Fifth-year and gap-year student-athletes put graduation on hold for one more season

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Scott Drazan (senior), a member of the men’s soccer team, on the Academic Quad at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 8, 2021. Jasmine Reyes/The Occidental

When the final whistle blew in Occidental’s 5-0 loss to Pomona-Pitzer in the first round of the SCIAC tournament in 2019, Occidental women’s soccer player Kia Mackey (senior), then a junior at the college, believed she would have another chance to compete to win another SCIAC trophy. The next spring, the pandemic shut down college athletic departments and left student-athletes wondering when they would compete again.

Following an NCAA decision that granted an extra year of eligibility to players affected by the pandemic, many Occidental seniors decided to take a gap year or return for a fifth year for another opportunity to play collegiate sports. According to Rob Bartlett, Occidental’s NCAA compliance officer, there are between 15-20 fifth-year and gap-year athletes currently enrolled at the college.

Mackey, a captain on the women’s soccer team, decided to take a gap year during the pandemic. Mackey said she savored her final season, knowing it would be her last.

“I’m able to have closure for it [senior year], because now I know it’ll be my last game or my last time playing the sport collegiately,” Mackey said. “I was able, this year, to more appreciate it and everything — having a second chance to have a soccer season.”

Kia Mackey (senior), a member of the women’s soccer team, on the Academic Quad at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 8, 2021. Jasmine Reyes/The Occidental

Mackey said her decision to take a gap year has given her more positive experiences at the college.

“During my year off, I thought it was like a great decision just because I was able to still be connected with people,” Mackey said. “Now, being at school, I’m always thankful. I’m like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have been able to have this experience if I were to have graduated already.’”

According to men’s soccer goalie Scott Drazan (fifth year), his decision to stay an extra semester was influenced by his desire to continue playing soccer.

“The first [reason] is definitely how close soccer is — it’s like a family, on and off the field,” Drazan said. “I wanted some closure with what could be the end of my soccer career.”

Joe Cox (fifth year), a member of men’s water polo, said he made his decision to return to Occidental when he realized the pandemic would mean he would be graduating online.

“I decided to take a fifth year when the pandemic began in March 2020,” Cox said. “I was abroad and I came home. After awhile I realized that this year we were going to be at home, online and I really didn’t want to graduate online. I wanted to enjoy one last real year of college.”

Joseph Cox (senior), a member of the men’s water polo team, on the Academic Quad at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Nov. 8, 2021. Jasmine Reyes/The Occidental

Cox said he also wanted to take advantage of his last season of eligibility and play in the De Mandel Aquatics Center.

“During the [last] year, I was able to live with some of my teammates in an off-campus house. We were constantly working out, lifting weights and getting in the pool as much as possible,” Cox said.

Playing with teammates more than four years younger than him, Cox said the age gap was unusual, but it also aided him in helping his teammates grow and mature.

“Most of the time when I talk to them, they call me grandpa,” Cox said. “But I think having an extra year has really helped me as a leader to instill in them what it takes to be successful and why we are starting to be successful this year.”

According to Drazan, underclassmen on the men’s soccer team acknowledged the sacrifice that the team’s fifth years made to put off graduating to help lead the team.

“That was kind of a new challenge for a lot of us fifth years learning how to lead a group like that for the first time,” Drazan said. “We [fifth years] all put our lives on hold. The guys on our team respected that and looked to us as leaders and people that really care about the program.”

While Mackey said returning to Occidental for a final season was the right decision for her, she said students should have more than one reason to take a gap year or return for a fifth year.

“I wouldn’t have that [athletics] be your only reason,” Mackey said. Because if you were to get hurt, you’d want to have more things to be there for your fifth year — especially because it does cost more money.”

Cox said he was initially concerned about his social situation as a fifth year because many of his friends graduated in Spring 2021.

“I’m fortunate that a lot of my friends on the team are still here, but some of my friends did decide to graduate and didn’t stay another year — it was definitely tough because those were the guys who had been there with me since day one,” Cox said.

Cox said he initially struggled to accept that he was setting himself back a year in terms of his career, but is happy with his decision to return.

“It’s been an awesome season, but it’s not even about the water polo,” Cox said. “It’s about, after a year and a half, and still today, spent in the pandemic — getting to live with my friends again. Getting to play the sport I love with a bunch of my best friends has made this decision 100 percent worth it.”

According to men’s soccer head coach Rod Lafaurie, five of the team’s eight seniors in the class of 2021 took a gap year or returned for a fifth year. Lafaurie said their experience and maturity were central to the team’s success in developing the younger players.

“Senior night this season was one of the heaviest nights I have ever experienced. As coaches we made decisions differently because it was [their] fifth year understanding that a guy postponed his life,” Lafaurie said.

According to Lafaurie, the gap-year and fifth-year players’ decisions to return spoke to the cultural strength of the program.

“I think it [having gap years and fifth years] just personified, more than anything else, how important the culture of our program is. I think these guys came back because of the program, not really just to play soccer,” Lafaurie said.