By: Eamon Hillis

The first year of many students’ post-secondary experience is often defined by enthusiasm and promise.

It is a time rich with opportunity, and one that often bestows upon the student substantial changes in their academic and social environments. It brings with it new expectations, and in those expectations, new challenges. It can prove to be a difficult transition at times, as student leave behind familiar things and wade into the unknown. There is often struggle, but many still thrive.

There is perhaps no better illustration of the transition from high school to university than what is seen in the experiences of the varsity rookie.

It can be a rewarding time, and a challenging one, but often one in which senior athletes look back fondly upon.

For nearly all first-year varsity athletes, regardless of sport, the university circuit marks a significant step up in competition. The other athletes are older, stronger and much more experienced than they are. Depending on the sport, rookies often take a season or two to grow acclimatized to the level of play and to improve to the point where they begin to see success. Despite this, some still prosper early.

For McMaster baseball rookie Lucas DaSilva, this was certainly the case. DaSilva won this year’s Ontario University Athletics rookie of the year award for his outstanding season. He achieved a .406 batting average through 18 games, and excelled at shortstop, a notoriously demanding position. Like other talented rookie athletes, DaSilva recalls being the target of special treatment from opposing players looking to test him.

“I did not know what it would be like going in to the season,” DaSilva said. “But the competition was a lot better [than in high school]. Players are smarter and know the game better. The difference in pitching was noticeable, and the other players were overall much stronger. I saw a lot of fast balls just because I was a rookie and I batted second in the order, so they weren’t going to throw the first pitch off-speed. As the season went on though, I began to see many different pitches.”

Trials such as these can be vexing for rookies, especially those given important roles on their team. There is an inherent anxiety that accompanies any first-year athlete, but for those who find themselves in key positions early, there is an added level of pressure.

William Kelly, fly-half for the McMaster men’s rugby squad, knows this pressure well. Like DaSilva, Kelly also won 2016 OUA rookie of the year honors for his performance this season. With regards to the pressure he felt starting as fly-half, Kelly acknowledges the important role that some of the senior players had in helping him feel relaxed on the field.

“In the game of rugby, fly-half tends to be a leadership role, much like quarterback,” Kelly said. “I was pretty nervous the first game of the season against Western. The first few minutes were a bit hectic. I believe the first play we ran we had a knock on and I threw a forward pass. It was guys like fifth-year centre Jamie Leveridge who really eased me into it. They said ‘we know you are good, just have confidence in your skills and play by feel’. As the season went on, I got more and more comfortable with my role on the team.”

Beyond the tribulations that rookies may face on the field, many also come to know burdens within the classroom. The academic strain on the student-athlete is much greater than in high school, and this is recognized well by McMaster administration. Coaching staff and academic advisors understand the time commitment of varsity sports, and it is often recommended for athletes to spread out their academic career to five years, so not to be overwhelmed.

Heavily-recruited rookie wrestler Ben Zarah, a life science major, understands the importance of balancing training and his academics.

“We have a lot of guys on the team who are in demanding faculties and care a lot about academics,” Zarah says. “Many of them have tough course loads like myself and have learned how to manage it. I’m currently taking a reduced load, and I’m planning on extending my time at Mac to five years.”

Zarah is currently mid-season, and is showing great promise so far. He acknowledges the quality training that he is getting from his teammates in practice, and finds that he has improved greatly from his time as a Marauder.

Rookie athletes, like all first-year students at McMaster, understand the many toils and delights that attend ones transition from high-school. It can be a rewarding time, and a challenging one, but often one in which senior athletes look back fondly upon.

“Don’t be too nervous,” DaSilva advises future rookies. “Focus on your game, don’t change anything.  Just stay positive and focused, and don’t let the big guys overlook you.”

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