Student athletes graduate, families cherish Kent State sports

Elise Kogelnik

Senior Bridget Wilhelm started playing volleyball in fourth grade on a team coached by her mother, Kate Wilhelm.

When she wasn’t playing volleyball, Bridget was learning the game of basketball from her father and coach, Tom Wilhelm.

After years of practice, Bridget landed a spot on the Kent State University volleyball team as a middle blocker and right side hitter, and her parents took on new roles as full-time fans. After four years, Wilhelm and her parents are preparing themselves for life after Kent State volleyball.

“I’m their oldest and the first to be graduating,” Bridget said. “They’ve been coming to my games since fourth grade. They’ve been there when we were loosing. They were there this year when we were winning. They’ve really been there through it all for me and for the team, constantly being supportive. I think they’re sad that it’s coming to an end, and they’re definitely going to have to find a new hobby.”

Bridget said her parents will spend their free time cheering on her two younger sisters, who also play college volleyball.

“(My sisters) are actually much better than me because they come to all my games, and they’ve been practicing since before they were on a team,” Bridget said. “They’ve been watching really high level volleyball since they were young. (All of us being volleyball players) helped because, even though we’re not living together at home all the time, we have volleyball in common, so we can talk about that.”

Bridget isn’t the only graduating senior on the volleyball team. She said other parents understand what it’s like to have a daughter leave Kent State, too.

“(The parents) all have a common cause of their kids playing for the team,” Bridget said. “They never run out of things to talk about—parents love to talk about their children. Everyone knows what it feels like to have a graduating daughter. I think it’s been comforting for (my parents) to have people to talk to about what’s going on.”

Volleyball Coach Don Gromala said his parents still watch him coach, but it’s not the same as cheering a child on as they play the sport they love.

“It’s tough now, not only for the players,” Gromala said. “The parents aren’t going to be able to show their support anymore. They’re not going to show up at their job and clap for them for doing well on an assignment. I think that’s the hardest part for the parents.”

Senior gymnast Nicolle Eastman said her mother, Michelle McDowell, has been emotional about the end of her gymnastics career since before the season even started.

“I think (graduation) is bittersweet both for me and her,” Eastman said. “Before the very first meet, we had a dinner and she talked to the parents. She was telling them how time flies, and she just started to cry. It was hard for her.

“She was like, ‘I know gymnastics has been part of your life for 19 years now, but that’s just as much my life as it is yours. I still go to the meets. I go through everything with you. I feel like I’m losing the sport, too.’ She’s kind of going through the end of gymnastics as well.”

Eastman said McDowell is in some ways relieved that her daughter is done competing.

“If I ever had a bad meet, I would always take it pretty personally and be hard on myself,” Eastman said. “I know my mom definitely won’t miss that part. She hated when I was hard on myself.”

Eastman’s grandfather, Merlin Mitchell, has cheered her on at all but two collegiate meets. He and Eastman’s mother drove to Iowa for her first meet, and they made the trip again for her last competition—NCAA Regionals.

Mitchell enjoys watching the whole team. Eastman said he knows everything about the gymnasts, and the team loves to talk with him after meets.

Gymnastics Coach Brice Biggin said lasting support from the gymnasts’ families is an essential part of the gymnastics program.

“We’ve had parents come back this year from last year’s team and the year before that,” Biggin said. “They still will travel with us once in awhile. That probably is one of the things we appreciate most. When we went to Nationals, we had alumni and parents of alumni out supporting the team. That’s just a really good feeling.”

Eastman plans to stay involved in Kent State gymnastics as she completes her student teaching requirement in the fall. She hopes to do radio commentary during meets. Eastman said her family will likely go to meets in her home state of Michigan.

Bridget said she plans to stay near Cleveland after she graduates with a degree in

marketing, and she’s sure her parents will make appearances at Kent State volleyball games.

“I have too much (Kent State) gear to not go to games and show it off,” Bridget said. “(My parents are) keeping up with the team and knowing what’s going on, sometimes before I do. I think they’ll stay interested just because of how much it meant to me and the family to be involved in Kent volleyball.”

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