Football, softball standouts honored
BLUFFTON, Ohio—Bluffton University presented its top athletics awards April 14 to all-conference performers in football and softball.
Ryan Leopold of Ottawa, Ohio, accepted the A.C. Burcky Award as senior male athlete of the year, while Jessica Kuzara of Flat Rock, Mich., won the Kathryn E. Little Award as outstanding senior female athlete. Both student-athletes have double majors—Leopold in strength and conditioning and exercise science, and Kuzara in elementary education and special education.
Bluffton junior Ryan Aelker, from New Bavaria, Ohio, also received an award, from the NCAA, for leading Division III football nationwide last season by averaging 1.3 sacks per game. The defensive end’s school-record 13 sacks helped earn him Defensive Player of the Year honors in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) and All-American status from USA Football.
Speaking at the annual athletics awards forum was Dr. Jim Burson, professor emeritus of health and physical education and longtime men’s basketball coach at Muskingum University. His topics included the value of liberal arts education, which he said teaches students how to love and care—even for people they don’t know—and helps prepare them to adjust to change in life.
Leopold, a Bluffton defensive lineman and captain, was named second-team All-HCAC last fall and was also an Academic All-HCAC selection. He earned all-conference honorable mention in 2013.
He holds a 3.54 cumulative grade point average and is co-founder of the Exercise Science and Strength and Conditioning Club. The son of Jim and Sue Leopold, he has also served as president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and has volunteered with Special Olympics and performed community service at the Mennonite Memorial Home.
“From the moment I met Ryan, I knew he was a special person,” said Denny Dorrel, who, in his first year as head football coach in 2014, led Bluffton to a 6-2 HCAC record—its most conference wins ever. “His leadership ability and magnetic personality were keys to our 2014 season. Ryan worked daily to improve his play, all the while setting the example for his teammates of what it takes to be a champion.”
The Burcky Award is named for the late professor of physical education and coach who served Bluffton from 1922-68. He was inducted into the NAIA Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and, in 1970, the A.C. Burcky addition to Founders Hall was dedicated in his honor.
The Little Award, meanwhile, is based on scholarship, academic abilities and campus leadership, as well as four years of participation in at least one sport.
Kuzara, this year’s recipient, was a first-team All-HCAC pick in softball as a junior third baseman last year. In addition, she became the first Bluffton player to be honored as first-team All-Central Region since 2004.
A two-year team captain, she is now Bluffton’s career leader in runs scored, with 107 and counting, and currently ranks second in career home runs (18), tied for third in doubles (33), fourth in hits (148), and fifth both in batting average (.353) and RBI (93).
Kuzara is currently student teaching at Lima Bath Elementary School. She has also student taught at Elida Local Schools and tutored elementary students on campus, where she has been an assistant in the Learning Resource Center as well. She is the daughter of Mike and Ann Kuzara.
“Jess is an absolutely amazing young woman who is not only a fantastic softball player, but a great student, teammate, leader and person as well,” said her head coach, Heather Bruder. “She is a true example of everything Bluffton University stands for and aspires to be. I am proud of her accomplishments both as a student and a player, and am excited to see what her future holds after graduation.”
Kuzara’s award is named for Kathryn Little, who served in Bluffton’s health, physical education and recreation department and in athletics from 1958-74. She was a member of the first class inducted into the Bluffton Athletics Hall of Fame, also in 1974.