“Every team except for one is going to end their season on a loss.” The words spoken by senior nursing major and now Billiken soccer alumnus Alyssa Seitzer cut deep for any player or fan who has ever seen their team make a postseason run. There is only one victor of the NCAA tournament, and while we often see the anger or sadness associated when results come up short, we rarely speak about the surreal experience and emotions felt from our seniors at the conclusion of their time as Billiken athletes. I sat down to talk with current seniors and Billiken athletics alumni to reflect on their time as student athletes and to learn what happens after the final whistle blows.
More Than a Team
As one can imagine, spending every day with a team for four years can form strong relationships. It came as no surprise to learn about the incredible communities that our teams create. When you ask a SLU student why they chose SLU, you often hear about the sense of belonging and community. SLU athletes tell a similar tale of the families created with coaches, players and staff with a genuine interest in their development as athletes, students and young adults. When you spend almost every day with the same people, you would expect to grow close. At SLU, teams feel like families. This doesn’t always happen naturally. This only occurs through the efforts of players and coaches alike.
A winning culture is difficult to mold, but it has an immense impact on the success of a team. While much of this can be determined by head coaches and their staff, the senior players make a key impact. Coming in as a freshman can be intimidating. Billiken baseball alumnus Ryan Lefner recalled his freshman year coming into a team filled with All-Conference and even All-American seniors. He recognized that it can be a challenge for older players to connect with the younger freshmen, but noted that he saw a shift throughout his four-year stint at SLU. The team looked to its seniors to become team leaders and show the incoming classes how they should act both on and off the field. This is not unique to the baseball team. Every student athlete I spoke with talked about their experience within their team culture. An impressive example of senior leadership came from the volleyball team. Sien Gallop and Lauren Mershon spoke about their efforts to change the team culture and create a “family” that truly wanted not to just play volleyball, but play for each other. The results of this showed, culminating in an absolute thriller of a match against Dayton. While they may have lost that match, the game was not a personal loss for Gallop and Mershon as they now stepped into a new and unknown territory.
It is terrifying to not know what comes next. Upon completing their seasons, many student athletes are forced to face the end of their athletic careers. While some do continue to play in graduate school or at a professional level, many face one of their most difficult challenges yet—life without sports. This manifests itself as a different challenge for every person. Recent SLU and soccer graduate Quayyum Murana voiced his confidence and excitement about his future in the workforce, but also echoed a sentiment which numerous other student athletes in his position have held.
Student athletes are often defined by the sport they play. They introduce themselves as soccer players, basketball players, etc. Once that final whistle blows, many lose that aspect of their identity. In part, this comes from the absolute love of the game. Murana had this very realization stating, “Knowing that I will never play again on a competitive team. Play for something…I don’t think that I’ll ever have that type of joy ever again in my life, and that’s something to be sad about.” Seniors are often sad about their final goodbyes, but so often do people overlook the final goodbye that student athletes have with the sport that has given them such joy for more than half their lives.
This happens every year. Coaches welcome new recruits and close out their time with the senior class. The team moves forward, but every student athlete must find closure in their own way. This can come in the form of a formal banquet where seniors on the women’s soccer team await the emotional presentation of a jersey and heartfelt video from the team, or it may come from a less formal team dinner or a new group message for the underclassmen. These moments are important as they help the seniors to appreciate the time that they had with the team and find closure.
Many of the students I spoke with described the experience of that final whistle as “surreal.”
As the seniors move to the next steps in their lives, the sweat, tears and sometimes blood that they put into everything leaves a lasting impact. This lasting impact becomes the foundation for subsequent years and forms the legacy left by the graduating class.
Senior Courtney Reimer spoke about the stark difference in the soccer program from the time her older sister had spent at SLU to the current team, which has now won back to back A-10 championships. While players strive to achieve, they always want more. Reimer talked about the success of her team but also mentioned the importance of those who come after her stating, “I don’t want to be the best class.” Players join the team and graduate every year, but SLU has been around for over 200 years.
Ultimately, every student athlete comes to SLU for a limited time. That final whistle closes a chapter of their lives. Every member of every team has put in extraordinary effort to make the team better. While there is sadness and uncertainty in the coming months and years for our athletes, they look back with gratitude and love. The next steps will likely not be easy, but the values learned and relationships built in Billiken athletics will stick around after the final whistle.