Q&A with DAPER director Julie Soriero

Although MIT is renowned for its technical prowess and innovation across the globe, it also possesses one of the most comprehensive sports programs in the country. The Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) is largely responsible for making a multitude of sports programs available to MIT students.

As one can imagine, administering a top-notch athletics program in a school that is known challenge its students academically poses multiple challenges. For example, there are no sports scholarships to attract student-athletes to MIT.

The Tech spoke to Julie Soriero, director of DAPER as another successful year of MIT sports draws to a close. National championships were won and a berth to the College World Series was clinched to go along with numerous individual recognitions including the prestigious All-America and NCAA Elite 89.

Soriero spoke about how DAPER is always trying to provide the right environment for MIT student-athletes to thrive, how the coaches try to attract the best talent, the culture of appreciation or lack thereof of student-athletes’ achievements, what DAPER does to incentivize club and IM sports, and what it means to her to have been awarded the Athletics Director’s Award for the year 2014-15.

The Tech: You are the director of DAPERwhat is your role?

Julie Soriero: My role is anything that has to do with athletics, physical education and recreation. I oversee all those areas. My job is to make sure that our students have the best experiences they can have as we continue to advance our programs.

The Tech: What part of your job do you like the most? What part of your job is most challenging?

Soriero: What I like most is the wonderful staff I get to work with. I truly am appreciative of the efforts of all our coaches and it is probably a tie with the terrific student athletes I get to interact with. I like our students very much.

As for most challenging I would say is making sure we have right environment for everyone involved in DAPER to thrive. We have some facility challenges. We are hampered by limited space and huge demands. If you really want to provide a top-level experience for everybody involved you have to be able to give them what they need.

The Tech: How would you evaluate the 2015-16 academic year?

Soriero: I could not be more proud of our student athletes and the coaches. We had a record-breaking year in a lot of ways.

The Tech:  Speaking of breaking records, what are your thoughts on the softball team’s amazing run?

Soriero: I want to give a lot of credit to coach Jen Williams. She illustrates the difference a full-time coach can make versus a part-time coach. For a number of years she was employed as a coach on a part-time basis. For the past couple of seasons she has been here for a full-time basis, and look at the difference that has made to the softball program. Her dedication, knowledge of the game, and ability to motivate her players has really been outstanding. It shows with the results.

The Tech:  MIT finished third in the nation in the Division III Learfield Director’s Cup standings last year.  What makes MIT’s athletic program so good?

Soriero: I think we have done really well the past 7 years. I think our teams are competing against better teams. Our coaches are attracting better athletes to come here. Success begets success. If you have been to the NCAA finals this year as returning members of the team you want to experience it once again.

The Tech:  How difficult is recruiting good student-athletes, given the stringent academic requirements?

Soriero: Coaches recruit kids who are academically qualified to be at MIT. I think our coaches have to cast their net rather wide and they have to be a certain type of kid who is academically proficient but also wants to be a student-athlete.

The Tech:  On the flip side, how difficult is it to recruit good coaches?

Soriero: There are a lot of people in this country that want to be involved in college athletics and want to coach. So from a general standpoint, no, it is not hard to find coaches.

The challenge is finding coaches that are good for MIT. So in the search process, we have got to identify coaches who understand he academic demand, that can attract the right kind of students, and understand that academics will always come first, and they need to be on board with that philosophy.

So to sum it up I think we have to be more selective about finding a good fit than just finding a good coach.

The Tech:  How do you measure success of the program?

Soriero: The obvious answer is wins and losses but that is not how I measure it. I measure it by the looks of joy in the faces of the student-athletes’ when they achieve something they have never achieved before. I try to measure the sense of accomplishment they experience that they express in the end-of-season reviews. I have been around athletes who are part of programs that have won a lot but are not necessarily happy. Here I think we have student athletes who are challenged a lot but are also happy.

The Tech: How is MIT so dominant is certain sports like track and field?

Soriero: When I look at cross-country and track and field it is such a numerically measured sport — distance and time. That’s too easy of an explanation. I think those programs are successful because there is good coaching. There is a sense of history and that allows us to attract some of the better high-school competitors. Once again success begets success.

The Tech:  Do you think there is a lack of appreciation of MIT student-athletes around the campus especially outside the community of student-athletes themselves and their circle of friends?

Soriero: I think we starting to see better appreciation of student-athletes as the awareness of how much being an athlete means to the students increase across the campus. Therefore as people realize how important that experience is for the student-athletes, there is a greater appreciation and greater tracking of what’s happening. I think when Football went 10-0 in 2014, a lot of people tracked that.

I would go to the dentist and that person would know about the MIT football team’s accomplishments.

The Tech:  How can one explain the hype surrounding MIT’s unbeaten football season given that there have been occasions on which other teams have been as successful if not more?

Soriero:  First and foremost, I think there was such media attention because it was such a big turnaround from how the football team has been historically. We won one game with a blocked extra point with no time left on the clock, so it was kind of a charmed season, which made it more interesting.

Then it makes for a great story because you hear about all the selfish stories about division I athletes who are primarily looking to go pro. In contrast to that this was a refreshing story in the world of college athletics. It was a feel-good story.

We have kids doing mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering and are going to classes and excelling in academics and yet have such a successful season. That makes for a great story!

The Tech: Why are certain sports club sports and others varsity sports? Can a sport graduate from club to varsity?

Soriero:  One of the things with varsity sports is that almost all of them have a national body that sets rules  and governs the process of competitions. That is also true for some club sports, but for something like ultimate frisbee or taekwondo there is no NCAA division.

To go from club to varsity is unlikely to happen because back in 2009, we had to cut 7 varsity programs and although they have merged as clubs we had to cut them because of the mandated budget cuts. Now we are able to balance our budgets and maintain a solid budget.

The Tech:  What does DAPER do to encourage club sports and IM sports participation?

Soriero: One of the best thing we have done is hire Jamie Drahos. Her job is to manage clubs, intramurals and sports camps. She comes from a background of recreation so she understands the demands and challenges. She has done a great job making the environment more safe, organized, and fiscally responsible for all those involved.

The Tech:  You, yourself have won the Athletics Director Award. What does that recognition mean to you?

Soriero: It is always wonderful to be recognized by your peers. So I was very appreciative of that. I feel lucky to able to work with such a terrific staff. It speaks volumes about everyone that works here. It is recognition for everyone although I got to be the one on the stage collecting the plaque.