Ashland’s ultimate balancing act

Chris Bils

Ashland University junior wrestler Kurt Schaefer is lying face-down on the practice mat, and holding him there is junior All-American 197-pounder Joe Brandt. Schaefer is a good wrestler in his own right – a two-time state runner-up at Northwestern High School and a starter his first two years at AU – but today, in Brandt, he has met his match.

His face pressed down against the mat and getting redder every second beneath – or in this case above – his sweaty mass of curly red hair, Schaefer is making every attempt to claw his way out of Brandt’s grip. Schaefer strains every muscle in his body for the remaining 45 seconds of the two-minute period. The pain on each of their faces is evident, but neither will give in. For every push there is a pull, every grunt a gasp.

When the clock expires, the two have not budged. Schaefer jumps up from the mat, released from Brandt’s grip, and goes to the side to rest for the next two minutes before he will face another teammate. While a grapple with Brandt would be the toughest part of the day for most NCAA Division II wrestlers, that is the least of Schaefer’s worries on this Monday after Thanksgiving break.

Schaefer is the first Ashland student-athlete to ever be enrolled at the Mansfield nursing campus, despite being told in his first class freshman year that he was going to have to choose between being a nurse and being an athlete.

“OK, we’ll see how hard it is,” he remembers thinking.

In a given week last semester, he balanced four hours of lectures, two five-and-a-half hour lab periods, a 12-hour clinical, two-a-day wrestling practices and duty as a resident assistant on the Mansfield campus.


Schaefer shows up to his 8 a.m. class at the Mansfield campus in black Ashland sweatpants, a blue crew sweatshirt and running shoes and sits in the back corner. He uses a blue highlighter as the professor zips through two chapters of his 1,200-page book during an hour-and-50-minute period.

“I thought nursing would probably be a lot of science, so I went into that and I really, really liked it,” Schaefer said.

After dissecting a cadaver in an Anatomy and Physiology class his freshman year, he was hooked. He quickly realized it was not a major chosen by many athletes, and the requirement to take all of his classes in Mansfield after his sophomore year was like a ticking time bomb on his wrestling career.

In this 8 a.m. class alone, there are three students who were athletes the year before but had to quit – a women’s basketball player, a softball player and a cross-country runner.

“You can’t blame them,” he said. “I’m sure that they didn’t want to do it, but when it comes down to it you can’t give up nursing just because you want to be an athlete for another two years, especially when you can be a nurse for 35 and actually be paying bills and things like that.”

The professor of the class, Jeri Berryman, says that she expects her students to study at least eight hours per week for the four-hour-a-week lecture. Add that to 11 hours of labs, time spent practicing for those labs and a 12-hour clinical (plus driving to and from the clinical site), and nursing demands around a minimum of 36 hours per week, much more than most of the majors on AU’s main campus.

“The hardest thing for me to get used to is just the class length,” Schaefer said. “I hate class, so sitting in a lab two times a week for five-and-a-half hours at a pop, that’s just ridiculous to me.”

After class, Schaefer has less than an hour to get to Ashland for lifting at 10:45. The 25-minute drive has become a part of his daily routine, and sometimes he even makes it twice when he goes to the earlier lifting session. During the first eight weeks of classes – the nursing program is divided into eight-week quarters rather than semesters – he was driving to Ashland for a 7 a.m. workout before coming back for 8 a.m. class in Mansfield.

Because the junior year in the nursing program has the most demanding schedule, Schaefer chose to redshirt this season. He practices and is a part of the team, but he only competed in a few of the open tournaments so that he did not have to miss class for the conference, regional and national tournaments.

This was a plan Schaefer put in place with former head coach Tim Dernlan, who was on-board with the nursing/wrestling balancing act since the beginning of Schaefer’s freshman year.

“Hey, I don’t know if this matters to you, but they say you can’t really do wrestling and nursing both,” he remembers telling Dernlan back then.

“Oh, yeah you can,” Dernlan said. “Sure you can. We’re flexible. It’ll be fine. We’ll be able to do it.”

And so it went.

“He never said anything other than that,” Schaefer said. “It was always so positive that we would be able to work through it.”

Just as Schaefer was getting ready to start his first year in Mansfield, he got the news. Dernlan would no longer be the head coach of the Ashland wrestling program after taking the position of principal at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, Del.

“Oh, wow,” Schaefer remembers thinking. “I don’t know what this new guy is going to think.”

The new guy was Josh Hutchens, who was Dernlan’s teammate and roommate at Purdue. From their first meeting, it was clear Hutchens and Schaefer were on the same page.

“It made more sense for him to redshirt this year,” Hutchens said. “He had already kind of worked it out with coach Dernlan. He talked to me and I said it was fine.”

The more difficult part was working out the practice schedule. Because Schaefer has lab periods and clinicals that conflict with afternoon practice, he conducts a lot of his practices with one or two teammates instead of the whole team.

“As long as you have the drive and the work ethic you can work around it,” Hutchens said. “We find ways to get him in early in the morning, late at night, double up one day, maybe not make it the next.”

After lifting comes lunch, a short nap and some studying before practice at 2:45. Since Schaefer does not have any commitments back in Mansfield until the evening, he hangs out at his girlfriend’s dorm room and goes over that morning’s lecture.

Schaefer’s girlfriend is a former AU soccer player who was forced to quit after re-injuring her knee earlier this fall. She struggled with the decision but knows it was the right one, and has reassured him when he is faced with the possibility of having to make a similar choice.

She tells him that he is more than just a wrestler and that even if he has to give up the sport, life will go on.

“It’s nice to have somebody so close to me that’s had to go through something kind of similar,” he said.

For now, Schaefer continues to manage his hectic schedule and believes he will be able to compete through his senior year. That hasn’t kept the thought of having to quit from creeping into his mind. While he knows which of his passions he would choose, it is not something he enjoys thinking about.

“At this point I’ve invested three years into the nursing program and I know that I’ve invested 17 years into wrestling, but I guess when it comes down to it wrestling’s not going to pay for my life.”

Wrestling practice lasts from 3:10 until 5. Schaefer gets there at 2:45 to dress and start stretching. Within seconds of stepping into the wrestling room, it is clear he is in his element. The stress and fatigue that has followed him around all day falls away, replaced by the smiles and laughter he shares with his teammates.

Before practice starts, Hutchens addresses the team. One of his first announcements is that he needs volunteers to help move furniture into his new house tomorrow. There are 42 wrestlers in front of him, and none look too keen on the idea. Some time passes, and eventually a few raise their hands. One of them is Schaefer.

It is an innocent enough gesture, but with a full knowledge of Schaefer’s schedule and the fact that he lives 25 minutes away, it becomes somewhat more than that. This is time he could have spent sleeping or studying. Schaefer says that because he misses practice some days, volunteering when things like this come up helps to prove his commitment to the team.

There are days when Schaefer has more time than others. On Thursdays, he does not have any. With a clinical that lasts from 6:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. and is located 45 minutes away from Mansfield in Willard, fitting in a practice or workout in Ashland becomes implausible at best. Because of this, Schaefer does nothing wrestling-related on Thursday. Instead, he makes up what he missed over the weekend.

“He comes in and works hard and that’s why it works, is because he puts the time in and he puts the effort when he’s here,” Hutchens said. “When he can make it to our team practices, he’s a big contributor.”

Missing practice altogether on Thursday still frustrates Schaefer and is something he feels like he could have avoided. Upon scheduling classes last spring, he explained his situation and asked to be placed in the clinical site closest to Ashland. Instead, he was placed in Willard, making it impossible to get so much as a workout in and still be back at his apartment by 10.

“You can cut a lot of time off and get some athletes a lot of free time (by placing them in Ashland), but they just seemed pretty uninterested in helping me out,” he said.

One of Schaefer’s duties as a resident assistant is to deliver mail to the residents in both of the on-campus apartment buildings. The day after Thanksgiving break, this was a more daunting task than usual. Sorting through the magazines and credit card bills, there were a lot of names.

Besides all being nursing students, these people have another thing in common. None of them have ever been athletes at AU while enrolled at this campus. Though he does not think of himself as one, Schaefer is a pioneer of sorts.

As he delivered mail to each individual room, he still had about two hours left on his shift at the front desk. The next day, he would have lifting, practice, a five-and-a-half-hour lab and helping his coach move. On top of that, he had to study for ever-closer exams.

Next year, Schaefer will add a full season of wrestling matches to his schedule. Throughout the spring semester, a common theme has developed that comes as close as one can to explaining how he is able to balance everything.

“It seems like the more I throw on my plate the better I get at time management,” he said.

During his senior year, Schaefer wants to maintain his 3.2 GPA, graduate with a degree in nursing and become both an academic All-American (which he did as a sophomore) and an All-American on the mat. While the goals he has set for his senior year seem lofty, Schaefer has grown used to defying the odds.