It takes a special person to be a Florida Tech Panther.
Having a sense of pride—in your institution and in everything you do both in the classroom and on the playing field—is just one characteristic.
It takes heart. Determination. Drive. Commitment. It takes investing in the present, as well as the future. A challenge? That’s an opportunity to succeed, not an obstacle that can’t be overcome.
That’s the sense we get from talking to Florida Tech athletics director Bill Jurgens and several student-athletes about what being a Panther is truly all about.
“We have to know that it’s not going to be a super-easy road, and that we have to be able to look at everything put in front of us,” junior softball pitcher Rachel Pence said. “It’s a very academically challenging institution. It takes a lot of determination and knowing what you want and how you’re going to get there; knowing you have professors and staff who are totally willing to help you with whatever you need.”
Pence and her softball teammates created quite a buzz around campus last season, not only reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, but also going to the NCAA Super Regional.
But that wasn’t the only success the Panthers had on and off the field. This past spring, Florida Tech set a record when 134 student-athletes were named to the SSC Commissioner’s Honor Roll—including 36 who had a perfect 4.0 GPA.
The men’s varsity eight won the Dad Vail championship. Men’s swimming had its first-ever All-American (Nir Barnea), while the women saw Dar Raz become the first Sunshine State Conference Gold Medalist in school history.
Rachel Tobin and Alexis Santiago were both named All-Americans in women’s track and field. Justin McMaster qualified as an individual for the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Men’s lacrosse was nationally ranked for the first time, while the women qualified for the SSC Tournament in their first year.
The baseball team started a program best 17-0 and was the South-Region runner up. Austin Allen became the highest draft pick in school history when he was picked in the fourth round by San Diego (No. 117 overall). Scotty Ward became the school’s first SSC Pitcher of the Year.
Women’s golf reached a national No. 1 ranking and sent its third-ever individual (Guro Rambjoer) to the national championship tournament, while the men sent their first (Gaelen Trew).
Men’s soccer lost in the SSC title game on penalty kicks to the eventual national champion. The football team saw Xavier Milton named Co-Offensive Player of the Year in Gulf South Conference and Milton, Gabe Hughes and J.J. Sanders were all named to All-American teams. In women’s basketball, coach John Reynolds won his 500th game, and Kayk Wilson was an honorable mention All-American.
All of that success created a buzz around campus that showed something else that’s great about being a Panther—a sense of family.
“When we got our name called for regionals, there was definitely a buzz and excitement and anticipation among all the athletes,” Pence said. “I don’t even remember how many texts and hollers I got from across campus saying, ‘Good for you guys!’”
That success led to a good feeling, all right. But rather than resting on those laurels, this year’s teams are already gearing up to make this upcoming school year even better.
“Most of our team is returning this year, and I think we all have the collective mindset that if you’re not going to buy into what we’re doing, it’s not going to work,” graduate student and men’s soccer player Trey Collins said.
“That atmosphere that we’ve created is good, not just for soccer, but for athletics at Florida Tech.”
Junior linebacker Chris Stapleton stayed in town this summer, not only for an internship at Northrop Grumman, but also so he could get more work in for next season. He wasn’t the only one.
“I’ve been in a full weight room before with guys all around me, and we were just working,” he said.
While the players are setting the tone, so are the coaches and the rest of the Florida Tech administration.
It all starts at the top, where the leadership and commitment of President Anthony J. Catanese has allowed Florida Tech athletics to flourish like never before.
Florida Tech had 10 sports when Catanese arrived in 2003. Now, the Panthers boast 22.
Jurgens, who has served as the school’s athletic director since 1976, is the ultimate Panther.
“My job is to do all I can to assist the coaches in helping our student-athletes do well and providing them with any kind of assistance or help,” Jurgens said. “We’ve got a very good coaching staff here. They do a good job in assisting us in carrying out our mission.”
The players themselves play a role in that, too. New players need mentoring, to be shown the Florida Tech way of doing things.
Pence found that in teammates Taylor Smith and Brooke Smith. For women’s basketball player Tiesha Flagler, it was Jasmire Brown.
When Stapleton arrived on campus, however, those players didn’t exist. Everyone was new, just like the program. Now, after having played two seasons of football, he intends to be that guy who serves as a leader to the younger players.
“It’s a role I’m definitely more involved in with the next year of guys because I want to be able to invest myself in the next generation of Panthers and making sure this is somewhere I want this program to go,” Stapleton said.
“It’s something I want to see done, and I have a pretty big opportunity to really make a difference in the program. I want to come back and see some Florida Tech national championships.”
Collins, a Melbourne High grad who went to Jacksonville University and Florida before arriving at Florida Tech, wants to see the men’s soccer program continue to grow and to recapture the energy that surrounded the team at the end of last season when it played in front of a packed house.
To get there, it’s going to take players focusing together on a common goal and making sure they take pride in their work. In other words, being a Panther.
“A lot of it is the stuff you’re doing when there’s not someone watching you,” Collins said. “When somebody is not pushing you to do it, it’s your inner drive, it’s on your day off, doing what you need to do, eating right, hydrating, stuff like that.”
“That’s an important part to me, and it’s something I’m trying to spread through our team so that, after I leave, it’s something that’s more like a legacy and that this program continues to grow.”
Though she spent her summer at home in Jacksonville, Pence said she and her teammates were still able to keep in touch through group text messages.
That only helped extend the team atmosphere where players could push each other, inspire each other and, if necessary, hold each other accountable.
“We have all these goals, all these expectations, but they’re really hard to do by yourself,” Pence said. “Thinking about those things is almost overwhelming, but you have other girls around you who are like, ‘No, we can do it.’
“Knowing that I want to do something for my teammate, and loving my teammate, I’m going to bust my butt for her. That’s another characteristic that we want to build into the program—just loving your teammate through whatever. That doesn’t mean being your teammate’s best friend all the time. It means being able to pull the best things out of your teammate.”
Flagler, who admitted she felt a little homesick when she first arrived at Florida Tech, now says the campus feels like home. From Coach Reynolds, whom she looks up to, to the support she and the women’s basketball team have received throughout her time in Melbourne, the senior has had a wonderful experience.
“The support we have in the community—everything there is about work ethic and just positive,” the forensic psychology major said. “My friends go to other schools and they hate it. Some of them, they just don’t like the way the program is set up. I feel like we have the best education program. I don’t regret choosing Florida Tech at all.”
That’s music to the ears of Jurgens, who wants to make sure every Florida Tech student-athlete has the best possible experience and to take pride in their institution.
Once a Panther, always a Panther.
“We want our students to feel that they have had the chance to be the best they can be, both in the classroom and on the athletic field,” Jurgens said. “We want them to feel that there were many lessons learned and values developed during their time here that will help them throughout their lives.”