Gala offers best Michigan State has to offer

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Mark Hollis has seen his share of success at Michigan State.

Since becoming the school’s athletics director in 2008, Hollis has presided over one national championship — women’s cross country in 2014 — and 27 Big Ten championships. Michigan State’s marquee programs — football and men’s basketball — are among the best in the nation with the basketball team reaching three Final Fours and the football team reaching last season’s College Football Playoff.

But few nights have Hollis beaming with pride like Monday night did. It was Michigan State’s annual Spartan Academic Excellence Gala at the Breslin Center and nearly 350 student-athletes were to be honored.

“This goes down as one of the favorite nights every year,” Hollis said. “Nights like this, like watching the soccer team play or the cross country team run, those are refreshing moments. What I live is to get student-athletes together from multiple sports and talk about their experiences. … It’s real conversation about how they live and how they advance.”

Highlights for the event included honoring senior Sarah Kovan, the Michigan State senior soccer player who was selected in November as a Rhodes Scholar, the 17th from Michigan State.

Also honored was football player Josiah Price, who was given the Gwendolyn Norrell Community Service & Leadership Award as well as being named football's Scholar-Athlete Award winner with a cumulative grade point average of 3.61 in hospitality business.

Jim Pignataro, the Executive Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Services that oversees operations at the Clara Bell Student-Athlete Academic Center, says student athletes like Kovan and Colby Wollenman, who was honored at the Final Four as a member of the NCAA Elite 89, represent the best of Michigan State.

“It’s hard to show character but when you have examples like Colby (Wollenman) and Sarah you can point to people actually doing it the way you like to do it,” Pignataro said. “I think of all the guys, from Chris Hill on our basketball team years ago … these people work really, really hard in both their sport and in school and it really represents us at the highest level.”

Lansing native and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer John Smoltz was the keynote speaker for the event.

Smoltz was planning to attend Michigan State after graduating from Lansing Waverly in 1985 and even had hopes of walking on the basketball team. Instead, he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and traded two years later to the Atlanta Braves, where he spent 20 of his 21 seasons in the big leagues.

“It is an honor,” Smoltz said of delivering the keynote address. “This has been an incredible run here, not only for the campus of Michigan State but the athletes and those who are gonna be here being honored. That is first and foremost, to honor them. I’m local. I’m here. I almost wore the jersey.”

“But it will be a message of what it takes. I’m a guy who is all in. … I think the biggest thing this is all about is all in. I don’t just show up and check in. I’m all about whatever you’re doing there is a blueprint for success. A lot of these athletes are going to be doing something other than sports, so that is something they can take with them.”