The Bryan College Department of Athletics staff is proud to announce the winners of this year’s Lion of Valor award are Heidi Smith and Wade Weinburger. It’s only fitting that both of these outstanding student-athletes are members of spring sports teams. The award is given to the top male and female athlete at Bryan. Consideration is given to those student-athletes who not only excel in the respective sport, but more importantly, model the character qualities of Christ on and off the field of play; who remain steadfast and loyal to the success of the team—an encourager of others, selfless, dedicated to the task of building-up people and strengthening relationships; and who possess an unwavering commitment to "fight the good fight" of faith with the tenacity, might, and valor of the Lion of Judah.
The start of the 2019-20 academic year marked the 90th-year since Bryan College’s inception, and while no one could have anticipated or predicted the unusual events that unfolded in the spring semester, the Bryan students proved they were up to the challenge. Students were sent home for spring break, not knowing the date to return to campus wouldn’t ever come. First, it was no face-to-face classes, and then one after another, it was mission trips, banquets, performances, chapel services, and all college events cancelled. All departments felt the immediate impact of the virus, altering their norm whether it was in the form of mastering the art of online teaching or keeping in contact as a constant encourager despite being states or even continents apart.
One group unable to escape the effects of the virus was student-athletes. These individuals show true resolve each year, handling the academic load of a college student while investing a tremendous amount of time to their team at practices, home games, and countless hours spent on busses traveling to far-off destinations in representing their institution. Majority of these student-athletes have competed in their respective sport since a very young age, making their sport a significant part of their identity.
When COVID-19 brought a halt to all activities, the winter and spring sports were unable to escape unscathed. The women’s basketball program completed their second consecutive undefeated conference campaign, three-peated as Appalachian Athletic Conference Regular-Season Champions, and punched their ticket to the National Tournament for a fourth consecutive year. For just the second time in program history, the Lions secured a first-round win and were showing no signs of slowing down as they set their sight on the round of 16. Before top-ranked Bryan could continue their historic year, COVID-19 forced an immediate cancellation of all NAIA winter championships, cutting the Lions’ time short and sending them home early with a remarkable 29-2 overall record.
The sports of baseball and softball managed to get through a fraction of their schedule before hearing the news of the abrupt ending to their seasons. Outdoor track and field were only days away from their first meet before the cancellation of their year, and the golf teams saw action in one tournament of their spring season prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Despite the hard work and preparation all year long, these student-athletes had their seasons swiped away. In a time where these individuals were pushed apart with no control of their situation, their response was inspirational. Even though life wasn’t fair and took away something they held dear, the Lion Pride met COVID-19 head-on in the form of daily devotional videos, creative videos passing a soccer ball or bat to each other while being miles apart, and even taking to social media to share their reflections during this difficult time.
Dating back to 1960, students, faculty, and staff have been recognized in an Honors Day Chapel. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the college community wasn’t able to come together in a final assembly to recognize students for their outstanding achievements both inside and outside of the classroom. However, Bryan released a digitally-formatted program on Wednesday to honor the students. The Bryan Athletic Department is proud of the students maintaining high academic standards and exhibiting a strong worth ethic and Christian testimony.
Smith, a native of Cookeville, Tennessee, is graduating this May with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Exercise and Health Science, Pre-Therapy option. The senior middle infielder has been a steady representative to the AAC softball All-Academic Team and Champions of Character Team, recognizing those who carry a cumulative grade-point average of 3.25 or higher and best represent the five core values of the NAIA Champions of Character Program: respect, integrity, responsibility, servant leadership, and sportsmanship. She’s wrapping up a shortened senior campaign in promising fashion where the Lions battled for a perfect 6-0 conference record and 12-7 overall record, which included wins against a top-15 team and a top-5 team. Smith started in all but one of her 155 collegiate contests, accumulating 136 hits with a career batting average of .292. She also compiled 91 runs scored, 70 runs batted in, 22 doubles, 4 triples, 5 homeruns, and 38 stolen bases. Her career fielding saw a percentage of .940 with 353 putouts and 260 assists.
“Heidi excelled as an athlete,” remarked Bryan Head Softball Coach, Mark Ritchhart. “She’s tough, talented, and a true competitor—a warrior—a Lion! She was my captain for three years ever since I arrived, and she has undoubtedly been one of the top leaders of my 35 years of coaching. This young woman is a perfect representation of our softball program, athletic department, and school, showing Jesus Christ on and off the field! Her Christlike character, spirited encouragement, and passionate leadership in putting the team’s best interest above herself has led her to be the perfect selection of the Lion of Valor honor.”
Weinburger is an outfielder for Bryan baseball and came to Dayton from James Cistern, Bahamas. The senior is wrapping up his final year and will be receiving a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Exercise and Health Science. Weinburger has been an anchor to the Lions’ deadly presence at the plate, helping earn the reputation as a powerful hitting program. Over the past four years, Weinburger has started in all 189 games and been a perennial standout hitter in the NAIA, ranking amongst the best in homeruns, runs scored, runs batted in, and total bases.
His 22 homers belted in a single season are the 2nd-most in program history. He also owns the record for runs scored and runs batted in. He’s sent 54 of his 217 total career connections over the fence and turned 29 into doubles and 10 into triples. He’s scored 206 times and driven in 198 runs while totaling 428 total bases and stealing 41 bags. For his career, Weinburger owns a .320 batting average and a .631 slugging percentage. Weinburger is one of just 11 members in Bryan baseball history to earn the distinction of All-American. He was part of a 2018 team that captured the program’s first-ever AAC regular-season championship and was a part of the most successful regular-season in program history. He’s been honored as an All-AAC member and made his mark being crowned AAC Freshman of the Year his debut season. This year, Weinburger and his teammates pieced together an overall record of 14-6 and conference mark of 4-2 while going 9-2 on their own Senter Field. Four of their victories included sweeps of a top-25 team and one receiving votes.
Bryan Baseball Head Coach, Clint McAuley, said “Wade has been at Bryan for quite a few years now, and it has been impressive to watch his character grow and develop during his time here. That is especially true with the past year. Wade has stepped up as a leader on the team and within the Bryan community. His involvement with Bryan ministries has grown, and so has his relationship with the Lord. He is a man I am proud to represent Bryan, the athletic department, and the baseball team.”
To view the complete list of awards and recipients, as well as the faculty and staff citations of merit, click here.