San Antonio – Former St. Mary’s men’s golfer Matt Vela learned at an early age the benefits of displaying class on the golf course.

“I used to play in the Southern Texas PGA tournament when I was in middle school, and I was playing with a lot of good golfers when I wasn’t as good,” said Vela, who graduated from St. Mary’s in May with a degree in exercise and sport science. “But I carried myself in a way where I had respect for them. I just accepted my skill level and learned from them.

“I think I gained some respect from them by showing good sportsmanship.”

Nearly a decade later, Vela’s sportsmanship is still drawing notice.

The former Rattlers standout has been awarded the Heartland Conference Sportsmanship Male Athlete of the Year Award, which was announced by the conference this week.

The honor is given annually to the male athlete from the conference who distinguishes himself through demonstrated acts of sportsmanship and ethical behavior.

“Matthew is a model of composure and respect, whose demeanor often stands out to opposing coaches,” St. Mary’s golf coach Wes Skidmore said. “He believes in the integrity of the game and understands what it means to be a student-athlete.”

Vela, the 2011 Heartland Conference Men’s Golfer of the Year, made a career of excelling on and off the course. He earned PING All-Region recognition following the 2010-2011 season and was named to the CoSIDA/ESPN the Magazine Academic All-District team. He also helped the Rattlers to an NCAA regional appearance while managing a 3.36 grade-point average in the classroom.

He is also the school-record holder for most rounds played (125) and most rounds shooting par or better (39), and ranks second in career scoring average (73.27).

And Vela did it all while maintaining a uniquely distinguishable sense of humility on the course. Skidmore says he cannot remember how many times opposing coaches and players would comment about Vela’s respectful demeanor, and Skidmore notes he never so much as heard Vela use a single bit of foul language in four years with the program.

“It’s a huge honor, especially for a golfer,” said Vela, whose ballot will go onto the national level for consideration for the NCAA Sportsmanship Award. “I compete with a lot of good guys, and it’s nice to hear compliments from them when they talk about me to other people, saying things like, ‘This guy’s a good sport. He’s a nice guy.’ I take pride in that.”

Vela said he also has taken pride in how he has worn the St. Mary’s logo on his chest.

“Even academically, I’ve tried to show good morals and respect in the classroom,” said Vela, who now intends to turn pro as a golfer. “My professors and teacher don’t really know me as a golfer, but they know me as a student. Combining the University aspect with the golfing aspect, I think I’ve put those together pretty well.

“Hopefully, I’ve represented St. Mary’s how everyone would want.”

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