Seventy-seven senior student-athletes were honored on Saturday at The University of Scranton's 26th annual Senior Student-Athlete luncheon, held in the McIlhenny Ballroom in the DeNaples Center.
The event featured the presentation of a plaque to each senior student-athlete as well as the presentation of Merit Awards to each student-athlete with a cumulative grade-point average of 3.5 or higher. The luncheon also featured the presentation of the Beining Award, the Bochicchio Awards, and culminated with seven special awards presented to student-athletes.
The Beining Award, which is presented annually to an individual for special contributions to the athletics department, was given to University President Rev. Kevin P. Quinn, S.J. Fr. Quinn has been a dedicated supporter of University of Scranton athletics during his six years as University president, and was instrumental in the addition of five new athletics teams (women's golf, men's and women's indoor and outdoor track & field), as well as the South Side Athletics Campus, which will be named after Fr. Quinn.
The Bochicchio Awards, which are named after former women's soccer coach Joe Bochicchio, are presented annually to the male and female teams with the highest cumulative grade-point average for the previous academic year. The winners of the Bochicchio Awards for the 2015-16 academic year were the men's golf team with a GPA of 3.424, and the softball team with a GPA of 3.6.
The luncheon was highlighted by the presentation of the Ron Willensky, Father Fitzpatrick, Peter A. Carlesimo and Frank O'Hara Awards.
Ron Willensky Award – Matt Prendergast, men's tennis
The Ron Willensky Award is presented to a member of the senior class who has overcome extreme hardship in his or her athletic career and personal life to excel in both athletics and in personal life. The award has been presented since 1993.
Prendergast overcame a serious health issue during the fall semester to thrive both athletically and academically. After not feeling well for a few days, he went to the hospital and eventually underwent an emergency appendectomy. Afterwards, doctors told him that his appendix had already burst and an infection had spread. Had he waited another 24 to 48 hours to go to the hospital, his life would have been in extreme jeopardy. Once the surgery was over, he was not out of the woods yet. He was in and out of the hospital for 2 ½ weeks as complications from the surgery kept him from returning to school.
Once he finally did, Prendergast was able to complete all of the schoolwork he had missed over the final month of the semester, finishing with a 3.47 GPA for the term.
Obviously, his health scare kept him from stepping on the tennis court during the entire fall semester. When Prendergast returned this spring, he helped lead the Royals into the Landmark Conference playoffs by going a perfect 7-0 in conference singles play and 5-2 in conference doubles as the team went 6-1 against conference opponents.
He was named second-team all-Landmark Conference in singles this season, and finishes his career with 22 doubles victories in conference play, tied for sixth-most in Landmark Conference history.
Father Fitzpatrick Awards – Jessica Schmidt, women's swimming & diving, and Jimmy Buckley, men's cross country
Named in honor of the late Reverend John J. Fitzpatrick, S.J., long-time friend and counselor of Royal student-athletes, this award is given to a student-athlete who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and given extraordinary service and contributions to The University of Scranton community and society in general.
Schmidt has used her considerable talents and outgoing personality to help others here on campus and outside the University community. She has worked at Asera Care Hospice in nearby Clarks Summit for two years, first completing 150 internship hours, then staying as a volunteer, providing emotional and spiritual support to patients & families, providing comfort to families during the bereavement process, and visiting clients three to four times a week.
Schmidt has also been a part of Big Brothers, Big Sisters here in Scranton for two years, serving as a role model, mentor and friend to an underprivileged first grade student. She has served as vice president and secretary of The Counseling & Human Services Association, organizing meetings and service opportunities.
Her volunteer work also includes Big Friends Little Friends, where she visited a local school twice a week to help underprivileged children with homework and social activities. She also volunteered at the Gino Merli Veterans' Center, the Vacation Bible School, the Montessori Preschool, and with the Girls Scouts of America.
As a member of the women's swimming & diving team here at the University, Schmidt has volunteered with Swim Across America, helping to raise money to fight cancer. She has also volunteered at team community service events that included Safe Trick-Or-Treat, Preview Day, ARC Swim and Water Aerobics for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities and swim lessons for local children with disabilities.
And, she was voted by coaches and teammates as the swimming & diving team's recipient of the Father Beining Team Leadership and Spirit Award this year.
Buckley has also distinguished himself when it comes to helping others. He has served as a peer facilitator with the University's International Service Program, helping prepare students for a service trip to Belize in a year-long process that included cultural education and community building. He then served as a student leader on the trip in July of 2016. And, he was also a member of an International Service Trip to Haiti earlier in his collegiate career. He has also served as a peer mentor in the SPARK program here at the University, working with and supporting kids ages 12 to 16 from inner city Scranton homes.
Buckley's volunteer work also includes service trips to Mexico and Tennessee with the Companions of St. Francis Xavier. He has also volunteered as a Montessori teacher's assistant and with the Thanksgiving Food Drive. And he is a member of Tau Upsilon Alpha, the Counseling & Human Services Honor Society on campus.
And, he was named the Landmark Conference Senior Scholar Athlete for men's cross country this past fall, and was a first-team all-conference selection, as well.
Peter A. Carlesimo Awards – Sarah Payonk, women's basketball, and Matthew Busch, men's soccer
The award, which is named in honor of the late Pete Carlesimo, former director of athletics, and head football, basketball and cross country coach at the University, is given annually to a male and female student-athlete who has excelled both athletically and academically. Carlesimo, along with his entire family, represent the ideals of a Jesuit education. We are proud to name these awards in his honor.
Payonk was named Academic All-District by the College Sports Information Directors of America this past winter and was also named the Landmark Conference Senior Scholar Athlete for women's basketball in February. She's a three-time member of the Landmark Conference Academic Honor Roll and has earned Dean's List honors each semester here at The University. She currently holds an impressive 3.87 grade-point average while pursuing her degree in nursing.
On the court, Payonk is a two-time All-American selection by both D3hoops and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. She was the Landmark Conference Player of the Year in 2016, the Rookie of the Year in 2014, and was a first-team selection twice and second-team twice. And she ranks in the top 10 in seven career statistical categories in Lady Royals history while helping the team win three Landmark Conference championships and reach the NCAA Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight once.
Busch has distinguished himself in the classroom and in his sport. He will graduate with a degrees in neuroscience and mathematics with a minor in philosophy. As demanding as that sounds, he has an impressive 3.9 cumulative grade-point average, the highest among all senior student-athletes.
This past fall, Busch was named second-team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America, and he was an Academic All-District selection by the same organization in each of the past two years. Fittingly, he was named the Landmark Conference Senior Scholar Athlete for men's soccer and was a three-time Landmark Conference Academic Honor Roll selection.
On the soccer field, Busch was a four-year starter on defense for the Royals, helping the team capture Landmark Conference championships and advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons. He helped the Royals post 32 shutouts and 45 victories in his four seasons while finishing with four assists.
Frank O'Hara Awards – Sarah Payonk, women's basketball; Eric Hintz, men's soccer; and John Vitkus, men's basketball
The O'Hara Awards are given to the top male and female student-athletes in the senior class. They are named after Frank O'Hara, a 1925 graduate who diligently served the needs of students, faculty and staff for more than 52 years in his roles as registrar, director of alumni relations and acting president until his passing in 1977.
Affectionately known as Mr. University of Scranton, O'Hara has a building named after him on campus and the office of alumni relations' most distinguished awards are also named in his honor. The athletics department has been granting the O'Hara Award to its top male athlete of the senior class since 1970 and to its top female athlete since 1979.
Payonk has etched her name in the Scranton record books as one of the most accomplished female athletes in school history. She is a two-time All-American selection by both D3hoops.com and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, and was the D3hoops.com Mid-Atlantic Region Player of the Year in 2016 as well as a first-team all-region selection in 2016 and 2017.
She was the Landmark Conference Player of the Year in 2016 and a first-team choice in 2016 and 2017. That came on the heels of being named Rookie of the Year in 2014 and a second-team selection in 2014 and 2015. And she is a four-time Landmark Conference Athlete of the Week and a four-time University of Scranton Athlete of the Week.
The numbers Payonk put up on the basketball court are simply astounding. She finished her career as the University's all-time leading rebounder with 1,099 career rebounds. She ranks second in career assists with 511, third in career blocks with 165, third in career free throw attempts with 422, fourth in career free throws made with 337, sixth in career free throw percentage at 79.9, eighth in career steals with 221, and 12th in career points with 1,319. And she had four career triple-doubles – all coming in points, rebounds and assists – the most in school history, men or women.
Payonk was a four-year starter for the Lady Royals, leading the team to three Landmark Conference championships and four NCAA Tournament appearances, including Sweet 16 appearances in 2014 and 2017, and an Elite Eight appearance in 2016.
And here's the most impressive number of them all. The NCAA is able to sort its Division III women's basketball database by statistic back to 2000. In the 18 seasons since 2000, Payonk is the only player in NCAA Division III women's basketball to finish a career with at least 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists.
For the first time since 2009, there were co-recipients in the male category for the O'Hara Award, which were presented in alphabetical order.
Hintz put together one of the most impressive careers as a goalkeeper in University of Scranton men's soccer history. His leadership and poise in goal helped the Royals solidify themselves as one of the premier men's soccer programs in the Landmark Conference and the region over the past four years.
Hintz was a four-year starter who appeared in 73 career games, finishing with a record of 42-20-10. He posted 24 shutouts and a 0.92 goals-against average while making 212 saves with a save percentage of .763. He ranks third in school history in career goals-against average, tied for fourth in career shutouts and 11th in career saves. He was a first-team All-Mid-Atlantic Region selection by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America this past fall. And he was a first-team all-Landmark selection in 2015 and second-team in 2016.
During Hintz's career, the men's soccer team went 45-20-10, and he helped lead the team to back-to-back Landmark Conference titles in each of the past two seasons. But he and the Royals weren't done there, going on to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament both years.
Vitkus distinguished himself as one of the top post players in men's basketball history at the University. His skill around the basket at both ends of the court made him an unstoppable force on offense and a shot-blocking machine on the defensive end.
He was a first-team All-Middle Atlantic District selection and a D3hoops.com All-Middle Atlantic Region choice this past season. Vitkus was named the Landmark Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and a senior, earning second-team all-conference honors in 2016 and first-team in 2017. And he was named Landmark Conference championship MVP after leading the Royals to the title this past February. He was also a three-time Landmark Conference Athlete of the Week and a two-time University of Scranton Athlete of the Week.
In his four seasons, Vitkus played in 104 games, 59 as a starter, including all 56 games over his last two seasons. Despite playing less than 10 minutes a game over his first two seasons, he finished his career with averages of 9.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 assists. In his final two seasons alone, he averaged 14.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.5 assists.
Vitkus is also the school's all-time leader in career field goal percentage at 63.1, and he finished 2nd in the country in field goal percentage as a junior and 14th as a senior.
And, he was a member of three Landmark Conference championship teams and four NCAA Tournament teams, including the 2015 and 2017 teams that reached the second round.