Merced College athletes excel academically. It’s no accident, and the key to in-class success for these Blue Devils is no big secret.

“Our athletes do so well because they find a nurturing environment here,” Associate Dean of Kinesiology and Athletics Bob Casey said. “I feel like we go above and beyond with student services and trying to connect the dots for our athletes when there are gaps.”

Casey’s predecessor as athletics director, Steve Cassady, recently did a deep dive on the academic performance of student-athletes at Merced College. The data proved athletes stayed strong in their studies even through the pandemic.

Cassady identified 114 eligible sophomore athletes who competed from the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 through the reinstatement of athletics in Fall 2021. He tracked their results through the completion of their community college eligibility in Spring 2023.

All told, 98 of the 114 (85.9%) finished their eligibility in good academic stead by earning associate degrees or certificates, or by fulfilling transfer requirements.

“Our athletes do have higher matriculation rates to four-year schools than other students,” Casey said. “It’s because we’ve always guided our athletes (with tutoring, counseling, financial aid, and other support). Athletics has been using that ‘success team’ model for 25-30 years.”

That approach helped former volleyball player Hannah Torres, 20, survive a rocky start to her college years. Now a junior opposite hitter at Menlo College, Torres changed her major four times at Merced College.

After her first season, Torres, without club ball or her high-school social circle, had a nearly disastrous spring. She worked herself back into eligibility by moving her study spot to the Learning Resource Center to improve her focus.

“Volleyball had always been a big part of my life, especially through difficult times,” Torres said. “Once I almost lost that, I couldn’t imagine being in college without it.”

Merced College sophomore Johnni Cowie, now the student trustee for the Merced Community College District Board of Trustees, played softball for coach Suzanne McGhee in 2022 and 2023. She’ll be ready to transfer to Stanislaus State next year, but admits she arrived here “unprepared.”

Cowie said she was exhausted from long days spent attending classes, doing schoolwork and playing softball. She took advantage of tutoring services and leaned on athletics counselor Cimmaron Ruiz for help.

“Another thing that truly helped me was the basic needs center,” Cowie added. “I was here all day long, so going there for food and a drink every day became my routine.”

McGhee said female athletes cannot afford to drift academically.

“Most female athletes that want to play at the next level have to be more motivated to do well in class,” McGhee said. “They all want a scholarship to help with finances. But if your GPA isn’t 3.0 or better, (coaches at four-year universities) won’t really look at you.”

McGhee said playing sports also contributes to student success because it “gives students an outlet to find out who they are as people.”

Casey said the support team model grew out of the sports recruitment process. If a university coach wants an athlete, they surround the recruit with support. Athletics department staff help them apply and get enrolled, find financial aid and housing, and sign up for tutoring.

Athletes don’t have to go it alone.

“Right now, as a community college, we’re trying to create and strengthen those avenues—the support we have for athletes—for general students,” Casey said. “The general student body doesn’t have that extra layer—coaches forcing them to be accountable every day.”

With that top-to-bottom support, men’s basketball sophomore Tyreon Payne found new life at Merced College in 2022. He was kicked off his team at NCAA Division I Southeastern Louisiana after one semester, and found no academic support at another school in Houston.

Payne faced many obstacles growing up in Baton Rouge, La. He came to Merced to fix his academics, but arrived and felt like classes were a chore. He only wanted to hoop.

He would have quit, if not for head coach Allen Huddleston and assistant Steven Shepp.

“Write down what you sacrificed to be here,” they said to the team one practice last season.

Payne’s answers: Parents, sister, newborn nephew. With newfound focus, Payne stuck it out and averaged over 18 points per game last season.

“Now I feel like the school side here is the part that’s making me a better person,” he said.

Payne, 24, had felt isolated taking so many online courses, but worked with his counselor to add in-person classes and took a work study job on campus to get out of the house.

Now the 2023-24 season has begun.

“I’m ecstatic to be at Merced,” he said. “D-I schools are looking at me again, so it’s even more serious. No way am I gonna let my books get in the way of going back to D-I. I’d be letting myself down, and that’s a no-no. No, the man in the mirror always has to win.”