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Wednesday, 15 April 2009 16:23

Athletes aspire to pro ranks: Small university still packs big punch in spring sports

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Western Carolina University softball star Mollie Fowler painfully remembers the day her shin broke in half playing shortstop.

She dove for a ball and collided with the second baseman’s cleat.

Drama like this plays out on the athletic fields at WCU almost daily, and with the springs sports season in full gear there is plenty of action to see.

Attending sporting events at Western can be an inexpensive outing during these tough economic times. Spectators have lots of options to choose from including baseball, tennis, track and field and golf.

The Smoky Mountain News spoke with the top athletes in each of the spring sports to learn a little bit about them, and some of them aspire to go pro.

 

Men’s and Women’s Track and Field

WCU track star Manteo Mitchell started running competitively in high school after he broke his arm playing football the second game of the season of his senior year. Prior to breaking his arm he said he had scholarship offers to play football at some of the top colleges, but was out of the picture after his injury.

The track coach at the high school thought he had a chance to get a scholarship for running. The coach was right, as Mitchell landed a scholarship to run track at WCU.

His track career at Western has been impressive, netting him school records in the 200- and 400-meter dashes.

Now his career at Western is coming to an end this semester, and he says he wants to run professionally.

“A lot of people think you can’t make a lot of money on the track professional circuit, but you can if you play your cards right,” Manteo said.

Manteo said his cousin is a professional runner who trains in Atlanta, was signed by Adidas, and ran in the Olympics in Beijing last summer.

He said his cousin was a part of the relay team that dropped the baton in the Olympics. It was not his cousin that dropped the baton though.

Manteo said his ultimate goal is to run in the Olympics. The next one will be in 2012, and he said he will still be young enough to compete.

He is inspired by himself and God to perform the best he can on the track, he said.

If going pro doesn’t work out, Manteo will have his degree in sports management with a concentration in athletic administration to fall back on. Going back to his old high school in Shelby to run the athletic program there might be fun, he said. But eventually he would like to work as an athletics administrator on the college level.

Unlike Manteo, women’s track and field star Janét Carothers does not have ambitions to go pro.

“I’m ready to get into the real world and get a job,” she said, adding her major is recreational therapy and parks and recreation management.

That is not to say she couldn’t make it if she tried. She has set two school records, and the team won the conference title last year.

 

Men’s and Women’s Golf

Hailing from Sweden Desiree Karlsson is one of the top players on the WCU women’s golf team. She has made herself comfortable as a Catamount athlete having been on the golf team for three years. She is one of three Swedish players on the team.

Universities in Sweden don’t have athletic programs for students, she said. So she visited Cullowhee and liked the small size of the university and the natural beauty of the Smokies.

“I liked the southern hospitality,” she said. “I’m not used to that.”

Karlsson, like track and field star Manteo, wants to go pro in her sport after she graduates. Her plan is to get on the Futures Tour or European Tour and try to work her way up to the LPGA, she said.

Playing golf professionally pays well, she said.

“If you’re in the top 20, you’re living good,” she said.

Since she was 14 she has been playing golf, but she joked that her dad had plans for her since birth.

“I took my first step with a plastic golf club,” she said.

The greatest accomplishment of her golf career so far is being named freshman of the year at WCU, she said.

Golf has also afforded her the opportunity to travel to England, Portugal, Spain and Italy to play in tournaments, she said.

To continue her successful career she needs to improve on her biggest weakness — bunker shots, while the best part is putting.

Golf is a mental game, she said, adding that she doesn’t curse much on the course but does play head games with herself. For instance, she has told herself that if she does not play well she will deny herself food, and it works.

As a woman golfer she has no problem admitting that men are better at the sport because they are stronger. But she said, “The women are getting better and showing they can beat male players.”

WCU men’s golf star Dustin Furnari also aspires to play pro golf. Furnari came to WCU from St. Augustine, Fla. and plans to go to South Florida after graduating this semester to play professionally.

But he admits that it will be tough to make it on the pro tour and will get his master’s in business administration to fall back on.

Originally from Miami, where golf is king, Furnari grew up playing with his dad. Golf in the mountains is different compared to courses in Miami that have a lot of wind from the ocean, he said.

The golf courses in this area are nice, he said, noting that Tiger Woods was having a course built near Brevard and Phil Mickelson was having course named after him in Cashiers.

Furnari has hit two hole in ones in his career, and can drive it over 300 yards, but the key to being a strong golfer is having a strong short game, hitting wedges and making putts, he said.

 

Baseball

Right fielder J.C. Lyons hopes to join two other WCU grads who are currently playing professional baseball.

Lyons, a senior from Marietta, Ga., is the team captain and spoke with The Smoky Mountain News on Sunday just after a 10-5 loss to Georgia Southern.

“Hopefully I’ll get to play pro ball,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll get a shot at the draft in June.”

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jared Burton played for WCU from 2000-2002 and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Mark DiFelice was a Catamount between 1995-98, according to Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations Daniel Hooker.

A faithful man, Lyons said if it doesn’t work out it wasn’t in God’s plan, and he will apply his sports management degree. And if he doesn’t go pro, it’s not like he doesn’t have his glory days to look back on. The proudest moment of his baseball career to this point is being named team captain.

 

Budget Cuts

WCU tennis star Amanda Massey said state budget cuts mean the team doesn’t get new uniforms and travel is limited.

WCU Athletic Director Chip Smith agreed that travel has been cut back and instead of staying over night in hotels, teams are leaving the day of their matches. As the economic decline continues, the goal is to not cut any staff or scholarships, said Smith.

The WCU athletic program has a budget of about $6 million, he said.

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