When most people think about college athletics, they’re concerned about the numbers on the scoreboard. But when administrators of local universities ponder their sports programs, the score they’re most worried about is the one on the enrollment list.
McKendree University in Lebanon and Lindenwood-Belleville have been adding athletic programs nearly as fast as their athletic departments can order new uniforms.
It’s all part of a plan to entice students they covet to enroll at their schools.
Mckendree University vice president for admission and financial aid Chris Hall said schools seek students who want more out of their university experience than to go to class and then go back to their dorm room.
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“We want those students because students who take part in an extra-curricular activity typically get better grades and have a higher retention rate,” Hall said.
Hall said the school has created new extra-curricular programs at the suggestion of a single student.
“If there is an interest in a program and it makes financial sense for us, we’re going to do it,” Hall said.
In addition to traditional college sports like football, basketball and baseball, McKendree has added non-traditional offerings such as bass fishing and lacrosse, the latter of which is popular on the East Coast but was relatively unheard of in the metro-east until the last decade.
The novel sports have brought in student-athletes who hail from places as far as Florida, Texas and Delaware. One Lacrosse player is even from Auckland, New Zealand.
Lindenwood-Belleville has been a full-time, four-year school for six years. It has built on its sports offerings every year from two in 2009 to 32 teams now.
Belleville campus president Jerry Bladdick estimated that 80 percent of full-time students at the school are involved in an extracurricular activity.
“We want to offer the true, full university experience,” Bladdick said. “That’s what students today want.”
Bladdick said students who maybe couldn’t make it in the top college conferences can continue their athletics careers in a somewhat less intense setting at Lindenwood-Belleville.
Lindenwood-Belleville rosters are populated with a mix of international and out of state students who came here to play alongside local high school sports heroes who want to continue to play in front of their parents and their fans. Its soccer program alone has its share of athletes from around the globe with players from Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Ecquador, Honduras and Spain on the roster.
Hall said the sports programs don’t only benefit the players. When McKendree reinstated its football program several years ago, it changed the whole atmosphere of the place.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see everyone wearing their McKendree colors and flying their flags while they’re tailgating early on a football Saturday,” Hall said. “It’s great for students, it’s great for alumni and it’s great for the community, in general.”
In just 12 years of operation, and about half that as a full-time day school, Lindenwood-Belleville has grown from nothing to 2,450 students enrolled for the fall 2015 semester.
McKendree had less than 1,000 total students when university president James Dennis was hired two decades ago. One of his first changes was to reinstate the school’s football program as the initial move to build its athletics department. Today, enrollment is up more than a third to over 1,500 students, Hall said.
Caty Ponce, of Edwardsville, said she wouldn’t have attended McKendree without its sports programs.
She was an all-area athlete who could play three sports — basketball, softball and volleyball — when she graduated from high school, not to mention an exceptional student. Ponce could have chosen to go anywhere in the country to shoot hoops and study. But she chose to stay close to home so her parents, Danny And Julie Ponce, could see her play in person.
“My parents always supported me in sports and school, so I wanted them to be able to continue to come to my games,” Caty Ponce said.
During the middle of Caty’s college sports career, Danny Ponce was diagnosed with cancer and later died.
“I’m glad I made the choice I did so he had the chance to see me play those few more times,” Caty Ponce said. “It means a lot to me.”
Lindenwood-Belleville’s football stadium earned national recognition for its unique appearance, alternating maroon and gray stripes of artificial turf. But starting tailback Kam Harris cared less about the look of the field than he did about the chance to get to play in front of family and friends several times a year.
Harris had offers to play football at Miliken University as well as Northern Illinois University.
“If not for the football program at Lindenwood, I probably wouldn’t have gone to school here,” Harris said. “Actually, I know I wouldn’t have. But I’m glad they decided to start it because it means a lot to me to be a part of the start of the program.”
Harris’s teammate, linebaker and defensive end Matt Blacherczyk, didn’t think he’d play college sports at all until Fisher called.
“I was a 190-pound defensive lineman when I graduated from high school. I was small, so I didn’t get many looks,” Blacherczyk said. “I was expecting to hang up my cleats.”
But Fisher watched Blacherczyk play for Belleville East and liked what he saw.
“He called to ask if I wanted to play some ball and I jumped at the chance,” Blacherczyk said. “I am enjoying every minute of it. After I thought I was done, I’m soaking it all up. I don’t take any plays off.”
While sports opportunities have increased at St. Clair County’s two private, four-year schools, Southwestern Illinois College leaders said they don’t fear those programs will erode their long-established sports teams.
“Southwestern Illinois College employs athletics as a most-affordable, high-quality-education means for those student-athletes hoping to compete in NCAA sports to hone their skills for two years in the highly competitive National Junior College Athletic Association,” SWIC athletic director Mike Juenger said.
“Given the local, regional and national successes we’ve enjoyed as a longstanding member of the NJCAA, game attendance for SWIC Athletics events has been steady over that same period,” Juenger said. “We do not view the growth of regional or any four-year university athletics programs as problematic.”
Juenger said he thinks prospective SWIC athletes are more likely to attend the college than go to a four-year school out of the area because they know they can start at the two-year school in Belleville and then continue playing for Lindenwood or McKendree after that.
“These four-year programs present even more opportunities for SWIC athletes to potentially take their education and sports interests to the next level,” Juenger said.