Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Spirits Rising; a story about Salem College athletics

(NOTE: I wrote this story for Winston-Salem Monthly magazine.)

Spirits Rising

Salem College has never really been known for its athletics, but that’s all starting to change.
    Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 3:28 pm

Hannah Huskey says she was a little leery when she first heard from Salem College soccer coach Jay Callahan. As a California native, she’d never heard of coach Callahan. In fact, she’d never heard of Salem College.

“I actually thought it was fake at first,” she says. “[Coach Callahan] contacted me through email. It was on a recruiting website I’d randomly signed up for. He had no video on me, so he kind of took a chance.”

The gamble seems to have paid off, as Huskey earned a spot on the all-conference and all-freshman team last year. Now, as she readies for her sophomore season, Huskey says she’s glad she took a chance on Salem.
“I was considering attending San Jose State before [committing here],” she says.
“It’s a really big Division I school, and Salem is a small Division III school, so I knew there wasn’t going to be an athletic scholarship for me.”
But Callahan convinced her to visit Salem on a recruiting trip during the spring, and Huskey wound up committing a short time later. Callahan also helped her get some scholarship money to attend.
So is she happy with her decision?
“Absolutely,” she says. “I really love the smallness of the school, just the closeness of the students on campus.”
Building a Winner
Salem College’s 2015 soccer team went 15-2-1 overall and 5-0 in the Great South Conference. The season helped bolster Callahan’s overall record to 124-53-9 as Salem’s head soccer coach, a position he’s held since 2006. In that span, he’s netted four Great South regular season championships, two tournament championships, and five “Coach of the Year” honors.
As you might expect, Callahan recruits a lot of local players. His 2015-16 roster featured players from Winston-Salem and King, plus girls from North Carolina towns including Wilmington, Lexington, and Asheboro.
But other players came from all over the country—places such as Texas, Nevada, Colorado, and Louisiana, among others. “We pride ourselves on getting (recruits) from all over,” says Callahan, 36, a graduate of Reynolds High School. “We’ve built a strong program. Players know they can come here and have success.”
With that said, Callahan admits it’s a lot of work to get good players.
“The soccer program has to compete with not only women’s colleges but all colleges,” he says. “No small school (like Salem) is going to get the type of athlete who will go to Wake or Carolina.”
He says that Division II schools can give some scholarship money, which D-III schools like Salem can’t. But he adds, “Personally, I think you can get a better education here than at a lot of D-II schools.”
Aside from soccer, Salem also fields intercollegiate teams in basketball, cross country, softball, tennis, and volleyball. Melissa Barrett, the school’s athletic director (AD), says Salem currently has “approximately 100 athletes” on campus.
New Conference, New Direction
Barrett, who’s been the school’s AD for five years, says she’s excited that Salem will move from the Great South Conference to the USA South Conference in 2016-17. It’s still in Division III, but the 16-school USA South Conference will feature schools from across the Southeast, which should help raise the school’s visibility.
“For us, we want to be able to meet the challenge of a new conference,” she says. “We want all of our programs to be championship contenders, and we want all of our programs to be recognized locally, regionally, and even nationally. That’s our goal.”
Building a local fan base has been a challenge thus far for Salem. Although the college is revered nationally for its academics, its athletics tend to fly well under the radar. (Anecdotally, most locals we talked with had never been to an athletic event at Salem. Many didn’t even know Salem had athletics.)
But that’s all starting to change, she says, with sports like softball, volleyball, and (of course) soccer leading the way. Ultimately, Barrett knows the only way to raise Salem’s visibility is to keep winning consistently, so that’s what her and her staff plans to do.
“We’re definitely not as ‘known’ as we want to be,” she says. “All of us ADs want our school to be a household name, and that’s not where we are. We want our community to come to games and watch our athletes play and be guests on the campus.
“But we DO have good community support, and we’re happy with our direction.”
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