Commentary

Elite athletes transition to college

BU hockey and LSU softball freshmen learn the ropes of Division I athletics

Originally Published: September 25, 2009
By Patrick Carney | Special to ESPN.com

Alex Chiasson heard his name called and everything went dark.

"I think I blacked out for the first five seconds because I didn't realize what was happening," he said.

Then, with his family at his side, confusion turned into jubilation. Chiasson had just been selected in the second round of June's NHL draft by the Dallas Stars.

Chaisson's dream of playing in the NHL, however, would be put on hold to further hone his hockey skills and further his education at Boston University.

[+] EnlargeAlex Chiasson
Dominick Reuter/BU AthleticsAlex Chaisson was drafted by the NHL's Dallas Stars in June, but chose instead to become a Boston University Terrier.

Around the same time in Monroe, Conn., heralded high school softball pitcher Rachele Fico was receiving national exposure for her dominating performance in the pitching circle at Masuk High School. Fico's signing with LSU was well-publicized, and the right-hander was being featured on everything from YouTube videos to ESPNRise.com.

Now that Chiasson and Fico are freshmen at their respective universities, the pressures of being a Division I student-athlete have begun to sink in.

The transition from high school to college for an elite athlete is not easy. Increased athletic responsibilities on top of college classes and living away from home make the lives of many freshman student-athletes stressful.

Chiasson didn't arrive on campus like the average incoming freshman. He came from another country, had lived on his own for two years during high school and had recently been drafted as a professional hockey player.

The St. Augustin, Quebec, native left home after his second year of high school to attend Northwood School in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"The first year away from home was hard at first; I didn't speak any English before," recalled Chiasson, whose first language is French. "Being away [from home] made me more mature and improved my English. It was the best decision for me."

His time in New York was shortened with the opportunity to play in the United States Hockey League for the Des Moines Buccaneers. Although his team struggled and he had to adapt to life in Iowa, Chiasson's time with the team paid dividends.

"I had a great coach," Chiasson said of Buccaneers' coach J.P. Parise. "He made me such a better hockey player."

After a year in Iowa, where he led the Buccaneers in points, Chiasson decided to attend Boston University -- home of the defending NCAA hockey champions.

"The coaches recruited me hard last year and I like what they said about the future," said Chiasson, who turns 19 on Oct. 1.

In addition to the championship hockey program and BU's academic reputation, Chiasson also choose to play for the Terriers because Boston is within driving distance of Montreal, the closest Canadian city to his family.

The juniors and seniors take care of us kind of like parents. They're great examples for us.

-- BU hockey freshman Alex Chiasson, on adjusting to his new team

Though Chiasson arrived on campus six weeks before the fall semester began, he is still adapting to life on campus in a big city, with only three weeks until the Terriers' first regular-season game, at the University of Massachusetts. Between team workouts and practices, Chiasson is taking classes in English, math, psychology and French -- to try to get back what he's lost of his native language over the past two years.

It wasn't until his first practice with the Terriers that it set in that he was playing with the defending champions.

"It was kind of weird at first, playing with all those guys who won last year," Chiasson said.

But it wasn't long until his nerves were settled by the team's upperclassmen, who took a vital leadership role with the incoming freshman class.

"The juniors and seniors take care of us kind of like parents," he said. "They're great examples for us."

For the past four weeks, Chiasson and his teammates have worked out together three to four times a week.

"It's been great so far," the physical power forward said. "I'm in the best condition of my life."

In addition to pickup soccer games, the Terriers' hockey team bonded at a weekend golf tournament. Chiasson, who used to play regularly with his father, shoots between 78 and 80. He also made sure not to miss the staple of any summer in Boston: going to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

It won't be long until Chiasson's team will be the center of attention at the historic baseball stadium on Yawkey Way. On Jan. 8, BU will play Boston College in the nightcap of an outdoor doubleheader at Fenway Park.

[+] EnlargeRachele Fico
Steve Franz, LSU SIRachele Fico is no stranger to national attention, but the collegiate stage is something entirely new for the pitcher.

"It's going to be amazing," Chiasson said about playing his new archrivals. "The atmosphere at Fenway is amazing."

Though Fico's softball season doesn't begin until the spring, she'll be wearing LSU's purple and gold Saturday as the Tigers begin their fall exhibition schedule against Louisiana College.

She should be well-prepared.

Fico owned the pitching circle across Connecticut throughout her young career and became the focus of major college programs around the country. She helped lead Masuk to two state championships with her 105-3 career record and became a pitching sensation with the way she dominated her opponents. Fico graduated with a national high school-record 26 perfect games while striking out 1,887 batters in four years.

"It was a complete team effort," the 18-year-old said of her individual successes. "You can't do it alone."

Fico chose to attend LSU over SEC rival Alabama after visiting Baton Rouge, La.

"It was an enjoyable recruitment process," she said. "I fell in love with the campus, the school and the girls. It felt like home."

She is excited to work out with her new teammates this fall, but realizes the pressures: adjusting to leaving home, college classes and college athletics. However, she, like Chiasson, has enjoyed the first weeks on campus.

"The days have been a little hectic," said Fico, an elementary education major. "It's definitely a new experience. It's been great. Everybody is so friendly and welcoming, and I have great roommates [on the team]."

While Fico prepares for the spring and Chiasson looks forward to taking the ice for BU's Oct. 16 season opener, time management remains a key part of each freshman's transition to college life.

"It's not easy to manage your time," Chiasson said. "At first I thought it would be all right because I'm a good student. It's more than being a normal student. You also need to be a good hockey player."

Patrick Carney is a contributor to ESPN.com. He may be reached at patrickcarney86@gmail.com.