|Wooster alum Spencer Williams, left, meets young basketball fans in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Sport Changes Life photo
By Ryan Scott
It can be difficult for Division III basketball players to decide on a future after graduation. Being stellar, well-rounded student-athletes, often players are torn between graduate school, community service, or pursuing more basketball. A few recent alums, however, have found a unique and rewarding way to do all three, with the added bonus of spending a year in Ireland.
Sport Changes Life is a 12-year-old organization, based in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, striving to raise the aspirations of at-risk youth through sport. One of the key programs is Victory Scholars, where elite scholar-athletes from the U.S. work toward a master’s degree in Ireland, while playing for local professional basketball teams, and engaging youth in the community through teaching and coaching.
It can be difficult to break into European basketball, especially for Division III athletes and it’s often a lonely existence, with many challenges. For recent Wooster grad Spencer Williams, Victory Scholars was a more beneficial entry into that world. “I have a friend playing [professionally] in Portugal and there aren’t a lot of resources available. In this program they really take care of you: accommodations, a master’s degree, and tons of opportunities for the future.”
“It’s a very competitive process,” says Sam Woodside, the program coordinator for Sport Changes Life. “You can’t just be a good player; if our young people think you’re just going through the motions, you won’t get anything out of them. We have a reputation for delivering good people to our communities. There’s a high standard expected in these areas and we challenge our scholars to meet them.”
Zack Yonda ran the point for Swarthmore in the NCAA Tournament last year and currently studies marketing at Sligo Institute of Technology, while playing for both the school basketball team and in the national professional league. He found the Victory Scholars program perfectly dovetailed with his education background and his plans for the future.
“I’m really invested in kids and helping the next generation,” says Yonda. “The big pull was to live in a different country and interact with youth in ways I’m good at, where I can have an impact.”
The primary focus for the Victory Scholars program is connecting to local communities. The program has grown to 13 institutions across Ireland and Northern Ireland, who support the mission by offering placement in one of their graduate programs. Choices are limited by what’s available, but Yonda appreciates the opportunity to expand his academic horizon. “It’s actually been very rewarding. The assignments care very open-ended, so even though I’m studying marketing, I’ve been putting an educational twist on my projects.”
|Ally Esielionis, in her Sport Changes Life head shot.|
Salve Regina alum, , is having a similar experience at Athlone Institute of Technology. “I plan to move into sports counseling, but I hope to have my own practice one day, so the business degree will be really helpful.”
Other athletes in this year’s class with Division III recognizable names include Johnny McCarthy and Mike Riopel from Amherst, Daniel Noe from Randolph-Macon, Shay Ajayi from Trinity, Kayla Morrissey from Grinnell, Matt Scamuffo from York, Justus Melton from Dickinson, and Cullen Donovan from Rivier.
When asked what might make this program so appealing specifically to former Division III athletes, Yonda mentioned that sometimes Irish teams lack some of the accommodations athletes at higher levels enjoy, “There aren’t always trainers to tape your ankles or ice after the game.” “There’s also a high emphasis on education,” says Esielionis, “which is something D3 players understand.”
“Many of the schools are in smaller areas,” says Woodside. “So in many ways our scholars are local celebrities. No kids care about me – I’m Irish – but if I bring a 6-3 basketball player from the Bronx, the room goes silent.”
Woodside also mentioned Yonda, in particular, who sought out additional schools on his own, beyond the scope of what Sport Changes Life set up, to increase his exposure in the community and reach more students. He adds, “The D-III athletes tend to knuckle down and get to work in ways athletes from other divisions don’t always do.”
Williams was eager to continue a basketball career, although his parents were hoping for additional education. “I wasn’t planning to stay in school,” he says, “but this master’s degree will really pay off down the road and I’ll have an opportunity to keep playing, if I can. It’s the best of both worlds. There’s more purpose to what I’m doing; you can make a difference in people’s lives.”
He adds, “to them, it doesn’t matter D-III or D-I, we’re professional basketball players. We’re all like Lebron James.” Woodside played down the stereotypical Irish hospitality that all the players noted – each and every one feeling welcomed and accepted. “You’d be happy to have them, too, if I gave you a twenty point per game scorer every year.”
The results of the work, the level of play, and the quality classroom presence exemplified by years of Victory Scholars have helped the program grow from one community to thirteen and there are 43 athletes in the program this season.
Yonda spends days in local schools, teaching basketball to kids of all ages. Esielionis coaches boys and girls youth teams for her club. Each Victory Scholar gets to meet new and diverse people, but also expose Irish kids to a wider world. Williams notes, “A lot of these kids have never met an American before, let alone a black American. You meet so many new and different people you’d never have a chance to meet anywhere else.”
There’s also a real embrace of Irish culture, which all three students reported as much more laid back. Says Yonda: “I love basketball and I loved Swarthmore, but sometimes basketball at that level can feel like a job. Here, even though I play on two teams, it’s much less of a time commitment.”
|Zack Yonda, a teammate and coaches visit Scoil Naomh Molaise Primary School, with 300 children ages 4 to 11.
Sport Changes Lives photo
It’s almost as if the Victory Scholars program provides a way to wean off the intensity and excitement of college basketball slowly as opposed to all at once.
One of the highlights of the year that each scholar mentioned was the Basketball Hall of Fame Belfast Classic, which Sport Changes Lives sponsors, with the help of the Division I MAAC. Victory Scholars were matched up with Division I teams in Ireland for an early season tournament, serving as hosts and making valuable connections for future coaches.
It serves as a good bridge between American athletes who also have begun to understand Irish basketball culture and help to expose those two very different worlds to each other.
People get to follow these students through four years of school and play, but don’t often get to see what happens afterwards – unless they become Division III coaches. To see the payoff of real student athletes, getting to further both parts of the D-III identity in ways that enrich their lives and communities in need helps add substance and purpose to the work we do covering D3hoops here on a regular basis.
Victory Scholars accepts applications all year, but typically has an April cut-off for those interested in joining the fall class. Any and all information is available at www.sportchangeslife.com. The program comes highly recommended.
“Apply. Apply. Apply,” says Esielionis. “I can’t stress it enough. This is the coolest, most interesting thing I’ve ever done.”
“I didn’t get to go abroad at Swarthmore because of basketball,” says Yonda. “I really wanted to have that experience and this is all about helping kids and growing the sport.”
Adds Williams: “Go for it 100%. You can leverage the game you love and enjoy other interests: education, travel, adventure.”
“It’s such a great opportunity,” says Woodside. “If they’re happy playing ball, happy working with the kids, and doing well in the classroom, that’s what we want for them.”