In 14 years of going to school, DePaul guard Jessica January has recorded straight-A's and just one B.
July 17, 2015
CHICAGO - There have been only three instances where women's basketball standout Megan Podkowa did not record an A in one of her classes.
Teammate Jessica January has straight-A's and one solitary B in eight years of grammar school, four years of high school and two years in college.
No wonder the DePaul women's basketball team wound up No. 3 in the nation in the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll presented by AT&T.
With a cumulative GPA of 3.622 for the 2014-15 academic year, the Blue Demons finished third in the annual academic poll. Missouri-Kansas City repeated as the academic champion with a 3.726 GPA.
Just as programs such as Connecticut women's basketball and Duke men's basketball have created a culture of winning on the court, DePaul's women have achieved unrivaled dual success in the classroom and between the lines.
Among the Academic Top 25, DePaul was one of only three schools to advance past the first round in last year's NCAA tournament. Both the Blue Demons and No. 9 Florida Gulf Coast reached the second round, while No. 7 Arizona State advanced to the Sweet 16.
And DePaul is far from a one-hit wonder. In 2012-13, the Blue Demons ranked second and the two seasons prior (2011-12 and 2010-11) they were ranked third. DePaul broke into the top 10 of the poll in 2010 after being a mainstay in the academic poll since its inception in 1998. Last season, the Blue Demons' 3.559 GPA ranked eighth.
"A bunch of us were together when the news came out, and we were excited," said Podkowa who sports nearly a 4.0 GPA majoring in Math with a concentration in Actuary Sciences. "We're proud of the accomplishment, and it took lots of people bringing their grades up to finish No. 3 in the nation.
"We want to be No. 1 in academics and on the court. We keep getting closer in the academic poll. Two years ago we finished second in the nation and were No. 8 last year. That was still top 10, but it was disappointing going from No. 2 to No. 8.
"Moving back up to No. 3 is motivation for next year. If everyone can raise their game academically, we can finish No. 1."
Two words sum up why Podkowa was able to ace a most difficult class last quarter: Doug Bruno.
"Without coach pushing me in the spring quarter, I don't think I would've gotten an A in my actuary class," Podkowa said. "I told him that it was a really tough class and I would probably get a B. When I found out about the A, I called him and he was screaming over the phone. He shouted: `I knew you could do it' and was really happy for me."
When he was a student-athlete at DePaul, Bruno did not place a high priority on his studies. And just as parents wants their shortcoming to become an offspring's strength, Bruno has created a culture where winning in the classroom is equal to winning on the scoreboard.
"He always tells us how he would skip classes as a college student and didn't focus on his studies," Podkowa said. "I know other coaches talk about the importance of school work, but I don't think any other coach is as serious about it as Doug Bruno is.
"There are times when I get back from a late-night game and I don't want to go to class the next morning or I'll think about blowing off an assignment. But I never do. I don't want to let down my teammates, coaches and Jeanne (athletic director Jean Lenti Ponsetto).
"We sit down as a team and talk about our grades. If I'm slacking off, I have to tell everyone I'm getting a C in a certain class. If I'm struggling or anyone on the team is having problems, your teammates are there to help you out."
As a result, it's DePaul that is perennially among the nation's top women's basketball teams academically and athletically---ahead of the Ivy League schools and other highly regarded institutions.
Bruno said that Ponsetto was at the forefront of athletic academic reform and support in the late 1980s and early 90s, helping to create the modern-day academic support model duplicated on campuses nationwide.
Athletics Academic Advising is led by Kate O'Brien with Jill Hollembeak working specifically with the women's basketball program. Bruno touts her as the best academic advisor in the country who has been a world champion gymnast, a Division I college athlete and a college head coach with a Doctorate in Education.
He credits the strong academic culture to a coaching staff, in particular Lisa Ryckbosch, which boasts a pair of high school valedictorians and two assistant coaches who finished in the top two percent of their graduating high school classes.
"We create a culture here within the women's basketball program that I am personally willing to take credit for only because I must be the accountability hammer (bad cop) when our students don't do what they are supposed to do." Bruno said. "I must also be the hammer to my assistant coaches when it comes to making certain we are recruiting responsible student-athletes. This academic culture we create focuses on competitiveness in every area of our players' lives, and academics is a huge arena for that competitiveness.
"We are proud to be achieving these academic accomplishments with a diverse group of women's basketball players who come from all kinds of schools, neighborhoods, towns and cities all over America. A number of our players come from some of the best schools in the country and some from very average to even poor schools. The end result is that every one of our players is working to their God-given academic potential."
In January's case, that bar is set quite high. Imagine entering DePaul as a freshman two years ago with straight-A's her entire career only to receive a B her first quarter in Lincoln Park.
"It was a sad day," said January, whose GPA is a tick below 4.0 carrying a double major of Public Relations and Advertising along with Communication and Media. "After getting nothing but A's my whole life, you can imagine the disappointment."
January said the high priority on academics and basketball results in not attending social events and hanging out with friends. During the season, there isn't time to do much of anything else.
"We also sacrifice sleep sometimes," January said with a laugh. "There isn't a lot of free time to just watch TV or hang out. There are times when friends want me to go to a restaurant with them, but there's an assignment that I have to do. That's when it's nice to know you have teammates who are also making the same sacrifices.
"We can't play basketball for the rest of our lives. We have to focus on our studies and preparing for a career. It can be really hard, especially during basketball season when you're physically tired from all the games and practices.
"Our support is really good at DePaul. The coaches won't let us slide. We do check-ins with Jill, and if we need any help with study tables or tutors, Triple-A will provide it for you.
"Coach Bruno has individual talks and talks as a team about academics. He told us last spring that he knows we're all college students who want to have fun as the weather warms up. He said to try and maintain our academic focus for the last couple of months so we can finish out strong."
Bruno described the overarching philosophy that drives his program to such sustained success.
"Competitiveness is the key," Bruno said. "If you truly love to compete, then you truly want to be your best in every area of your life. After God and family, the two most important areas of a college student-athlete's life are academics and basketball.
"Competitive success in school breeds competitive success on the floor. Our coaches use the individual self-motivation teaching technique of understanding that college is a time to learn how to make both a living and life for their time after basketball. Competitiveness in the classroom will help our women create great competitive work-world opportunities after their time here at DePaul."
That all begins with recruiting the kind of person who will flourish in Bruno's system.
"We try to recruit well-balanced student-athletes who like to have a good time," Bruno said. "We want our players to partake in a total college experience which includes the enjoyment of all that DePaul, Lincoln Park, and Chicago have to offer.
"But enjoying the total college experience can never come at the expense of total competitiveness in the classroom and on the court."
In the end, it's players like Podkowa, January and their teammates who earn the WBCA academic distinction.
"Our players are the most important reason that we have achieved these academic awards," Bruno said. "They are the ones in the trenches every day working so hard in the classroom while simultaneously coping with the pressure to be successful on the court.
"It is very difficult to play at the Top 25 level and in the BIG EAST Conference on a nightly basis and also stay focused and work-ready for exams, papers and projects. Our players routinely accept this challenge of being ultra-competitive on the court and in the classroom. Our players work their tails off to achieve in the classroom.
"They are special people."
Podkowa knew she was coming to a special place.
"Anyone looking to play college basketball should look for a coach like Doug Bruno who really believes in his players and pushes us to be in the top three academically," Podkowa said. "That is a huge part of why I came here, knowing how much the coaches believe in academics."
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