Two Vassar Standouts Earn All-American Status
All-American status is bestowed on a tiny fraction of college athletes, and this year two of them are from Vassar. Swimmer Julia Cunningham ’17 finished fifth in the 200-yard butterfly at the NCAA Division III championships in Greensboro, NC, an achievement that earned her first-team All-American honors for the second year in a row. Men’s volleyball standout Matthew Knigge ’18 was selected a first-team Division III All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
Cunningham, an economics and Chinese double major from Yardley, PA, faced a challenge qualifying for this year’s national championships. Her times early in the season were slower than the marks she had established the year before, but she swam fast enough in the Upper New York State Collegiate Swimming Association (UNYSCSA) meet to earn an invitation to the NCAA event. And during four weeks of training leading up to the nationals, Cunningham found her rhythm. “I was definitely let down by the slower times I had been posting,” she says, “but by the time I got to nationals, I was feeling a lot more confident.”
Head swimming and diving coach Lisl Prater-Lee and assistant coach Dan Koenig said that by the time Cunningham arrived for the national meet, they too were confident she’d excel. “We saw a lot of progress in that final four weeks,” Prater-Lee says.
As she prepared to swim her qualifying heat, she says, Koenig gave her the perfect words of encouragement. “Just before I got on the blocks, Dan took me aside and told me, ‘This is the only thing in your life happening right now; block out everything else.’”
Apparently, she did. She broke her own school record in the qualifying race and smashed it again in the finals. Afterward, Cunningham gave some credit to some of her teammates – Julia Wieczorek ’17, Lucas Harries ’19, Sammie Stone ’19 and Emily McDaniels ’18 -- who traveled to Greensboro to cheer her on. “It was a little less scary for me knowing they were there supporting me,” she says.
Cunningham, who followed a strict dietary regimen during training, says she received an “NCAA survival kit” from her teammates that included sugar-laden granola bars and candy. “After the race, that candy was gone pretty fast,” she says.
Unlike Cunningham, Knigge didn’t earn All-American honors based on a single, end-of-season performance. He was selected after he led Vassar to a 24-7 record against some of the top competition in the country. The Brewers finished the season ranked eighth. Knigge says he considers the honor a team achievement because, as a middle hitter, he relies on passes from his teammates. “Normally, before I touch the ball, two other players on the team touch it first,” he says, “so I definitely consider this a team award.”
Head coach Rob Wolter agrees – up to a point. “For Matt to be nationally recognized, the team had to be nationally recognized as well,” he says. But the coach adds he knew he had a special player when he saw Knigge compete on a top club team near his hometown of New Egypt, NJ. “I knew he was a gifted athlete (Knigge had starred on his high school basketball, track, and cross-country teams in addition to volleyball), but when you make that jump to college, suddenly you’re facing some players who are bigger, stronger, and maybe three years older than you are.” But Knigge put in his time with Vassar head trainer Cam Williams and after a good season his first year, made great strides this season, Wolter says.
Knigge, an international studies major, expects to be ready for an even better season next year, thanks in part to his decision to enroll next fall in Vassar’s international study program in St. Petersburg, Russia. “Volleyball is an extremely popular and competitive sport in Russia, and I plan to join a team when I get there,” he says.
Asked if earning All-American status this year would place any pressure on him next year, Knigge shrugged. “I could view it as a negative thing that puts pressure on me, or I can use it to motivate myself to continue to improve my game. Then whatever happens, happens,” he says. “For me, the team’s goals are more important.”
Photos by Stockton Photo Inc.
Posted Friday, April 29, 2016