The Rambler way

Loyola student athletes bring passion and grit to their sports—and their studies

By Adam Doster

Basketball fans hands in the air making the Rambler hand sign.

Succeeding in the college classroom isn’t easy. Winning in a college uniform isn’t easy, either. Doing both simultaneously? That takes someone with the proper mix of talent and drive. Loyola University Chicago finds and nurtures those special recruits.

Loyola rosters have long been stuffed with high-achievers; the University’s graduation success rate was 96% in 2021—tied for fourth best in the entire country. Recently, those strong students have dominated in competition, too, racking up championship hardware on the turf, course, and hardwood.

Below, meet six dynamic student-athletes who exemplify all it means to be a Rambler. Find out what makes them tick. Then consult a schedule and figure out how to cheer them on.

Slam dunk

Men’s basketball veteran Aher Uguak always hits his shots—on the court and in the classroom

How could he pass up the chance? To play in another NCAA tournament. To pursue his master’s degree in marketing. To spend a few more months on the lakeside campuses that he adores. To win and learn at Loyola University Chicago a little bit longer.

When the NCAA granted student-athletes an extra year of eligibility relief to compensate for COVID-19 interruptions, men’s basketball player Aher Uguak asked around. Should he come back to Loyola as a “super senior” or start his professional hoops career, wherever that might take him? A consensus quickly formed; everyone he talked to—family members, coaches, friends who get paid to play—urged him to pounce on the unexpected and unusual opportunity. Three teammates presented with the same choice, including program mainstay Lucas Williamson, reached the same conclusion. All of a sudden, the Ramblers were loaded yet again.

“It’s an extra year to work more on my game,” Uguak says. “I don’t think professional basketball is going anywhere, and I’m still young. It’s an opportunity to get better.” 

It’s also the latest bend in Uguak’s winding yet productive career. A relative latecomer to the sport, Uguak—whose family fled South Sudan for Egypt, where Aher was born in 1998, before settling in Edmonton, Canada—didn’t play on an organized basketball team until he was 13. Football was his first passion. (Uguak misses the intensity of the gridiron but does not miss playing outside in subzero Canadian temperatures.)

He adapted to the hardwood quickly, initially earning a scholarship to the University of New Mexico before transferring to Loyola, ahead of the Ramblers’ magical 2018 campaign. He saw the floor the following season and hasn’t left it, carving out a crucial role during Loyola’s unprecedented string of success as a versatile wing defender. In 2021, the four-year starter and self-proclaimed “junkyard dog” was named the Missouri Valley Conference’s Most Improved Player, helping propel the Ramblers into the Sweet 16.

Loyola provided exactly what Uguak was seeking: the chance to compete at the highest level in sold-out arenas—and in the classroom. During his tenure, Uguak has spent significant time on the Water Tower Campus, learning the ins and outs of marketing at the Quinlan School of Business. Not wanting to limit his options, and fueled by a spirit of collaboration, he chose a major that could open a variety of doors. He loves how Loyola blends the urban (downtown classes) with the deeply collegiate (summers alongside Lake Michigan). A career in sports marketing or the business world awaits…whenever he hangs up his sneakers.

As he’s matured as a player and person, Uguak has learned the value of perspective. To achieve a goal, he tries not to get sucked too far into the past or launch himself too far into the future. Stay calm. Stay focused on the task at hand. Make the right play.

“Being in the moment,” Uguak says, “is the most important thing.” 

Precise mechanics

What do biophysics and volleyball have in common? Student-athlete Sarah Murczek, for starters

Sarah Murczek, a junior outside hitter on Loyola University Chicago women’s volleyball team, is all about vibes. After big plays, she reminds her teammates to relax and enjoy the moment. At an offseason retreat, it was Murczek who wrote the team’s mission statement, an eloquent reminder of what her Ramblers are seeking to accomplish on the court. Following one practice this fall, Murczek did her best to remember the statement verbatim:

“Our gym is a place to grow uncomfortably, hold each other accountable, and try something new every day while bringing our best selves to get that little bit better.” 

Head coach Amanda Berkley had originally recruited Murczek at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Berkley previously coached. Berkley came north in 2018 and convinced Murczek—a native of south suburban Oak Lawn—to stay closer to home. As a freshman at Loyola, it took Murczek a minute to find her footing. The previous winter, she’d been in a serious ATV accident, which required reconstructive elbow surgery; doctors inserted three plates and 10 pins in her non-dominant arm. Balancing her training and college coursework in biophysics, not a soft subject, proved initially demanding, too. “I came here and put so much pressure on myself, in both volleyball and in school, that my first semester was kind of a wreck,” she remembers. “My older teammates could tell that I was just stressed all the time.”

Loyola’s support staff made all the difference. Murczek met with tutors and advisers to figure out strategies for studying and time management. She’d take long walks with assistant coach Sondra Parys to seek guidance and clear her head. By her sophomore season, she was thriving in both the classroom and the gym, leading the team with 2.76 kills per set and snagging a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference honor roll.

“It’s not just about volleyball here,” Murczek says. “Everyone is super supportive and just wants us to be the best humans we can be.” 

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary science that investigates biological phenomena using approaches and methods from the world of physics. Murczek characterizes it as “the study of the super-small processes in our body.” One of her classes explored the inner ear and how sound waves are turned into mechanical energy and then transferred into the nervous system. It’s heady, complicated material. Grad school in atmospheric sciences is likely in her future.

Occasionally, Murczek will allow herself to consider all the ways in which physics is central to volleyball—the velocity of the ball, the angle of the set, the mechanics of how she lifts in the weight room. She’s received a ton of love from her physics classmates, a small but dedicated group who cheer her on at Gentile Arena and ask for updates after road trips. A handful even made the drive to Evanston in September for Murczek’s match against Northwestern University.

“I saw one of them reading about the chemistry and physics of clouds during timeouts,” she says. “I thought to myself, you guys are the best!

Pitch perfect

Men’s soccer player Fabian Becerra wants to attack health care administration like he does the net—with focus and creativity

It was a sunny September afternoon when Fabian Becerra first laid eyes on Chicago’s skyline. He’d flown in from Houston on an official visit to Loyola University Chicago, who was recruiting him to play soccer. An assistant coach picked Becerra up at O’Hare airport, veered down Devon Avenue, hooked around Sheridan Road, and jumped onto Lake Shore Drive. The setting left a deep and immediate impression—this city could feel like home.

“I had no idea what the winter was going to be like, though,” Becerra says now, a half-decade later. “So they kind of cheated me on that!” 

Becerra had spent his childhood in the warmer climates of California and Texas. He’d picked up soccer as a youngster; his uncle played professionally, as a penalty-swatting goalkeeper for the Mexican club Santos Laguna. Becerra, on the other hand, developed a knack for attacking, taking opponents off the dribble with creative footwork and earning a spot on the prestigious Texans SC Houston youth team. That’s when things got serious: training five days a week, high-stakes tournaments, interstate travel. To save time, he dropped the marimba, which he’d played in the high school band. The competition proved addicting.

Becerra himself became more communicative over his career, as his comfort level in Loyola’s program increased. He’s been a fixture in the attacking third for the Ramblers since he arrived, notching 12 goals on 75 shots and dishing out six assists. Along with five other teammates, he was added to the all-conference first team this past fall.

Soccer can be physically grueling, and it’s taken its toll on Becerra, who has already torn a meniscus in both knees. He’s toying with the idea of cycling, a lower-contact pursuit. And it’s fitting, perhaps, that Becerra has spent his time off the pitch figuring out ways to help people heal, as a student in the Master of Healthcare Administration program offered by the Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health. That track blends business management with medicine, an appealing mix for someone interested in both ethics and efficiency.

“I really like that you can impact people’s lives, mentally and physically,” Becerra says. “In an administrative role, you can also reach out to people’s communities and make sure their health is in the right place.” 

It’s his ambition to gain experience at one of Chicagoland’s major health care providers before relocating away from Chicago’s seasonal cold snaps. The skills in time management he developed as a student-athlete should transfer well. At Loyola, if his grades slip even remotely, his coaches and academic advisers “really get onto you.”

He felt buoyed by the broader student body, too, who have taken a strong interest in a soccer program on the rise. For big games at Loyola Soccer Park, it’s common to find raucous crowds of 500 or 750 waving their scarves and hollering for 90 minutes. The players notice. “DePaul is a big rival of ours,” Becerra says. “When we play them at their place, there are like 10 or 15 fans total.”

To feel embraced by the community is motivating. Becerra and his teammates “try to give them a good show.”

Goal oriented

As one of Loyola’s most decorated women’s soccer players, Abby Swanson still has something she’d like to achieve: a career in nursing

The game that changed it all for Loyola University Chicago midfielder Abby Swanson took place four seasons ago, at the end of the 2018 campaign. The women’s soccer team had qualified for their first NCAA tournament appearance in 11 years. Their first round opponent? Florida State University, perennial world beaters. With grit and moxie, the Ramblers battled the Seminoles to a first-half draw, only to concede a single goal in the 51st minute. Florida State would go on to win the national championship. Swanson, then just a freshman, played all 90 punishing minutes.

“That game shifted my perspective on everything,” she says. “I was 18 and playing against girls who were the top in the world for their ages.”

“We didn’t feel like we belonged. But once you get out there, you realize that we’re all just girls playing soccer. To play a team at that level and get the result that we did, it really set the tone for seasons to come.” 

The subsequent success is unprecedented in program history. Since Swanson arrived on campus, Loyola has posted a stunning 46-17-5 cumulative record and notched four straight Missouri Valley Conference titles. Swanson has been Loyola’s stalwart—the first Rambler to score a goal in an NCAA tournament game; a two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year; and the first Rambler to be named a United Soccer Coaches All-American, in 2020. She considers herself “a big lead by example kind of girl.” From the middle of the pitch, she directs traffic, keeping an even keel and exuding positivity. Even as a small child in her recreation leagues, Swanson “wasn’t really one to stand and just watch everything happen—always battling, tackling for the ball.”

Head coach Barry Bimbi likes to say he recruits “personalities,” women with a strong worth ethic and an optimistic perspective. To play for Loyola, “you have to be good at soccer,” Swanson says, “But you also have to be a good person to represent the University. And it shows on the field.”

It’s evident in the classroom, too. Swanson is training to be a nurse, following in the footsteps of her older siblings. Nursing offers a tangible way to help people in need. Swanson especially enjoys assisting geriatric patients, grandmas and grandpas with stories to share. And the flexibility to balance soccer with classes in the Niehoff School of Nursing—where professors ensure students have the skills they need to enter their first hospital or clinic with confidence—was a major selling point during her recruitment process.

During her career, Swanson has been named a State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Good Neighbor Award winner, a two-time MVC Scholar-Athlete, and a finalist for the NCAA’s prestigious Senior CLASS Award. When her soccer career eventually wraps up, she wants to pursue travel nursing, affording her the opportunity to experience all this country has to offer. Wherever she lands, she’ll feel ready for a challenge, like she does before every high-profile match.

“I try not to plan,” she says, “but I want to be prepared.” 

Grip and rip

Men’s golfer Devin Johnson loves solving problems in his classes—and on the green

It’s a cliche, but it also happens to be true: plenty of important business is conducted on the golf course. You grab some drinks, tee off, and talk shop. A sale is closed at the halfway house. The contours of a merger take shape on the 16th green.

Devin Johnson, a graduate student on Loyola University Chicago’s men’s golf team, has seen it happen up close. For eight years, he’s caddied and worked the bag room at Black Sheep Golf Club, 60 miles west of the Lake Shore Campus. When you’re lugging around somebody’s clubs, eavesdropping is unavoidable. “I’ve heard a lot of conversations,” he says, “and I’ve heard a lot of deals go down.”

Johnson’s dream job would be in marketing for a golf company. He earned a bachelor’s in marketing with a minor in management from the Quinlan School of Business and is now working towards his MBA, “to separate myself just a little more” from other candidates. “I love the problem-solving aspect of marketing,” he adds, “trying to market a certain product to certain people in a certain way.” In 2021, he was added to the Missouri Valley Conference Scholar-Athlete Team.

On both the links and in the classroom, Johnson considers himself organized and diligent. Golfing well requires both.

“There are so many variables—the weather, the lie, the wind,” he says. “You have to take it all into account.”

He learned the basics of the game as a youngster from his grandfather and perfected his skills at tiny Aurora Christian Schools, fine-tuning his short-game and coming to terms with the sport’s mental demands.

A family friend had a contact in Loyola’s athletic department, which is how Johnson landed on the radar of head coach Erik Hoops. Hoops, in turn, has provided Johnson with crucial pointers about course management and swing mechanics.

“Minor tweaks make big impacts,” Johnson says.“If I’m not swinging it well, it’s easy for him to pick up on that and tell me what I need to change mid-round.” 

Last spring, Johnson rewarded Hoops by becoming the first player in Loyola history to take home individual medalist honors at the MVC Championship. The Ramblers, in turn, won their first Valley team crown and made the program’s second NCAA regionals appearance. They’ll defend their conference trophy in April, in Paducah, Kentucky, returning seven of the roster’s nine MVC title winners.

Johnson is eager to wrap up his studies and make another run at the NCAA tournament. From there, he’ll take his Loyola diplomas and head into the real world. Deals are waiting. Somebody else can carry his bag.

Stomping ground

Claire Hengesbaugh advocates for the preservation of the very terrain she runs through as a student athlete

Claire Hengesbaugh runs almost every day along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail. A senior distance runner on Loyola University Chicago’s women’s cross country and track and field teams, she can hop on about a mile or so from the Lake Shore Campus before jutting down the shoreline, watching Lake Michigan’s waves lap in as she scoots southward. In Uptown, past the crushed gravel around Cricket Hill, she often weaves into the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary; at 15 acres, it’s a quiet haven with a butterfly meadow and indigenous vegetation. “A good escape,” she calls it, and an ideal opportunity to commune with the natural world.

Hengesbaugh started running on a lark the summer before high school, in west suburban St. Charles. One of her best friends was curious about cross country, and Hengesbaugh figured she could meet more people if she tagged along. It hooked her right away. “I have an emotional response to running,” she says.

“After a race, I’ll just feel so pumped up; it’s hard to sleep, especially in the track season when we race at night! My heart is just pounding for hours as I’m replaying the race. It’s that chemical high—your body responding to such a hard effort.” 

Running also affords Hengesbaugh the opportunity to spend more time outdoors. Environmentalism is a passion; Hengesbaugh enrolled at Loyola primarily because of its strong environmental science program. “To push myself,” she says, “I knew I was a person who needed to care about what they were studying.” And she sees a throughline connecting her studies with her athletic career. Hengesbaugh’s exercise-induced asthma, for one, is triggered when the air quality dips. “On a philosophical level, “ she says, “when you’re running you have to be sensitive to the weather, to changes in climate.”

Over four years, the wildlife lover has dug into her biology and ecology classes in the School of Environmental Sustainability, honing her programming skills in the process. She’s well on her way to earning a master’s degree in environmental science and sustainability, taking advantage of Loyola’s five-year dual degree option. She’s no slouch in running shoes, either, anchoring a Rambler cross country squad that has taken home three straight Missouri Valley Conference crowns. As a senior, Hengesbaugh was named to the All-MVC First Team. The season prior, she notched all-conference honors in both the 3,000 and 10,000 meters. To top it all off, she was named an all-academic selection by the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.

To explain her success, Hengesbaugh points to her coaches’ personalized training plans and their attention to detail. “Every single part of your personal growth is supported,” she says.

“When you’re enjoying life and you have things in balance, you run faster.” 

This spring, she has ambitions to qualify again for the NCAA regional track meet, where she finished 39th in the 5,000 meters a season ago. When her master’s degree is in hand, she’ll likely pursue a career in environmental education or analysis. Recently, she’s taken an interest in mapping, a natural entry point for work doing land or soil surveys. “I get so much from the natural environment,” she says. “I feel like my studies prepare me to protect it.”

Wherever she ends up, her sneakers will be laced.