Watt’s return brings out pride of UW athletes

Campus is high anticipating the upcoming commencement speech of J.J. Watt, a former Badger football player who has gone onto big-time success in the NFL and the world.

Watt’s appearance is a reminder that UW-Madison’s many student-athletes achieve in areas beyond sports. Often, their athletic endeavors give them confidence and focus that help them succeed.

Evan Bondoc

For instance, Evan Bondoc, a defensive back on the football team, has already graduated this past winter and plans to apply to law school for fall 2019. Currently, he is focusing on studying for the LSAT while he works at a boutique law firm in downtown Madison. The Madison native graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Political Science, receiving Academic All-Big Ten honors all four years and earned the Ivan Williamson Scholastic Award, which is given to a player exemplary in the areas of scholarship and sportsmanship. Bondoc will attend the spring commencement ceremony in May.

“Being an athlete was an incredible experience that I know has changed me for the better,” Bondoc explains. The football player notes that not having a demanding schedule now is very different, but he has memories that will last him a lifetime. “I will definitely miss playing games at Camp Randall, there is nothing like it,” says Bondoc. “I will also miss all of my teammates and coaches that I have been around every day for the last four years,” he said.

He said defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, also a former Badger player, was a positive coach and mentor for him during his time on campus.

Jess Unicomb

The team experience is something that Jess Unicomb will also miss as part of the swimming and diving team. Unicomb, a swimmer from Gold Coast, Australia, explains that she is excited to return home, notably to train for the 2020 Olympics, but will miss the friendships and relationships she has built here.

The senior will graduate with a BBA in Management Human Resources along with a leadership certificate. As a swimmer, Unicomb excelled in and out of the pool.

“Trying to juggle school and swimming was a learning curve my first year,” she explains. Being far away from home and her parents was hard, but she found solidarity and comfort in her teammates.

Jess Unicomb. Photo credit: Deb Lindsey

Since her first year she has come a long way. Besides earning second team All-Big Ten this year, she has received multiple Academic All-Big Ten awards, All-American twice and honorable mention All-American multiple times. Her favorite stroke is the backstroke, but she swims freestyle and individual medley as well. Unicomb has also been heavily involved in the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) for multiple years, serving as Vice President this year. The committee is a way for student athletes to advocate for themselves and serve as a connection with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Tionna Williams

One of the main efforts of SAAC this year has been to highlight the importance of talking about mental health. Thanks to volleyball player Tionna Williams, SAAC was able to partner with the foundation Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression (AAAD). This marked AAAD’s first partnership with a university – an exciting opportunity for both parties.

At her senior night, Williams unveiled the partnership and spoke about how mental health has impacted her personally. She emphasized the importance of sharing resources and speaking with others.

The senior from Fort Wayne, Indiana, will graduate with a major in Human Development and Family Studies with a certificate in Afro-American Studies. Fittingly, the middle blocker did an internship with the Meadowood Neighborhood Center as part of the Madison School & Community Recreation Program.

Wisconsin outside hitter Molly Haggerty (23), middle blocker Tionna Williams (11), setter Lauren Carlini (1) stand at the ready as the Wisconsin Badgers volleyball team plays the Washington State Cougars during the second-round of NCAA Division 1 championship play at the Field House at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Dec. 2, 2016. The Badgers won, sweeping the Cougars, 3-0, and advance to the sweet 16 NCAA regionals, to be hosted at the UW-Madison Field House on Dec. 9-10. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

“I love kids,” she explained, “they just brighten up my day.”

She worked with at-risk and low-income children, serving as a friend and a mentor. While Williams still keeps in touch with the kids from the program, she has moved onto a new internship working with parents and families who have been disconnected at the Canopy Center, a child abuse treatment and prevention agency in Dane County.

Doing social work has pushed her outside of her comfort zone, but she does not plan on stepping out of her main comfort zone, volleyball, anytime soon. Williams has plans to play pro. During her volleyball career at UW-Madison, she was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, third team All-American, honorable mention All-American (twice), and All-Big Ten (twice). As for graduation Williams said it, “feels great and kind of scary at the same time.”

Matt Aronson

For swim and dive team member Matt Aronson, graduation brings a variety of thoughts. “Some days I’m super excited and other days I get a lot of anxiety.” Regardless of the day, Aronson says that he is very happy with his experience as a Badger athlete, which he will miss dearly.

He has been involved in SAAC for several years and served as president this year. He has advocated for more mental health resources and diversity initiatives, such as more inclusion for LGBTQ+, minority and international athletes, while also successfully fundraising for breast cancer awareness. The diver, from Ivyland, Pennsylvania, knew he wanted to be involved in athletics and other leadership experiences and realized UW-Madison could provide him a unique experience.

The 2018 Big Ten Conference men’s Swimming and Diving championships hosted by the University of Minnesota at the Dorothy Sheppard Pool. February 21-24, 2018. Photo credit: Watt Middleton

The senior will earn a BBA in Finance, Investment and Banking along with a second major in Environmental Studies. As a freshman and sophomore Aronson was awarded an Impact Award for the men’s swim and dive team because of his community service work. Aronson has dedicated more than 300 hours towards volunteering at elementary schools, a local senior center, and his favorite, the American Family Children’s Hospital. He notes that, “it’s hard,” to manage time and wear different hats – student, athlete, volunteer, friend – but that being an athlete has been, “such a positive experience.”

Gabby Scherle

Softball player Gabby Scherle, of Slater, Iowa, echoes Aronson’s statement. “It’s been amazing being a part of something bigger than myself,” she said. The left-fielder will graduate with a major in Agricultural Business Management and a certificate in Entrepreneurship.

“I’m excited to put everything I learned to use,” Scherle explains. The senior will move to North Carolina after graduation to work in a grad program for a chemical company doing agricultural marketing and sales. On campus, Scherle has been on the Dean’s List twice and has earned Academic All-Big Ten.

Gabby Scherle. Photo credit: Jack McLaughlin

When she arrived on campus she felt as though she didn’t stay in shape the way she wanted. But she made an effort to get more fit her sophomore year, creating an Instagram account, @getfitscherle, to document and motivate her journey. The demanding schedule of athletics helps keep her in check. She and her teammates lift about three times a week, devote twenty hours towards practice and then devote time to a few games over the weekend. When she heads on the road she always makes sure to take one or two avocados with her to make avocado toast for breakfast.

Soon, like all graduating seniors, these Badger athletes will be onto new adventures, excited to be free from homework and settling into new routines.

One thing that is for certain is all of these athletes are thrilled for commencement, especially to hear Watt speak.

“All of us student-athletes are so excited,” said Aronson. “Having a professional alum come back who had so much of an impact on the program is great,” Aronson explains. He notes that Watt is not only an accomplished athlete, but has done a lot of philanthropy to help communities in need – most recently raising over $41 million to help Houston recover from Hurricane Harvey.

“I think he’s amazing,” Scherle notes. The softball team went to Texas for pre-season practice and many of the locals made the Wisconsin connection with the Texan football player.

“Locals will see us wearing our Badger gear and thank us for J.J. Watt,” she explains with a laugh.

Article By Mara Matovich