THE COME-BACK KATIES
Sports teams' victories on the track, and in the gym and on the courts, have boosted recruitment, retention and reputation at St. Kate's. Go, Wildcats!
BY JOHN ROSENGREN
PHOTOS BY JOHN DANICIC
St. Kate's athletic teams have always been committed to success, but scoreboards haven't always reflected it. The Wildcats hit a rough patch from the mid-1980s through much of the '90s, but pride in St. Kate's athletics is rising again, now that the scores and team rankings are climbing.
Momentum is building. A concentrated effort to improve the athletics department over the past decade has yielded more varsity sports and more recruited athletes at St. Catherine than ever before. Various Wildcats teams have risen in the conference standings and earned respect. Individual athletes are setting school records.
Athletes also are performing well in the classroom, with higher grade-point averages and graduation rates than their non-athlete peers. St. Kate's athletics have reached a high-water mark in the school's history — and are aiming higher.
Exactly how and why St. Kate's athletics program was shaken in the 1980s and '90s is a matter of conjecture. One theory is that Title IX inspired other colleges and universities to improve their women's sports programs. The 1972 educational amendment, Title IX made it illegal to discriminate between the sexes in any program receiving federal financial assistance. St. Catherine maintained its commitment to women's athletics while co-ed schools in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) soared ahead by raising women's programs to robust men's levels.
By the 1980s, St. Catherine athletics suffered compared with the 12 other MIAC schools. St. Kate's dropped basketball, a flagship sport, after the 1986–87 season because the team had too few players to compete in the conference.
In the mid-'90s St. Kate's athletics was reinvigorated. Then Athletic Director Sheila Brown and Senior Vice President Colleen Hegranes, a vice president and the dean of students at the time, spearheaded an effort to rebuild the program. A major rationale was that students' involvement in strong extracurricular activities strengthens their commitment to the College.
"We decided that building our athletics program was a critical enrollment-management strategy," says Brian Bruess, vice president for enrollment and dean of student affairs.
The College invested in new athletics facilities with the backing of the Butler Family Foundation, which gave a $1.5 million gift to St. Catherine to name and build the Aimee and Patrick Butler Sports and Fitness Center. The Butler family's ties to St. Catherine went back some 50 years. Patrick Butler was a trustee from 1956 to 1971, succeeding his uncle Robert Butler, who was a trustee from 1934 to 1952. The Center opened in 1994 with a sophisticated pool (one coach calls it "the fastest in the MIAC"), a gym and an impressive weight room.
St. Catherine reinstated basketball in 1995 and added soccer and hockey in 1998. The College also hired full-time coaches who dedicated themselves to recruiting in addition to coaching, a cornerstone of the enrollment strategy. "As we hired coaches, recruiting skyrocketed and really helped build our program," Stacey says.
Division III programs like St. Kate's cannot lure athletes with scholarships the way Division I or Division II schools can. Instead, they build relationships with scholar-athletes who thrive on the academic excellence and personal attention of a Division III school. Today, St. Catherine coaches make phone calls daily and travel across the state to watch high school games and meet potential Katies and their families. They're likely to bump into other MIAC coaches interested in the same prospects.
"The MIAC is extremely competitive because the main pool of students is in Minnesota," Stacey says. "That's why it's so important that the coaches get out and develop relationships with recruits."
BOTH ATHLETICS AND ACADEMICS
St. Kate's longstanding emphasis on a rigorous liberal arts program is an important part of the pitch. Coaches want to attract students who are a good fit both intellectually and athletically.
"When I'm out recruiting, I talk about the majors students are looking at," says Madge Makowske, head softball coach, associate athletics director and compliance officer for the athletics department. "Softball is about three months out of the year. Attending school is nine months. Athletes need to be successful academically."
Stacey, who is assistant tennis coach in addition to athletics director, says his coaches emphasize strong academics, small class sizes and teaching-oriented faculty members who care about their students. "Strong students become strong athletes because they're dedicated to what they do and they try to be successful at it," he says.
And then there's the pitch that few others can claim: The entire athletics program at St. Kate's centers on women's sports. "Historically, the number one focus of co-ed colleges and universities has been men's programs," Stacey says. "When fans talk about the basketball team or the swimming team, it's understood they're talking about the men's team unless they specifically say women's team. Here, we're always talking about the women's team."
St. Kate's recruiting efforts have resulted in almost twice the number of athletes (about 165 this year involved in nine varsity sports), more recruited athletes (60 last year, compared with fewer than 10 a decade ago); and more sports. The swell of athletes has prompted the school to create junior varsity basketball and soccer teams in the past two years, and a new junior varsity volleyball program is on the horizon. St. Catherine also has added cheer-leading, competitive dance, lacrosse and rowing to its roster of club sports, with an additional 40 participants.
Varsity teams — including basketball, hockey, track and field, and tennis — have had some of their greatest successes in recent years. "Ten years ago, I never dreamed we could be as competitive as we are at this point," says Stacey. "Our growth has been beyond what we expected, but we still want to win MIAC championships."
Athletics recruiting has also paid off in academic success. St. Kate's scholar-athletes have posted a 3.16 grade-point average over the past 10 years, higher than the average for students not involved in athletics. All teams have posted grade-point averages exceeding 3.0 in the past two years. This year, the cross-country team won national academic honors.
The average retention rate for student-athletes has been more than 5 percentage points higher than that of non-athletes over the past decade.
The athletics teams' success makes it easier to attract top student-athletes who will further the teams' improvement — and it creates a strong reputation for the College. "There's a clear understanding across the institution about the value of a strong athletics program," Bruess says. "It's essential to our continued growth and development. Having a vibrant athletics program brings an exciting energy to the whole campus."
JOHN ROSENGREN is an award-winning freelance journalist and son of a St. Catherine alumna.
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