Leading on and off the turf

Paul VI junior captain Erin DiSandro one of 20 NJ prep athletes named NJSIAA Student Ambassador

Paul VI junior Erin DiSandro on being one of 20 students in the state selected as an NJSIAA student ambassador: “I hope to learn great leadership skills and listen to my peers and the problems they’re having, and be able to communicate that to the NJSIAA and make a difference for all student athletes.” (Photo provided)

Two years ago, Paul VI High School’s field hockey team won two playoff games. They also tied one of the top teams in their conference, current Non-Public state-runner-up Camden Catholic, when a scoreless tie was called after lightning canceled the game’s second half.

“We were so happy, (yelling), ‘We tied Camden Catholic!’ afterward,” Erin DiSandro said with a laugh.

Last year the Eagles fell on hard times, winning just four of the 19 games on their schedule and enduring an 8-game losing streak at one point. 

This year, DiSandro, a junior, has higher expectations.

“I think we’ll be pretty good,” she said. “I noticed some pretty good freshmen (in our practices) that could definitely help us out. Ever since I’ve been here we’ve never been that strong of a team, but I feel like this year we might surprise some people.”

The team’s leading scorer last year and one of five captains, along with seniors Abbie Ealer, Gianna Conti, Isabella Schoettle and Ella Van Schalkwyk, DiSandro manages to remain upbeat and optimistic even during trying times. It should serve her well in a new role she has this school year.

DiSandro was one of just 20 student athletes across the state to be accepted as an NJSIAA student ambassador. 

The NJSIAA, the governing body of high school athletics in the state, launched the program two years ago, with ambassadors forming a student advisory council that gives a voice to the more than 250,000 student athletes from more than 430 schools in New Jersey.

After being nominated by Paul VI assistant athletic director Donna Camardo last spring, DiSandro applied before the April 30 deadline and found out she had been accepted into the two-year program last month. 

“I was shocked. And I was excited,” DiSandro said. “It’s just a unique opportunity that not many people get. I’m just really excited and I’m going to take advantage of it.”

Maybe it’s not that shocking that someone with DiSandro’s credentials was nominated and accepted. In addition to being a top player on the Eagles field hockey team in each of her first two seasons and a member of the lacrosse program, too, DiSandro is a part of Paul VI’s AP Capstone Program. Nearly all of the classes in her rigorous schedule this fall are either AP or Honors courses.

But she also brings some intangibles that were listed in the essay portion of her ambassador application.

“I wrote about how sometimes it can be overwhelming balancing athletics with academics, and how it sometimes makes athletics less enjoyable because we’re worried about homework, tests and exams and everything,” she said. “It’s a pressing issue to many, including myself, especially how it affects mental health. … And I talked about this program at our school, it’s called Play Like a Champion, which ensures that all athletes at (Paul VI) practice good sportsmanship, and how being a part of that community taught me the value of great character and sportsmanship in athletics.”

The student ambassador role is probably as critical as ever for the coming school year. 

Following the end of the 2019-20 school year, when the entire slate of spring sports was canceled due to COVID-19, student athletes were unsure of how the high school sports landscape would look when the games resumed. There have already been major adjustments heading into this fall, with two sports, girls volleyball and gymnastics, moved to a new, hybrid winter-spring season, and the rest of the regular fall sports season pushed back a month.

And, as expected, some uncertain and unanswered questions — concerning social distancing and how many people can attend games, for example — remain.

“There will definitely be more issues and controversies in the student athlete world and more people will have different opinions, so it’s going to be important to hear what my fellow teammates are saying and if they feel like their safety (is a factor), so it’ll definitely be more important,” DiSandro said of her responsibilities in the role. “With the safety issues, more people are going to have more opinions that should be heard.”

Although she’s just getting started in the role, DiSandro is eager to make the most of the experience in helping out her fellow prep athletes.

“I hope to learn a lot of leadership skills and learn to communicate better,” she said. “Because as an NJSIAA ambassador, you’re kind of the voice for the student athletes at your school. I hope to learn great leadership skills and listen to my peers and the problems they’re having, and be able to communicate that to the NJSIAA and make a difference for all student athletes.”

Erin DiSandro was second on Paul VI in goals as a freshman and led the team in scoring last year. (Photo provided)