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Westmont Honors Student-Athletes for Soaring to New Heights

Golden Eagle Award winners, praised for excellence in athletics and academics, tell of life-changing experiences.

Twelve Westmont College student-athletes were honored Thursday night at the 14th Golden Eagle Award Dinner at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort.

Referred to as the "best night of the year for Westmont athletics," the event is sponsored by Pacific Beverage Company and Pete and Gerd Jordano. "It’s even better than our 28-point win over Azusa Pacific," said associate athletic director and head women’s basketball coach Kirsten McKnight in welcoming the 125 attendees.

Westmont athletic director Dave Wolf served as master of ceremonies and noted that the Westmont staff of head coaches tallied a combined 114 years of experience, and that for seven of the coaches, their entire head coaching experience has been at Westmont.

Westmont track and field head coach Russell Smelley presented the evening’s first recipients - Kayla Stilwell, a junior economics and business major, and Robbie Cherry, a senior mathematics major.

Stilwell expressed her gratitude toward God, who "provides a meaningful life." She described her experience at Westmont as "life transforming," noting that her track and field experience was instrumental in that process. In addition to thanking her coaches, Stilwell expressed her appreciation to her parents, who she described as "not getting the credit they deserve."

Cherry shared insights he has learned as a result of competing as a distance runner. "In different races I tried focusing on different emotions," Cherry said. "In one race, I’d focus on being relaxed, or in another, on intensity. But success cannot be achieved by focusing on emotion. It is passion that enables us to succeed. No formula exists for passion. At nationals, I was nervous about the pain that would result from what I was about to do, but I knew that I would do it anyway."

Rebecca Mouw, who has announced she will not return for a fourth year as head coach, presented senior kinesiology major Kayla Crandall as the Golden Eagle recipient from women’s soccer, noting that she maximized her leadership potential as a captain by bringing eight seniors together in the leadership role.

Crandall described her first few days of training camp as a freshman. "I had no desire to leave home. I was crying in my room, and a junior who was assigned to be my roommate during training camp just sat with me offering her support. That is when the team started to become a family. We share an unbreakable bond that holds us all together. Westmont has changed me - strengthening my walk with God and my leadership and problem-solving abilities."

Men’s tennis head coach Chris Elwood introduced senior chemistry major Kyle Godfrey, who he credited with "bringing a young team together, forming friendships and creating an environment of working hard every day."

Godfrey expressed his appreciation by saying he has been "learning to be a good steward of the gifts he has received" and offering his appreciation for his family and his experiences at Westmont.

Women’s tennis was represented by sophomore Spanish major Emily Hughes, who head coach Kathy LeSage presented as filled with a sense of eagerness and adventure and willing to be available whenever needed, even at the last minute.

"My time at Westmont both academically and athletically has taught me to pursue excellence in every aspect of my life," Hughes said. In thanking her coach, Hughes said, "Your investment in my life has driven me to be someone worthy to invest in."

Baseball head coach Scott Deck was unable to attend the event because of an away game, but he sent a written introduction of senior physics major Cody Chapman, which was read by Wolf. Deck praised Chapman’s work ethic and noted that he is a sensational athlete who excelled in the classroom. "Cody is a role model for balancing various aspects of life," Deck wrote.

Chapman expressed his appreciation, saying, "It has been a privilege to get an education from Westmont and play baseball." Chapman expressed his admiration for the renewed energy and enthusiasm that Deck has brought to the baseball program and said, "Studying science from a Christ-centered perspective has been an incredible experience."

Senior physics and engineering major Malinda Reese was presented as the volleyball recipient by head coach Jim Smoot. "Malinda is widely acknowledged as the top player at her position in the country," Smoot said. "As a captain this year, she has grown into a great leader, conveying information to me about the team and leading by example."

Reese described her experience on the volleyball team as one in which her coaches "encouraged me to dream big. I came to Westmont as a freshman thinking I was an outside hitter and two days in was asked if I would be a libero. In my junior year, my coaches began encouraging me to consider playing in Europe. In January, I had the opportunity for a 10-day volleyball tour in the Czech Republic, Croatia, Austria and Italy."

Wolf presented sophomore international business major Skye Sander as the men’s soccer Golden Eagle Award winner, noting that it was unusual for the award to go to someone who had never played in a game. Sander, who transferred to Westmont from the University of San Francisco after his freshman year, sat out the season because of an injury. "Skye is large in stature but humble in spirit," Wolf said. "He towers over the opposition but is a servant to his teammates."

"I was not happy at USF. When I told my parents, my mom cried and my dad cried because they wanted me to go to Westmont," Sander said. "Even though I couldn’t play, my teammates brought me in and welcomed me as part of the team." Speaking of his coach, Sanders said, "I have never before played for a coach who wanted me to improve as a player, but is even more concerned about me as a player and how I am doing spiritually."

Smelley returned to the podium to present this year’s cross-country recipients - senior kinesiology major Lindsey Cooper and junior business and economics major Kirby Ifland.

Cooper described herself in her freshman year as someone who feared what others thought of her.
"God has placed people in my life to help me grow," Cooper said about her time at Westmont. "I have learned to find joy in running and in school, both of which used to cause stress and fear. A once fearful girl, I have become a woman of competence because I have learned our competence comes from God."

Ifland noted a popular quotation from 1964 Olympian Billy Mills: "God has given me the ability, the rest is up to me." While Ifland acknowledged an appreciation for the quote, he has come to understand that something is missing. Referring to a quote mentioned earlier by Cherry, Ifland said, "I have learned that there is no such thing as a self-made man. All of those around us contribute to who we are."

Men’s basketball head coach John Moore introduced Drew Benac by saying you can learn a lot about a man by the way he asks a woman to marry him. Moore went on to tell how impressed he was at the manner in which Benac had proposed to Hannah Williams 10 days earlier. Moore told the story, which involved Benac flying to Texas to ask Williams for her hand in marriage, and making elaborate plans for his proposal.

Benac noted that as a transfer student in his junior year, he had a lot of adjustments to make culturally and to a new team, and he had mixed feelings about returning. But he also recognized that because of his experiences, he had learned to depend on the Lord in a greater way. "The Lord will always be calling his people," Benac said. "What I have learned is that the one who calls you is faithful."

The final recipient was junior art major Annie Johnson, who was presented by McKnight, the women’s basketball head coach. In introducing Johnson, McKnight said, "What a privilege it is to be a small part of the journey of these athletes."

Johnson spoke of her experience as an art student, constantly being asked by her
professors, "What is art? What is good art? What makes art meaningful?" She applied it to basketball, asking, "What’s so great about putting an orange rubber ball through a round metal hoop?"

After citing the Book of Ecclesiastes in which Solomon declares everything to be "meaningless, meaningless, meaningless," Johnson said, "God makes the meaningless, meaningful. I don’t know why God has given me a passion for art and basketball, but using his gifts gives me joy."

Ron Smith is Westmont College‘s sports information director.

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