Across the nation, thousands of college athletes are enduring their last semester of college, taking midterms and finals, spending time with friends and figuring out the future, in tandem with their last semester as competitive athletes. When graduation comes and seasons finish, two significant parts of their identity – college student and college athlete  – will come to an end. 

These students, including those at Denison University, have unique personalities, unique circumstances and unique perspectives on what it means to make the most out of their final season. 

Credit: Zoie Fisher

Andy Mackler

At this time of the year in 2021, tennis player Andy Mackler was working toward a dream: Become an All-American.

Now, the senior has a shot at becoming Denison University’s all-time leader in singles, doubles and combined wins for men’s tennis. But the Florida native’s perspective on what really matters about the sport has changed throughout his time in Granville.

Sure, it would be nice to break those records. But when he set individual athletic goals for his last season at Denison, one stood above the rest: Have fun.

“I’m not gonna get college tennis after this,” Mackler said. “Whether I’m playing really well, or really terribly, I need to enjoy it.”

Ana Ortiz DeRosa

Ana Ortiz DeRosa has to navigate finishing out a stellar athletic career while compromised. She walked on to the Denison women’s lacrosse team after competing in field hockey during the fall of 2020. Between the start of 2021 and the 2022 fall preseason, the Massachusetts native developed into a player that her coaches thought had All-American potential in 2023. But a preseason knee injury robbed her of the chance, and Ortiz DeRosa missed her entire junior season.

Credit: Zoie Fisher

After undergoing surgery and missing over a year of valuable practice time, she is back in action as the Big Red prepare for season play to begin Feb. 24 at Gettysburg College. But rust and a reconstructed knee have forced Ortiz DeRosa, once keen on earning individual lacrosse accolades, to reassess what a successful senior campaign would look like.

“I just want to play,” she said.

Paramount to making that possible, she realizes, is staying healthy.

To decrease her chances of suffering another injury, Ortiz DeRosa is taking nutritional supplements, sharpening her diet and becoming more intentional about hydration. She is also choosing sleep over social time more often than she felt necessary before.

“I want to do everything I can to stay healthy,” she said. “I cannot go through that again.”

While the extra sacrifices are beneficial to Ortiz DeRosa for the sake of lacrosse, they present her an emotional dichotomy. When she considers what she loves about Denison, lacrosse is just one slice of the pie. She has made friends that will last a lifetime, and she wants to embrace the time she has left with them in college.

“It has definitely been a hard balance to find at the end of the day,” she said. “I want to go out. I want to hang out with my friends. I want to stay out late. But that affects performance.”

While Ortiz DeRosa is pushing through the end phases of the injury recovery process, another standout senior athlete finds himself at the beginning of it.

Isaiah Kessler 

Isaiah Kessler had a stellar junior season for the Denison men’s track and field team. In the winter, he earned an All-North Coast Athletic Conference distinction after finishing third in the pole vault at the indoor championship tournament. Then, in the spring, he snagged two more All-Conference nods after repeating as third in pole vault and finishing second in 400 meter hurdles at the outdoor championship tournament.

Credit: Zoie Fisher

This year, the Baltimore native had hopes of reaching the National Collegiate Athletic Association outdoor tournament in both the pole vault and hurdles. And he had good reason to believe that was an attainable goal; he set a personal record in the pole vault at the first meet of the semester on Jan. 13 at 4.40 meters.

But earlier this season, he re-injured the same knee that sidelined him for much of his sophomore outdoor season. Kessler will miss the remainder of the indoor season and all of the outdoor season as he awaits surgery on March 1.

He has maintained a positive attitude throughout what most athletes would consider a period of grief, stripped of the chance to finish out his last season of collegiate athletics. But knowing he could have built on his many previous accomplishments as an athlete stings, Kessler said.

“I had (national qualification) sort of right within grasp, and now I’ve gotta get surgery instead,” he said. “I think that has been the hardest roadblock.” 

The injury has forced Kessler to reassess the plans and goals he has for his last semester at Denison. Right now, he is focusing on strengthening his knee before surgery. But after surgery, he will be serving his team as an assistant coach for pole vault and hurdles, while also progressing through rehab. As a coach, he hopes to help other members on the squad see what they are capable of.

“I want to put in perspective that our teammates are able to compete at a very high level – and I think sometimes they don’t always believe that about themselves,” Kessler said. “(I want to) reinstill some of that in our younger teammates, and build some of that confidence early on, because I wish I had some of that in my earlier years going into higher level competitions.”

Ever-optimistic, he still has goals outside of athletics for the coming months. He plans on cherishing the time he has left at Denison with the many people he has connected with over the years.

“Denison has provided me with so much over these years, whether I’ve knowingly acknowledged it or not,” he said. “I want to slow down and really appreciate those smaller moments.”

An old injury has added complexity to the end of Ortiz DeRosa’s lacrosse run, and a new injury halted Kessler’s swan song prematurely. Even for senior spring athletes not facing extraordinary circumstances, though, confronting the looming ends of both college and college athletics can be melancholy in of itself.

Kate Griffin

Take Kate Griffin, for instance. 

When Griffin was a high school student at The Colorado Springs School, her college decision came down to Denison, where she could golf, and Colorado State University, where she would be giving up the sport. She chose the latter, but ended up transferring to Denison for her sophomore year, because she missed golf and wanted to be part of a small-campus community.

Credit: Zoie Fisher

Griffin has been excelling on the links ever since. As a sophomore in the 2021-2022 season, she was named First Team All-North Coast Athletic Conference. As a junior, she received that recognition again, in addition to a spot on the Women’s Golf Coaches Association All-Region Team. This season, she hopes to record a round under par in competition and improve her consistency.

But these ambitions can mentally tax her even when she doesn’t have a club in hand. 

“I think it’s hard, because being an athlete at Denison, we want to be competitive, and we want to win and compete and all of that. But at what point does that start to take away from other parts of your life?

“I’m really trying to make an emphasis on being present when I’m at golf, but not letting it consume all of my thoughts when I’m not doing it.”

While Griffin considers golf a significant part of her life at Denison, it is safe to say that it is not her whole life at Denison. She works as a senior docent in the admissions office,  is a fellow in the health, exercise, and sport studies department, and is also a founding board member of Crossover for Change, a nonprofit that provides athletic opportunities for young women in Uganda. And last spring, she was named a Denison Top-50 Scholar-Athlete.

Juggling all of that with golf, while also trying to soak in every last moment of the college experience, can feel like a struggle at times.

“It’s just crazy. It’s a lot of emotions, and I feel for all senior athletes right now, because if their sport means as much to them as golf means to me, then this can be a really hard, sad and emotional time.”

Jack Nimesheim writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donationsfrom readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.