Overtime: Student Athletes with Extra Sports Eligibility Get an Edge on the Competition Through Cal Poly’s Graduate Business Program

Written by July 10, 2023

When All-American wrestler Dom Demas entered the transfer portal as an incoming graduate student, the University of Oklahoma standout immediately drew interest from several major collegiate athletics programs, including Arizona State, Illinois and Iowa.

“As soon as my name got entered into it, it was a free-for-all,” said Demas, who finished his career at Oklahoma with a dominating 82-23 record. “I’d be on the phone all day.”

While the lure of a well-known sports school had been important to him as a sought-after high school athlete — Oklahoma had won seven national wrestling championships — as he considered graduate school, other factors weighed heavy on his mind.

Dom Demas, an All-American wrestler

Dom Demas, an All-American wrestler from the University of Oklahoma, transferred to Cal Poly because he was impressed with the wrestling program and the graduate program for business analytics. (Photo: Jack Sann)

“Once I was in college, I was, like, ‘Man, I just want to be happy. I just want to get a good degree. I want to set myself up for the future,’ ” said the Columbus, Ohio, resident. “That’s one of the reasons I came out here.”

For athletes who have additional athletic eligibility upon earning their bachelor’s degree, Orfalea College of Business’ graduate program offers enticing bait: A reputable master’s degree that can be acquired in as little as a year, with specialties such as business administration, taxation, analytics, and quantitative economics.

“Each of the programs challenges students not only academically, but to enhance their time management skills to accommodate all of their activities alongside a significant courseload,” said Bruce Greenbaum, associate dean for programs and learning.

Student athletes who were redshirted — a year when they don’t compete at all against outside competition but can still practice with the team — or missed much of a season because of injury or illness can continue to play their sport after graduation if they pursue an advanced degree. Because of COVID-19’s impact on all sports, the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility to college athletes who attended school during the pandemic.

As a result, student athletes can continue to play the sports they love while making their résumé more competitive, said Ben Alexander, director of Cal Poly’s MBA program.

“After students complete their master’s, they’ll be entering workplaces that are changing rapidly,” Alexander said.

“Our graduates are more likely to get hired, and they start out with higher salaries,” he said of the MBA program.

This past year, 19 Mustang athletes pursued graduate business degrees. Those students  pursued four different specialties, including MBA, business analytics and taxation, and their sports included a range of athletics, such as women’s tennis, softball, football and wrestling.

On the women’s basketball team alone, five players pursued graduate business degrees.

Niki Kovacikova

Niki Kovacikova wants to become a professional basketball player like her parents did, but she’s happy she has a graduate degree to fall back on. (Photo: Owen Main)

Nikola Kovacikova, a guard on the team, grew up in Slovakia in a basketball family; her mother and father each played professional basketball and are professional basketball coaches. A member of the Slovak senior national team, she played at the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University before heading west to pursue an MBA at Cal Poly.

“I was very lucky to play at three schools throughout my college experience,” said Kovacikova, who averaged 14.8 points per game at Penn.

Several factors led her to Cal Poly. She dreamed of coming to California. She formed strong relationships with the coaching staff during the recruitment process. And the graduate program was enticing, with its Learn by Doing emphasis and accelerated schedule.

Job recruiters are more likely to reward graduates who can meet those challenges, he said.

“Most of the MBA programs take two years,” she said. “So that was one of the things that really attracted me here.”

Advisors support Cal Poly student athletes from the time they are recruitment through graduation, said Louise Torgerson, senior athletic academic advisor and academic coaching program coordinator.

“We provide not only academic advisement, but also academic support programs, such as an academic coaching program, a freshman seminar course, career and leadership programming, and a student-athlete honor society,” Torgerson said. “On a daily basis, we meet and support students, communicate with coaching staffs, all in efforts to help students graduate and also meet their NCAA continuing academic eligibility rules.”

Brooke Golik, a member of the beach volleyball team, said she regularly interacts with athletes from other sports in the business master’s program.

Brooke Golik

Brooke Golik was a starter on the SMU soccer team before transferring to Cal Poly to play beach volleyball. Next year, she will play with the Cal Poly women’s soccer team as she finishes her MBA. (Photo: Kayla Stuart)

“I think it’s really fantastic because as an undergrad, I didn’t really venture outside of my team bubble,” said the Northridge, California resident. “It’s pretty powerful to be able to have more camaraderie and collaborative efforts and experiences with these people.”

Golikstarted on the Southern Methodist University soccer team as a center back for four years. Then she was recruited by Cal Poly to play beach volleyball — another sport she excelled in during high school.

“I guess I was that memorable of a junior player that coaches were able to notice,” she said.

Like Demas and Kovacikova, Golik earned academic honors as a collegiate athlete. After earning a degree in engineering management, she pursued an MBA.

“I’m looking back at my SMU education and realizing that technical stuff I did with data and numbers was awesome,” she said. “But now, I have this business foundation and understanding of what’s important to people and C-level executives.”

Demas also had a technical background at Oklahoma, earning a degree in management information systems.

“I was actually a really nerdy kid,” he said. “I grew up watching Nat Geo, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and I just knew all these theories about the universe.”

While he was impressed with Cal Poly’s wrestling program, which finished the 2023 season ranked No. 25 nationally, he was also drawn to the graduate business analytics program, which provides skills that are increasingly valued in the business community.

“I want to be a data scientist somewhere and work with big data,” he said.

Kovacikova hopes to follow her parents’ lead and pursue professional basketball. But an injury that kept her off the court most of the 2022-23 season reminded her how important her education is.

Niki Kovacikova drives during an exhibition game
Dom Demas, a top-rated wrestler, transferred to Cal Poly to wrestle and earna master's degree.
Brooke Golik is a beach volleyball player pursuing an MBA at Cal Poly.
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This photo gallery offers a look at some of the athletes from the 2022-23 academic year that were also pursuing graduate degrees in business. The athletes pictured include Kim Bhunu (women’s tennis/business analytics), Dom Demas (wrestling/business analytics), Brooke Golik (beach volleyball/MBA), Zach Hernandez (football/taxation) and Niki Kovacikova (women’s basketball/MBA). (Photos: Charlie D’Amico, Owen Main, Pat Pemberton, Jack Sann and Kayla Stewart)

“I definitely always have a backup plan,” said Kovacikova, who also aspires to be the CEO of a luxury beauty and fashion brand.

A former team captain in Slovakia and co-captain at Cal Poly, sports gave her leadership skills that will help in the business world.

“I think teamwork is one of the huge things in the workplace,” she said. “You have to be able to collaborate across teams.”

Athletes also learn how to adjust to time management, respond to constructive criticism and form a competitive mindset — all traits that can benefit them in business careers, Golik said.

“That competitive drive within me is something I can’t contain,” she said.

After her foray into college beach volleyball, Golik will have more opportunity for competition: Having opted for a 2-year graduate program, next year, she’ll play for the Cal Poly soccer team – a unique opportunity that is due to NCAA rules and COVID.

“Part of the beauty of being able to come to Cal Poly and be a dual-sport athlete in my master’s program was something I couldn’t do at any other school,” she said. “So that was my golden ticket to the chocolate factory, being able to culminate my educational experience here.”

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