Jump to college sports brings challenges, opportunities for student-athletes

Graduation day was June 22 for Elmira High School's Dan Fedor and Binghamton Seton Catholic Central's Hanna Strawn.

Within three days after caps and gowns were thrown about in celebration, the standout athletes were adjusting to college life. Fedor at the University at Buffalo, where he is starting his career as a Division I offensive lineman for the Bulls. Strawn is farther east in the Albany area at Siena College, where she is playing Division I basketball.

Ithaca's Matt Smith, who just graduated from Elmira Notre Dame, has spent his summer in part getting ready to play baseball for his hometown Ithaca Bombers. There is no athletic scholarship money for Division III athletes, so Smith is also working full time as a lifeguard.

Becoming a college athlete is a long process, filled with hours of practice and competition. Likewise, the transition from high school to college athletics doesn't happen overnight and has its own challenges and unexpected obstacles.

That includes injuries at the wrong time, something recent Ithaca High School graduate Lizzy Rayle has faced as she prepares to head to Long Island to run track and cross country for Division I Stony Brook University. Her training schedule was slowed by a stress fracture in her left big toe.

Injury aside, there's a mental side to making the college jump that goes with the physical.

"I’m definitely a little nervous about it because it is a lot more intense, but I would like to think I can handle that and I think I will rise to the occasion," Rayle said. "I’m nervous it could be pretty difficult, but I’m expecting that.

"I’m just excited. It will be the one thing I can really focus on when I’m there when everything else is changing. Overall I’m really excited about it and I think running in college is going to be just as good, and better, than high school."

Strawn can relate to what Strayle is facing. She ended up having to leave her summer session at Siena a few days early to have her appendix removed. The surgery will keep her out of action for a bit as the scar heals, but once she's able, the former Seton star will be back to the grind. The good news is Strawn got a reassuring taste of Division I hoops before returning to her home in Binghamton.

"I was pretty confident and I knew that I was prepared, but there's always that little voice in the back saying you're not really sure or aware of what you're going into," she said. "You obviously know at the DI level everything's faster, everyone's stronger.

"I was a little nervous, but once I got there my coaches did a really great job making me feel I belonged there and were very welcoming and encouraging. It's very hard – don't get me wrong – but after the first couple of weeks or so I felt that's where I belonged and I fit there and belonged there with my skill level, and I could play that fast."

Fedor's early arrival on the Buffalo campus has been extremely beneficial, even if it meant giving up a week or two of potential summer fun after graduation. Unlike Strawn, Fedor won't be coming home for a while. Practice begins Aug. 2.

"Definitely would have been cool to have more of a summer, but at the same time I want to start winning games right away, doing whatever I can to help out," he said.

"Just being able to get used to having classes right now, having workouts, starting to learn how to manage my time better. I can't imagine just coming up the first day of practice, when classes start, just having it all thrown at me. This has been a huge help getting up here early."

Smith has balanced his 35- to 40-hour summer job at Cass Park while playing travel ball for Stinger Baseball, with practices twice a week and tournaments most weekends. He's hoping once he starts taking swings for Ithaca College, there will be minimal rust, especially with batting cages at the Ithaca College Athletics & Events Center available to the players.

"I was on a local travel team my junior year going to my senior year and the team got disbanded right around August or whatever," Smith said. "The whole winter there wasn't much I could do. I have a tee in my basement. Besides that, there was no live pitching I could see. So when the Notre Dame season started, I started off a little shaky, but then I got used to it.

"I told myself, told my parents, 'I don't want to go into the Ithaca College baseball season like that.' So it was very important to me to see the live pitching throughout the summer. Also, I like to have fun. Because all work and no play ... well, you know."

Express lane to Buffalo

Fedor, 18, was a two-time all-state offensive lineman for Elmira, where he played on two Section 4 Class AA championship teams. Even with the Express competing in the largest classification in New York state, it will be a big jump to Mid-American Conference football.

He verbally committed to Buffalo last summer and signed his National Letter of Intent in February. About 17 weeks before he arrived on campus, the team's coaches had a workout plan to him. Fedor followed workouts throughout the spring, when he finished seventh in the discus at the New York state track and field championships.

"When it came time for me to lift during track practice, they were fine with me doing the football workout," said Fedor, who also played basketball for the Express. "Running after practice and then changing the days. I know if we had a meet on Tuesday, I might have to do the Tuesday lift on a Saturday or something."

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Second-team Class AA all-state pick Dan Fedor helped Elmira win the Section 4 Class AA title in 2017. (Photo: ANDREW LEGARE / Staff Photo)

The 6-foot-7, 280-pound Fedor said most everyone on scholarship with the Bulls has been on campus since the start of the summer, along with most of the walk-ons. The team's summer routine has included weight lifting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays have featured conditioning work, including a day last week where everyone ran the steps at University at Buffalo Stadium. Weekly meetings enable coaches to run through the playbooks with players, who are generally up and at it by 5:30 or 6 a.m.

Elmira football practices and workouts had great energy, Fedor said. At Buffalo, the difference is every player there is intent on becoming stronger and faster as they try to secure a starting job.

"You can't go in with the mindset it's going to be an awful day or a really tough day," he said of the workouts. "You're just going in with the mindset that, 'I'm going to get through the day and beat it."

Already, Fedor sees the payoff.

"I think they're helping a lot," he said. "Every week I'm feeling a lot better. Just getting ready. It's right around the corner now."

Related: Elmira's Fedor nabs second-team all-state honors again

The coaching staff has talked to Fedor about possibly red-shirting this season, giving him a chance to gain an extra year of strength and conditioning. The NCAA just changed red-shirt rules, allowing players a chance to see action in up to four games while keeping that season of eligibility.

Fedor, whose family home is in Elmira, is taking a psychology class and another class geared toward helping first-year students make the college transition. He has study hall five days a week.

"Living with some other guys on the team is totally different than having your parents take care of you all the time," Fedor said. "It's a quick switch. It's a good one. I'm definitely feeling a little more grown now."

Freshmen often share the same schedule and eat meals together while experienced players look out for them.

"We have some great seniors and leaders on this team that have really taken us under their wing, shown us the right ways," Fedor said. "Jimmy O'Hagan, he's the center and he's going to be a senior, he's a really great player. He's really set a great example for us. Works hard every day, makes sure we understand what's going on."

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