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Passing the baton: Graduating student-athletes reflect on their Willamette experiences

James Willis

Sports editor

The last four years of Willamette athletics have had a little bit of everything: the creation of a new team, coaching changes, record-breaking performances and playoff appearances. Amidst everything that has occured in the last four years, the class of 2020’s student athletes have made a lasting impact on Willamette athletics. 

This year’s graduating student-athletes have had record-breaking performances, including Matthew Castaneda’s 95-yard touchdown pass and swimmer Derek Ludwig’s breaking of the school record for the 100-meter butterfly. Several teams have won conference championships in the last four years, such as men’s soccer in 2018 and baseball in 2018. Sparks Field was renovated with new turf and nets, so that people no longer have to chase balls onto 12th Street. The current athletic director, Rob Passage, was hired and helped start the women’s lacrosse program. As seasons progressed, teams saw coaches retire, get hired and some even fired. The football team got to play an international game in Canada, and also competed in the first-ever collegiate football game with at least one woman on the roster of both teams. 

Kealaulaikalani Gier, senior softball player and co-president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), reflected on her experience as a Willamette University student-athlete. 

Kealaulaikalani Gier. Courtesy of WU Athletics.

“My time at Willamette was deeply influenced by my participation on the softball team throughout my four years here. Being a student-athlete really shaped my perspective and focus towards attending school and obtaining great education. Softball gave me lifelong friends that immediately became family. Through practices, bus rides, games and spring break trips, I got the opportunity to play the sport I love with the people I love. It’s always nice to see my teammates around campus or even have class with them sometimes. I loved that Willamette was small enough that even if I wasn’t hanging out with my teammates.”

Senior football player Alec Stevenson shared his favorite memories of playing football for Willamette. 

“My favorite memories were playing with all my teammates, and leaving it all on the field every time I stepped out there. I was always looking to hit someone hard.” Stevenson was the first-ever three-time defensive MVP for the football team and is second all-time in tackles. He plans to work in wealth management.

Alec Stevenson. Courtesy of WU Athletics.

Gier also spoke of how being a student at Willamette shaped her experience: “I got the privilege of meeting other people around campus that became close friends and genuine people I will always connect and remember. Willamette gave me so many friendships that fit different aspects of my life that I never knew I needed. I’m thankful for the professors who really stuck by my side to help me succeed in all my classes so that I could continue on. The professors made me feel comfortable, knowing I could also count on them to help me with class and with life. I’m forever grateful to have people who helped me accomplish my four years at Willamette as I would’ve struggled without their support.” Gier will be attending graduate school in the fall at Hawaii Pacific University, pursuing a master’s degree in Global Leadership Management and Sustainability.

Although many senior student-athletes lost their season due to COVID-19, their time and achievements have left their mark on Willamette athletics.

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