June 2009 Cover SCAN - St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
June 2009
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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!


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.

A Pivotal Decade

The number and quality of St. Kate's athletes has increased in the past decade, and so has the competitiveness of Wildcats teams. In the past eight years, five varsity Wildcats teams have qualified for the MIAC play-offs.

The tennis team finished second in the MIAC in 2004 and ranked among the top 20 Division III teams in the nation that year. It ranked in the top five in the MIAC from 2002 to 2005.

In 2008–09, the basketball team tied its record for most wins in the MIAC (12); the hockey and basketball teams finished in the top half of the conference; the swimming and diving team set eight school records, and coach Nicole Hempler was named MIAC Coach of the Year; and the track-and-field team finished seventh at the conference championship, tying the 2002 school record for most points at a meet.
"We're building on the commitment of athletes from the past who worked just as hard as any current athletes," says Eric Stacey, director of athletics at St. Catherine since 1997. Today's administration clearly understands the importance of a strong athletics program, he adds.

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.

Winning Records


Athletics was considered core to a woman's education at St. Catherine even before Fontbonne Hall opened with its gymnasium and swimming pool in 1932. Field hockey, basketball, volleyball and synchronized swimming were some of the favorite physical activities on campus in the early days.

In the 1970s women's competitive sports gained momentum. Here are some highlights of St. Catherine's athletic history.

  • In the 1920s, when few competitive sports existed for women, St. Kate's beat the University of Minnesota in basketball.
  • For much of the 20th century, the shining stars of St. Catherine athletics included the Dolphin Club, the beloved synchronized swimming team, which performed instead of competing.
  • One of Minnesota's most decorated female athletes, tennis star Jeanne Arth '56 won three straight doubles titles (1954–1956) at the National College Girls' Tournament. She was also the national singles runner-up three times. After graduating, Arth went on to win two U.S. Open titles and one Wimbledon title in doubles.
  • The 1976 volleyball team ranked sixth nationally with a season record of 50–5. Three years later, the volleyball team won the Minnesota Association of Intercollegiate Athletics state championship.
  • The 1983 volleyball team was 10–0 in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play and went to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III Nationals. The team ended the season in fifth place nationally.
  • The swim team provided St. Kate's with the first ever All-American (Jenny Berstrom-Brenner '84) in 1980, the first-ever individual national champion (Sue Heidelberg Anderson '83) in 1981 and a seventh-place team finish at the NCAA Division III Nationals in 1983.

— Elizabeth Child
A formidable new competitor loomed as well. The University of St. Thomas went co-ed in 1977 and vied for many of the same student-athletes as St. Catherine.

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."


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.

"Historically, the number one focus of co-ed colleges and universities has been men's programs. 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." — ERIC STACEY, director of athletics

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.

Athletics recruiting has 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.
The four-year graduation rate for student-athletes has been more than 7 percentage points higher over the same period. "Our athletes are some of our best and brightest students," Bruess says. "That flies in the face of what people think of college athletics, with some of the big Division I programs known for corruption and academic violations."

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."


From Tennis Court to Judge's Court

Athletics and academics have been a large part of Susie Hallquist's experience during her four years at St. Kate's. A two-sport athlete, she was an All-MIAC tennis player in 2008 and ran one of the 10 fastest 6K races in school history.

An honors student with a 3.915 GPA, the senior from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, has been offered scholarships at two law schools. But attending a women's college has proven the most formative aspect of Hallquist's college years.

"I wanted to go to an all-women's college," Hallquist says. "Going to a co-ed high school, I saw how young women sometimes are hindered by an environment where they don't feel they can speak out. Coming here and seeing confident women was a big plus."

Recruited to play tennis at Hamline University, St. Olaf College and St. Kate's, the two-time All-Conference tennis player wanted to meet her future teammates before picking a college. At St. Kate's, she was impressed with tennis players who were the kind of women she wanted to be.

Hallquist has run cross country along with playing tennis at St. Kate's. That wasn't an option in high school because the two seasons are both in the fall. But she had run to stay fit. With the college tennis season in the spring, she decided to go out for the cross-country team at St. Kate's, a decision supported by her tennis coach, Ben Hageseth, and reinforced by her cross-country coach, Mike Henderson.

Henderson inspired her to excel in her first year running cross country. "He gets impressive results without being overpowering," she says. "He focuses on athletes as people, realizing there are other stresses in your life and that we're there to be students first."

She ran her personal best and played first singles and first doubles on the tennis team, but it was in the all-female environment that Hallquist especially thrived. An English major with a Spanish minor, she has enjoyed St. Kate's professors who "seek out women's perspectives when they're hidden or not talked about." A Korean adoptee, she has appreciated the College's multicultural view of the world.

"Studying at St. Kate's has been a very full experience rather than just looking at your field of study," she says. "That's a hugely important, vital piece to our community — that we feel OK sharing with people we might not know that well."

JOHN ROSENGREN is an award-winning freelance journalist and son of a St. Catherine alumna.


A True Home Team

Laura Kalbfell started playing basketball in second grade. It wasn't long before she was dreaming of playing college ball. By her senior year at Lakeville South, the team captain and two-time All-Conference star had set the school scoring record with more than 1,000 points. College hoops became a slam-dunk.

Kalbfell played for a small public university in Minnesota, but friction with the coach turned her dream into a nightmare. She quit the team midseason. That's when things started to turn around.

St. Kate's basketball coach Gary Rufsvold invited Kalbfell to tour the campus and attend a basketball game. She liked the sense of community and the players on the team. And she clicked with Coach Rufsvold. Kalbfell transferred to St. Catherine at the beginning of her sophomore year.

The 6-foot forward was off and running. She led the MIAC in scoring — a first for a St. Catherine basketball player — netting 451 points in 25 games. That also broke the College's single-season scoring record.

More important, basketball is helping her in academics and in life. "The coaching staff really cares about how you're doing," she says. "They ask, 'How are your classes? Do you need help with anything?'"

Smaller class sizes have helped Kalbfell get to know her professors. That support has boosted the physical therapy major to a 3.4 grade-point average. And the discipline of athletics has kept her motivated and taught her to manage her time well. "I do better academically when I'm playing sports," she says. "I love it here."

Scholars on the Run

The 2008–09 College of St. Catherine cross country team was named to the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic team. The team's grade-point average was 3.471. Teams considered for the honor must have competed at a National Collegiate Athletic Association regional meet and must have a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 3.10.


Tending Academic and Athletic Goals

Mel Gerten had toured the University of St. Thomas and thought about playing club hockey at the University of Minnesota. But once she visited St. Kate's, the goalie from Inver Grove Heights knew where she belonged.

"I didn't visit anywhere else," she says. "I knew I wanted to come here."

It wasn't a storied hockey tradition that attracted her. Hockey coach Brad Marshall recruited the Simley High standout — varsity captain, academic All-State and two-time All-Conference — with no false promises. St. Kate's hockey program is only 11 years old and still in the building stages.

No, Gerten fell in love with the campus. As she toured the 110-acre grounds in St. Paul, Gerten could picture herself sitting in the classrooms of Whitby Hall, studying by the Dew Drop pond on autumn days and lifting weights in the Butler Center.

Marshall did tell Gerten the young program would give her the chance to play as a first-year student, which is exactly what the competitive goaltender wanted. "I didn't want to sit on the bench," she says. "I came here to play."

Gerten quickly established herself. She started the majority of games last year and all but three this year. In those two years, she has already set the school record for most career wins by a goaltender.

The turning point for Gerten and the team came that first season, when St. Kate’s played Hamline University at home right before winter break. Despite its underdog status, the Wildcats defeated the Pipers 6–2 behind Gerten's solid performance.

"That was a defining moment for our team," she says. "We were showing people we were not a joke. We are going to be successful."

Gerten has had similar success in the classroom, earning a 3.82 grade-point average with a double major in accounting and economics. She credits her teachers for offering study sessions and practice tests and for being supportive and approachable. "They want to see you do well while also preparing you for the real world," she says.


Swimming in Support

Sarah Vrudny, one of the top 16 swimmers in Colorado her senior year at Salida High School, wasn't sure she wanted to swim competitively in college. The class valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA knew she probably could compete at a Division I level, but she did not want swimming to eclipse her college studies.

Knowing she wanted to be a nurse, she had looked into St. Kate's — her mother's alma mater—with its renowned nursing program. A call from St. Catherine swim team recruiting coordinator Shana Erickson helped Vrudny make up her mind.

Erickson told Vrudny she had been watching her success and asked if she'd like to swim for St. Kate's. "The swimming was a selling point," Vrudny says. "I wanted to swim but didn't want it to take over my life. Studying is the priority. I swim for fun and to get away from the books."

Erickson told Vrudny she would contribute to the program. The coach was right. This year, the first-year free-styler set four school records on the relay team and three individual marks. The nursing major also earned a 4.0 grade-point average her first semester.

At first, Vrudny wasn't sure about attending a women's college, but St. Kate's has proven a good fit. "I grew up with three brothers, so it's kind of weird being around all girls," she says. "At the same time, it's nice you don't have that awkwardness in class of having to be better or look better. You can focus."

She especially likes the personable nature of the small classes. When Vrudny mentioned to her "Reflective Woman" class that she was on the swim team, her professor, Cecilia Konchar Farr, asked for the swim team schedule. A few days later, Konchar Farr and some of Vrudny's classmates were sitting at the end of the pool and waving large signs that said, "Swim Fast!" and "Good luck, Sarah!"

"They embarrassed me," Vrudny says shyly. "But it was nice to see the support.