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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Before Basketball Players Hit the Hardwood, "Miss Amy" Makes Sure They Hit the Books

By Harry Minium

HARTFORD, Conn.

It's the evening of Tuesday, March 19, and it's already been a long day for the Old Dominion basketball team. The players attended class in the morning, had a late-morning practice, took a charter flight to New England and had dinner at 7 at the Hartford Airport Sheraton Hotel.

Some players then headed upstairs to watch basketball games on TV. But 10 others went to their rooms to collect their laptops and returned to the same banquet room for a long night of studying.

Yes, the Monarchs were the toast of Hampton Roads after making the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years. And as with many college athletes, basketball is almost a full-time gig.

They practice, lift weights and watch film almost every day. They often go on road trips that take them away from school for three or four days at a time. They speak to the media and attend breakfasts and other events with fans.

To thousands of ODU fans, they are stars.

But they are still college students -real college students who in spite of missing class, the pressure of playing big-time basketball and demands on their time, are expected to do well academically.

So two nights before ODU is slated to take on Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament, they are hunkered down, working on term papers, classwork they missed, turning in homework or reading online assignments.

Amy Lynch, an athletic academic adviser, is running the study hall, and it's not an easy task. She goes from table to table, helping players log into the hotel Wi-Fi, making sure they are working on the correct assignments and answering dozens of questions.

She carries a list of assignments for each player. She gives guidance to some who need help on research, but never gives them the answers to questions.

She prods them in the right direction, but they have to do the work.

When a player finds a fact or snippet of information online, she says, "Now put that in your words and cite the source."

For three hours, she rarely sits still for more than a few minutes.

At times, her job is a bit like herding cats. You may think of the Monarchs as grown men, but most are not old enough to drink and some are less than a year out of high school.

They're a lot more mature than I was at that age, but they are still easily distracted, especially if someone cracks a joke.

"Focus, guys, let's focus," she says at least a dozen times.

Lynch is one of eight members of ODU's academic performance staff, which is headed by Ragean Hill, associate athletics director/student-athlete academic services. They work with the nearly 500 athletes at ODU.

Lynch, Jackie Barrow, Erin Cousins, Kristin Eden, Josh King, Lubbock Smith III and Sarah Walker and are the unsung heroes of ODU's athletic department. They do the unseen and underappreciated work, making sure every athlete from field hockey to football is on course to graduate.

"The academic people here are among the best I've worked with," said Jeff Jones, who coached at the University of Virginia and American University before coming to ODU.

In part because of their efforts, nearly 35 percent of ODU's athletes last spring had a grade-point-average of 3.4 or higher, and thus were on the dean's list.

Tutoring isn't limited to athletes. ODU provides academic help to a large portion of its more than 24,000 students. Free online tutoring is available for hundreds of classes in 44 subject areas. Face-to-face tutoring is offered in most subjects, from the Language Learning Center to the Math and Science Resource Center.

To learn about tutoring at ODU, click here.

The basketball players treat Lynch with the utmost respect. They call her "Miss Amy."

"Miss Amy, appreciate all you do for us," guard B.J. Stith said as he headed upstairs to his hotel room to take an online test, one that would be proctored in Norfolk.

She is a taskmaster. She spits fire when players pick up a cell phone. When players get bored, she encourages them to take a walk to clear their heads.

Nearly three hours after study hall began, guard Marquis Godwin yawns and shakes his head. "I'm so tired," he says.

Godwin has a boatload of work to do. A paper to finish, questions to answer, notes to study. He's doing a paper on whether excessive cell phone usage can cause cancer, and he's finding conflicting research.

"Keep at it Marquis," Lynch keeps saying to him, and he smiles back at her.

He and center Dajour Dickens, who wrote a term paper, are the last to finish.

"Dajour, did you write your conclusion?" she says after he packs up his laptop. He opens it and shows her the work. She smiles, and they exchange a high-five.

"Miss Amy is almost like our second mother," Godwin says. "She worries about us, and that's a good thing. That shows she cares about us. She wants us to do our best. She is dedicated. She stays up as late as we need her to."

Academic advisers don't just go on road trips. They hold office hours to consult with athletes every day.

"We walk in and three or four athletes are already in her office," Godwin said. "But she knows how to make time for everybody. What she does is unseen. Nobody knows the work she does, the work any of the academic people do. But she's really appreciated. If she doesn't know that I hope people let her know, because I know I do."

Lynch measures the academic progress of four teams - men's basketball, baseball and men's and women's tennis. She's relatively new to the job. A former elementary school teacher, she's been at ODU only two years after spending 10 years as the athletic director of Norfolk's Saint Patrick Catholic School.

After taking an extended leave of absence to take care of her oldest son, Stone, who was home-schooled for several months after suffering a soccer injury (he's now healthy and a senior soccer player at Maury High), she thought it was time for a change in careers.

Hill hired her to work with Barrow in community engagement projects last year. This year, she was named an academic adviser.

She loves her work.

"These guys make such a huge commitment playing college basketball," said Lynch, who played Division III field hockey at Mary Washington. "I played sports in college and it was nothing compared to the responsibilities these guys have. It's remarkable what they do with all that they juggle

"I get so excited when I see them have success. I helped Marquis study for a test, and I was thrilled for him because he was so excited. I love to see each of them have success.

"They're all fully capable of it. They're each bright and smart kids and they really work hard."

And the players love Miss Amy.

Freshman Joe Reece did a peer review for an English paper and finished a paper for an IT class. "Miss Amy was there to help me with every step," Reece said. "She didn't give me the answers but pushed me in the right direction.

"She always makes sure we do outlines before we do a paper. That's a big deal with her. It helps to make the papers better. She's always pushing us to do better."

Xavier Green, MVP of the Conference USA tournament, acknowledged that Miss Amy is hard on them.

"She needs to be hard on us," he said. "We're in college. We tend to get focused on other things besides school. Some of us are hard-headed.

"Balancing school and basketball is hard. It can be difficult, both mentally and physically.

"Her getting on us, that's her getting us to do the right thing."

Not every athlete comes to ODU from an ideal academic background. Some come from broken homes and aren't prepared for the tremendous pressures of being a Division I athlete and a college student.

"We hope those kids come here and find people who care about them and want them to succeed," Lynch said. "You encourage them to keep working, to keep trying and keep putting in the time and effort.

"You just love it when it pays off, when the light comes on and they recognize it was worth it for them to work so hard."

As for Godwin, he determined that cell phone usage probably is harmful. The evidence isn't conclusive, but he says it's enough to make him wonder about how much time he spends looking down at his phone or walking around with it in his pocket.

"The great thing about Miss Amy is that she helped me on the research, helped me find the information, but after I did the research, I came to my own conclusion," he said.

And isn't that what going to college is supposed to be all about?

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