. Community Service Award, given annually to the student-athlete with the best contribution to community service. Alferos, a transfer from Oregon State, has been heavily involved in the community both in Berkeley and Corvallis, Ore. She has been involved with the Relay For Life, Wheel-A-Thon, Special Olympics and recycling before football games. As part of the Community Outreach Committee, she helped with Coastal Clean-Up, College Day, Hot Meals and the Blood Donation Drive. She also served as a captain for the "Jog For Jill" annual fundraiser.
Tierra Rogers of the women's basketball team won the Joseph M. Kavanagh Award for the most academically improved student-athlete.
Marin Balarin of the men's water polo team won the Jake Gimbel Award for the combination of athletic and academic pursuits. Michael Perretta of the men's crew team was the male recipient of the Neufeld Scholar Athlete Award.
Ziegenhirt also served as the guest speaker for the event. She spoke of the hardships of losing her starting job as the softball team's catcher and then putting in the work needed to reclaim her spot. Ziegenhirt also discussed her work with the SAGE mentorship program, helping a local fourth-grade student in and out of the classroom and how the experience confirmed her aspirations to go into teaching.
"It's always an honor to be recognized for working hard in the classroom," Ziegenhirt said. "Being a student-athlete is difficult, so it's really great that the university puts this on for us so we can be recognized for all the hard work we put in."
The event was emceed by Cal academic advisor Cassidy Raher.
"As we read off the awards and hand out scholarships every year, it's always amazing to listen to the accolades that they have, the biographies that encompass their careers here at Cal and obviously their pursuits after college," Raher said. "Berkeley is the No. 1 public institution in the country for a reason. For these student-athletes to accept the challenge of competing in the classroom day in and day out and obviously on the field, on the court and in the pool, it's certainly a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous honor."
There are a lot of obvious good things about doing well in school at Cal. But for Cal catcher Lindsey Ziegenhirt, the last couple of years it also helped maintain her sanity.
Thursday, Ziegenhirt was named a Capital One All-Academic District 8 First Team selection for the second time in her career. The senior has a 3.77 cumulative GPA during her time in Berkeley.
Those classroom successes were magnified during her sophomore and junior years when she struggled on the diamond for the Bears. A high school All-American from Elk Grove, Calif., Ziegenhirt opened eyes during her freshman season when she had 15 home runs and 58 RBI and was named to the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team.
Always solid defensively, Ziegenhirt struggled at the plate each of the next two seasons. She batted just .219 as a sophomore and dropped to .156 last season. Her power numbers suffered as well.
"If I was losing confidence in softball, I knew I was going to kill it in the classroom," Ziegenhirt said. "It helped me keep my sanity."
Now a senior, Ziegenhirt is killing it both with her studies and on the field. Ziegenhirt is tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with 15 homers and ranks fifth with 49 RBI heading into this weekend's series against Stanford, the final three home games of her career. Her .311 batting average ranks third on the team.
"Lindsey has just gone back to her old form," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said. "She's worked extremely hard this year to get back where she knows she can be. She's feeling more relaxed and more comfortable at the plate. Everything has fallen into place for her. I'm just happy for her that she's back to her old form."
Ironically, it may have been one of the personality traits that helps her do so well in the classroom that contributed to her struggles at the plate. Ziegenhirt is a self-proclaimed perfectionist, which allows her to do bang-up work in school. But she said that proved to be a detriment athletically, as she let her frustrations and self-criticism snowball during her tough sophomore and junior years.
"I've always known that being positive and staying in a good mental state was something I needed to do," Ziegenhirt said. "But I'm also kid of a perfectionist, so once I start struggling a little bit, frustration takes over and it gets harder for me to get back into a positive mindset."
Faced with her last chance as a senior to get back on track, Ziegenhirt made the conscious decision to focus on the fun nature of playing college softball. She also said having an offseason to change things up is easier to do during the rigors of the jam-packed schedule of the regular season.
"It's hard to figure stuff out in the middle of a season that moves so quickly," she said. "I knew I could play better. It really was just a process of maturing and figuring more stuff out about myself as a player. Unfortunately, it took two years instead of two months. But I'm glad it happened when it did and I wouldn't change anything."
There's no question Ziegenhirt is having fun now. She's one of the Bears captains and their leader both offensively and defensively. And she is helping the Bears put together another fine season. Cal heads into the weekend ranked No. 12 in the country with a 35-12 overall record.
"She's a good example that I've used with other players," Ninemire said. "When they get into that part of their career when they are not playing well, they can look at Lindsey for strength. If you put in the time and try to stay positive, you can work through it and eventually good things will happen. You just have to make the commitment and have the dedication to work through it."
Cal's Rugby team has won 26 national championships. If the Bears make it 27 on Saturday against Brigham Young, it will likely go down as one of the most impressive and satisfying in program history.
Not only do the Bears have to face the only opponent that has consistently been in the same conversation as them over the years, they will do so on the Cougars home field. When the teams played in the national title match two years ago in Salt Lake City - which is 44 miles from BYU's campus - there were over 11,000 fans in the stands.
"That sounds like it was a neutral venue when you hear them talk," Cal coach Jack Clark said. "They are a good team and they will be especially good at home. It will be a partisan crowd. How that crowd affects the referee, how that crowd affects noise and my ability to communicate - there are some things to acknowledge there."
The Bears won the 2011 title match in Salt Lake, 21-14. But BYU has yet to lose a game to a college opponent since it started playing its home games on South Field in 2009.
"It will be a tough challenge," Cal senior center Seamus Kelly said. "In Salt Lake, that was a really challenging environment to play in. That's something we have to prepare for and be expecting going in."
The Bears (21-0) and Cougars (11-2) have met for the national championship in seven of the past eight years, with Cal winning every time except once. BYU defeated the Bears 25-22 when they met in 2009 at Stanford. The Cougars also beat Arkansas State in the national title match last year.
"It's proven to be kind of an all-or-nothing relationship," Clark said. "The vast majority of the time we've seen them has been in single-elimination rugby. The stakes have always been really high, and I think that's added to how meaningful the game is."
The good news for the Bears is even if Saturday's game is filled to the maximum - which it should be - South Field holds less than 4,000 fans. Cal's players that participated in the game two years ago in Salt Lake City feel that experience will help them Saturday.
"We just kind of went in there with no questions asked (in 2011)," Cal senior Danny Barrett said. "We knew what we had to do. It was just another game. You know it's going to have an effect playing at the other team's home stadium, but when you go in with the mindset that you can win, it doesn't really matter where you are. It's still another rugby game."
While winning national championships has become commonplace with Cal's rugby program, each team and each season is unique. Some key departures from last year made the Bears more inexperienced coming into this season, but the youth of the 2013 team has matured quickly.
"I think we've gelled stronger than the past couple national championships we played in," Barrett said. "We're a lot younger. I think the way we came together is probably better than any team I've been part of in my five years at Cal."
Maybe had she been recruited, she wouldn't have worked so hard. Maybe had she not lived in a remote village in Paraguay, she wouldn't have learned the joys of perseverance. Maybe had she never discovered she enjoyed pushing the boundaries, she wouldn't be Cal's third-leading scorer right now.
Junior Amelia Burke, a walk-on from Marin County, is thriving as a member of Cal's lacrosse team. The Bears enter tomorrow's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament in Eugene, Ore. one win shy of their best win total since 2005, and Burke is a big reason why.
And Burke says she likely never would have been in this position if it weren't for the off-the-field experiences that have shaped her - most specifically, experiences that have made her realize she likes being out of her comfort zone, likes weathering many storms before tasting success, likes attaining what is seemingly unattainable.
Those realizations started in earnest after her junior year at Redwood High School in Larkspur, when, at the urging of her parents Katie and Jim, Burke spent the summer in a small village in Paraguay called Ciraty as part of the AMIGOS program, which sends youth abroad to promote development through community service. Burke found herself living with a family in what amounts to a shack with no running water or electricity.
"That kind of started to make me realize I'm a person that really likes to be pushed and out of their comfort zone," Burke said. "The trip definitely made me realize the rush I got from those sorts of experiences - having a very hard experience but persevering through them. I like being in an uncomfortable position and keep pushing until you can get where you want to be."
While in Ciraty, Burke was enlisted to help build fogones, a type of wood-burning stove that helps contain more smoke and thus lessens the amount of potentially harmful emissions being inhaled by the community's women. Burke also taught youth classes on topics like dental hygiene and helpful nutrients that can be found in plants.
Burke said while she was in Ciraty, she made an effort to fully invest in the people's culture. They spoke Spanish as well as Guarani, an indigenous language of South America. They also spent their afternoons outside drinking Terere, a Yerba Mate tea served cold.
"It's a very communal drink that people sit in the afternoon in a circle and pass it around," Burke said. "They have a very chill atmosphere. A lot of them said they want to live in America. I wanted to tell them, 'No, you have a pretty nice setup here.'"
Burke says the Paraguay experience definitely helped her when it came time to try out for Cal's lacrosse team as a walk-on during the summer after she graduated from Redwood.
"I was a walk-on here," Burke said. "That's something that I'm really proud of - taking situations that may seem out of my reach and trying to be successful with them."
When it came time to make plans for the summer after her freshman year at Cal, Burke had the itch once again to try something different. Her older sister, Gwen, received a grant to do some volunteer work in Peru, so Burke decided she would tag along. With assistance from her older brother, Jim, who had worked extensively in South America with microfinance institutions, Burke landed a position with Arariwa, a lender in the Cusco region of Peru.
Working with Kiva Fellows, a prestigious group of volunteers that work at alleviating poverty worldwide by granting loans to the underprivileged, Arariwa sought out borrowers in Cusco that had interest in furthering their education or starting a business. Burke's job was to interview the potential borrowers and then post their stories on Kiva's website for people to read, and then hopefully, pledge money.
"It was really difficult," Burke said. "I honestly don't think I was qualified enough to do it. I was conducting the interviews in Spanish. I'm pretty fluent but it can get pretty specific. I would write down words in my notebook and try to sound them out and try to get Google to translate them after."
Most of Burke's interviews were done on-site, meaning she would bus to someone's town or home and sometimes be faced with groups of borrowers numbering 20-30 people.
"I would walk in and try to interview each person and explain why I am there," Burke said. "They're wondering what this young-looking white girl is doing there. I feel like I can speak to any human on this earth after that experience."
The summer in Ciraty was the introduction to the world outside Burke's comfort zone. Her experience in Cusco simply confirmed her passion for spending time outside the normal box.
"In sports, I like the underdog position and having a purpose," Burke said. "The most rewarding part of my experience in Peru and Paraguay, and in sports here too, is having a larger goal. That's something that is really enticing to me - doing something that matters and having really hard experiences every day and not really thinking you can do it, those experiences where you questioned yourself. There were so many times in Peru where I just didn't want to walk into that room full of 20 people and explain what I was doing there. But then you would complete those tasks and it was awesome. I get so much satisfaction from that."