By Grant Miller
Illinois Tech recruited Ryan Barnes for his hoops skills. But the day before the final basketball game of the season, he played above the net, not the rim, and spiked a volleyball against Robert Morris University.
“They’re done tomorrow,” head coach Katherine Zulandt said after the game. “So he’s mine for the rest of the season.”
Barnes is not her only multi-sport athlete. “I have a girl who did diving for a season,” said Zulandt, who coaches both men’s and women’s volleyball. “One did lax [lacrosse]. Two others ran track.”
When Illinois Tech started expanding its athletic program, students filled roster vacancies by playing multiple sports, including basketball, soccer, volleyball, cross country and track and field. Last year 29 men and 35 women played on two or more teams.
Today many kids specialize in one discipline year round, but cross-training can help players like Barnes, said men’s basketball coach Todd Kelly.
“Volleyball is a sport in which you have to have good hand-eye coordination and that transfers to the basketball court,” Kelly said. “I also don’t want to discount the experience that playing on another team can have because playing football, or baseball, you’re used to a team environment, discipline, accountability, being a good teammate.”
Women’s basketball assistant coach Lauren Capuano played soccer and basketball in high school and at Illinois Tech, where she earned the 2012 Women’s Athlete of the Year award. She now coaches Illinois Tech’s women’s basketball and soccer teams.
About four girls basketball players also ran track, Capuano said. “It keeps them in shape, and obviously quickness and agility helps in basketball.”
Athletic director Joe Hakes said playing multiple sports is less common with scholarship programs nowadays, but many students at Illinois Tech belong to different teams to stay in shape, mostly because of Division III restrictions on off-season practice.
Illinois Tech’s women’s sports teams also need help filling spots.
“We’re just not deep enough,” Hakes said. “I think as we develop our rosters and get deeper, we’ll see less of that.”
The downside to playing on two or more teams is it can take away from the students’ academics, said Capuano.
“There was a period in one semester when I practiced in the morning for one [team] and practiced for another in the afternoon,” Capuano said. “I was exhausted.”
Still, she said the pros of playing more than one sport outweighs the cons.
“Some of the girls here didn’t run track or play multiple sports in high school,” Capuano said. “So I think it’s good for them to get year-round training.”