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It’s a Family Affair for Five Sets of GCU Lions

Softball players.

The GCU Lions include more than 275 athletes who consider themselves “family.” But the five sets of siblings competing in soccer, softball, volleyball, and basketball bring literal meaning to the term—their talent and keen sense of competition are truly all in the family.

Last fall, as GCU’s Christopher McKibben, associate director of athletics, communications, and operations, began to plan for the academic year, he realized something: “It dawned on me that we had five sets of siblings competing,” he said. Among the 275+ athletes who compete as GCU Lions are:

  • Twins Malaya and Malia Black (Harrisburg, NC), softball
  • George and Yianni Kavarakas, Ocean Twp. (Ocean Twp. High School), soccer
  • Twins Kaitlin and Kristen Lister, Toms River (Toms River East High School), soccer
  • Shikel and Shana Rayside, Lakewood (Lakewood High School); track & field (Shikel) and volleyball (Shana)
  • Jaclynn and Jaime Sweeney, Toms River (Toms River East), volleyball

Dynamic Duos

GCU softball head coach Nicole Degenhardt was on the road at a tournament when she spotted Malaya and Malia Black (pictured above), who are wrapping up their freshman year at GCU.

“They are amazing athletes, and I am very excited to see how they grow and develop over the next four years,” said Coach Degenhardt, who has seen other successful recruits from the Blacks’ high school travel team. “They are both be impact players right away on the field for us. They are both hard-working and committed athletes who will do amazing things in their career.”

The two, who are a long way from their North Carolina home, were drawn to GCU because of the family atmosphere of the school, said Malaya. And that includes the size of the classes, she added. On average, most classes have 13 to 15 students, making learning very personal. Being part of of such a close-knit organization also made their winning 2018 softball season that more magical. The #3 Lions conclude the campaign with a record of 30-23, a full 16 more victories than 2017.

Similarly, the Lions’ strong sense of belonging intrigued soccer player Kaitlin Lister.

“One thing that drew me to GCU was the bond the soccer team showed when I went to a clinic over the summer before becoming a freshman,” she recalled. “To see that they were so close was something that I looked forward to because I knew that it was something I would eventually have with the team.”

Athletic Excellence: All in the Family?

There is also something to be said for playing alongside someone who doesn’t just ‘feel’ like family—but is part of your family.

On the pro level, there are famous sibling sets like Venus and Serena Williams, Peyton and Eli Manning, Seth and Steph Curry, and coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. Their experiences are often a source of curiosity among fans. Among psychologists and scientists, sibling athletes are a source of research material.

For example, in March 2017, the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the United Kingdom’s University of Central Lancashire examined sibling athletes’ talent development and some of the common themes they experience. The list included competition, closeness, support, empathy, training, recreation, ambition, resilience, rivalry, the pursuit of success, and more.

One finding reinforced what other researchers have said before: sibling rivalry “can positively impact talent development and that siblings can contribute to the development of resilience—a fundamental psychological characteristic that can help athletes to cope with high-level challenges.”

A Certain Connection

kavarakas brothers lions
George (left) and his brother Yanni, members of the GCU Men’s soccer team.

The bottom line? Competing with a family member is a unique experience, according to GCU student-athletes who take the field—and the court—with their siblings.

“I have a connection and chemistry with a player that I cannot find with any other teammate,” GCU men’s soccer player George Kavarakas said, referring to his brother, Yanni. The two got into the game when they were about eight years old, “mostly because of our father, who played semi-pro and instilled a love for the game in us.”

Fast forward 10 years and Dino Raso, GCU’s men’s soccer head coach, was the deciding factor in getting George to commit to Georgian Court.

“Coach Dino remained interested through the whole process, which I really appreciated,” recalled George. “Yianni chose GCU mostly because I persuaded him to come and promised him that he would play a lot and be part of a very successful program.”

Siblings Offer Motivation, Inspiration

Looking out for the other sibling is important.

“What I like most about being teammates with my sister,” said Kaitlin Lister, who has played soccer with sister Kristen since they were four years old, “is that we get to experience everything we individually achieve—or that our team achieves—together.”

And for Lakewood native Shana Rayside, having sister Shikel nearby always meant “I had my own personal motivator on the court and field with me all the time, pushing me to do better in practice and when it was game time.”

Shana and Shikel make time for a selfie!

The volleyball player was drawn to GCU after seeing the university team show up at her high school practices.

“I remember going to their games, thinking to myself, ‘These girls are really good.’ Then, when choosing the college I wanted to attend, GCU stood out to me, not only because their volleyball team was good, but because I was welcomed with open arms by everyone the first time I visited campus.”

Her teammate, Jaclynn Sweeney, took to the court last fall with her sister Jamie.

“In fourth grade, I knew volleyball was going to be my biggest passion. I needed someone to practice with, so my younger sister seemed to be the most convenient victim,” Jaclynn joked. “In the sixth grade, Jamie decided to start playing so that her years of being my practice partner would not go to waste.”

For Jaclynn, the privilege of competing with her sister at the same college their mother attended (Leigh Burgess Sweeney ’91), is beyond special.

“Being recruited to play the sport I love at the Division II level, all while competing my college degree,” she said, “was a dream come true.”

Aerial view of GCU.

About Georgian Court University

Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. GCU is a comprehensive, coeducational university with a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women. As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 2,100 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates also make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings. The main campus is located in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students at other locations, such as GCU at BrookdaleGCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online certificate and degree programs.

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