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Walking the line - Cowgirl coaching trio sets example by acquiring master’s degrees together

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By Dave Kavanaugh

Conscientious coaches routinely keep track of the student-athletes in their charge, telling them to get to class and admonishing them against slacking on homework.

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For three New Mexico Highlands University women’s basketball coaches, however, the past few years have meant also setting the example by getting to class themselves.

Cowgirls head coach Tiffany Darling and assistants Jessica Armijo and Richard Bridgewater all completed master’s degree programs — specifically, master of arts in human performance and sport with concentration in sports administration — and walked the line for graduation in May.

While juggling the demands of higher education and other responsibilities is a test for any college student, these three endured a unique set of challenges along the way.

“Managing our time was a challenge,” Darling recalled, “especially during the heart of our season. My two assistants were especially spread thin; they both held other part-time positions to supplement their income in addition to coaching and taking a full credit load.”

Armijo toiled as a graduate assistant and taught several courses over the last two years, also working at the school’s wellness center. Bridgewater served as a resident director, supervising multiple dormitories.

“Balancing my educational pursuits with teaching and coaching was very challenging at times,” said Armijo. “It seemed like too much, especially because I wanted to do everything to the best of my ability so everything and everyone that was involved benefitted from my actions. It seemed as if there weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done that needed to get done. But if there is a will there is a way, and I pride myself on not making excuses and always finding a way to find a way. Making excuses is the easiest way to hinder one’s opportunity to be successful; it’s the easiest way out. Managing my time, prioritizing my responsibilities, and paying attention to details is what allowed me to be stretched so thin and still be able to be successful in every role I happened to play on that specific day.”

Modeling good study habits meant a new level of commitment to the virtues coaches emphasize when meeting with the players, as Bridgewater discovered.

“We preach time management to our student-athletes on a daily basis,” he said.

“Although as coaches we work extremely hard to put our players in the best situation to compete at a high level and win games, I feel it is our duty as well to push them in the classroom. In that we try to practice what we preach.”

In addition to the usual strategies for multitasking, coaches tapped into other resources to help them get through the grind.

“Time management was essential to pursuing a master’s degree, but a ton of prayer and faith were the key components to getting the job done. I’m simply grateful to God to be honest with you to have finished.”

Working together and supporting one another was another big help.

“Taking school very seriously, we did everything we could to avoid putting one responsibility in front of another,” Darling said. “There were multiple times that we were scrambling to turn in assignments on the road, take a test prior to practice, or log into class immediately following practice. The three of us really helped each other on our busy days.”

While Armijo and Bridgewater relished the chance to set a positive example for the Cowgirls, they say they were inspired by the example set by Darling.

“Coach Darling is a great leader,” Bridgewater said. “She emphasizes academic achievement, and as a coach on her staff for five years, it has rubbed off on me.”

“We do not give the term ‘student-athlete’ lip service in our program,” Darling said.

“Academics, especially graduating, are stressed regularly in our program. We strived to be living examples of what we expect from our players by earning a master’s degree.

My true measure as a coach is what my former players are doing with their lives five years from when they leave my program, whether they were a part of it for one year or for all four years of their career. We preach that education is a ticket to a better life, an independent life where they will not need to rely on anybody else to take care of them financially.”

“What was expected of us is no different than what was and will continue to be expected of our players,” Darling continued. “All three of us coaches earned above a 3.0 cumulative grade point average through our master’s program, which means we don’t have to run sets of lines due to poor academic performance,” she quipped.

“Our staff made an effort to never let our players know if we were having a stressful day with school, it was never a negative distraction that was brought on the court or used as an excuse.”

This trio has spent countless hours on the floor of Highlands’ Wilson Complex in basketball practice and games. But the feeling of walking the gym floor for May’s commencement ceremony made the old seem new again.

“I never walked the line for my undergraduate degree, and am so glad that I walked for my master’s degree,” said Darling. “When I turned the corner to enter the main floor and saw all of those people in the stands, several people that have been huge supporters of me, my staff, and/or Cowgirl basketball, it was an overwhelming flood of emotions. I am proud to be an NMHU graduate.”

“Graduating with my master’s degree is one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve achieved in my lifetime,” said Armijo, a Las Vegas native, Robertson High alumnus and one of Darling’s former standouts as a player with the Cowgirls. “My goal was always to graduate from college with my bachelor’s degree. I was granted the opportunity to have my master’s degree completely paid for through the Human, Performance and Sport Department as a graduate assistant, and it was an opportunity I took full advantage of. Being able to further my education was truly a blessing, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of close friends and family. I believe that having a great education is a ticket to a better and more rewarding life.”

“Being afforded this opportunity is priceless,” said Bridgewater. “I feel the true measuring rod of a man and/or woman is scholarship attainment, and I’m grateful to NMHU and the city of Las Vegas to have afforded me the opportunity to further my education. Achieving such a goal with two of my best friends is a great feeling.”

TIFFANY DARLING’S WORDS OF ADVICE

“School and basketball do not need to be mutually exclusive. If it is important to you, then find a way to be successful in both arenas. Having a strong support network as you finish your degree while also maintaining a full-time job is very important. It can seem impossible at times, as if there aren’t enough hours in a day. However, with the help of your friends, family, classmates, and professors it can be done. The professors, as well as the entire HPS department, were extremely helpful and went above and beyond to show that they respected our busy schedule and cared about our success. As with anything in life, if there is a will there is a way. If a person has a strong enough desire to accomplish a goal, they will find a way to get it done regardless of the set-backs, adversity, challenges, etc. As a non-traditional student who waited nearly nine years to enroll in a master’s program after earning an undergraduate degree, I am living proof that it is never too late. With the challenges being presented economically due to the recession, earning a master’s degree is vital to being marketable in the work place.”

—NMHU head women’s basketball coach Tiffany Darling, offering advice to her players and others