Seeds of Success
Depending on the era at St. Catherine University, the state of intercollegiate athletics was either excellent or substandard. In the late 1970s, St. Kate’s was an athletics powerhouse; in the 1980s, as the effects of Title IX took hold, not so much. But the tide is turning. The Wildcats have planted the seeds to return as a competitive force, and they’re growing much faster than anticipated.
In 1972, when Congress enacted Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, co-ed high schools and colleges poured resources into women’s athletics to level the playing field for all students. As a women’s college, St. Kate’s wasn’t required to meet this equality mandate. The Wildcats faltered in the 1980s and early 1990s, because rival teams flourished with better facilities and expanded budgets. In the mid 1990s, St. Kate’s began the process of rebuilding its once proud athletic tradition. Since then, the number of student-athletes on the University’s varsity roster has grown by more than 400 percent and four varsity teams have been added. The student athletes and coaches during this rebuilding phase did the hard work of getting St. Kate’s back on the map.
Two years ago, Athletics Director Eric Stacey decided it was time to raise the bar of competitive success, and the department hatched Project 60. It’s goal — to improve the University’s standing in the MIAC All-Sports Competition by earning 60 all-sports points — is just one part of St. Kate’s 2020 Strategic Plan, which calls for a commitment to enriching the experience of student-athletes and elevating the competitiveness in varsity programs.
“Athletics offers an outside view into the University,” says Stacey. “The success of our student-athletes impacts St. Kate’s image, both locally and regionally.” In fall 2015, 20 percent of first-year students in the College for Women were student-athletes. As a cohort, St. Kate’s student-athletes have higher graduation rates and higher retention rates than the general student body.
They are also active and engaged long after they graduate. For example, Nikki Burg Dockendorff ’07 is one of 10 former athletes — each representing a different sport — who serve on the Alumnae Council’s Athletics Committee.
And let’s not forget the coaches. They are one of the biggest reason student-athletes choose to attend St. Kate’s.
REAP WHAT WE SOW
Any college coach will tell you that competitive advantage starts with recruiting. Without the right talent, success is difficult to achieve. As the athletics director, Stacey hires the coaching staff. To find the right people, he diligently recruits, just as his coaches do.
“When there’s an open coaching position, I need to find someone who fits with our culture and buys into our goals,” he explains. “If a person isn’t hungry and driven to succeed, he or she probably isn’t going to do well at St. Kate’s.”
Soccer Head Coach Chris Citowicki met all of Stacey’s requirements. Hired late in 2011 with no time to recruit players, Citowicki worked with the players already on the roster to start building a foundation of success. The Wildcats struggled, winning just one game. Despite the lack of success on the pitch, Citowicki remained optimistic. He kept talking to his team about creating a culture that would bring future success. He recruited skilled and dedicated student-athletes who believed in his mantra of “dream, work, achieve.”
“On my recruiting visit, I saw a game where St. Kate’s lost 5-1,” recalls Elly Leyva ’16. “I still couldn’t wait to play for the team. I had been told I could make an impact.” To get Leyva — and eight other players who also graduated this May — to St. Kate’s, Citowicki sold them a dream five years ago. He said they would be the ones to get St. Kate’s to the MIAC playoffs. And they did.
The team went from 1-17 in 2011 to 9-8 in 2012, and was named the most improved team in the nation. In 2015, the Wildcats had the most wins in program history, advancing to the MIAC playoffs for the first time in University’s history.
Today, Wildcat soccer draws interest from many top recruits. In fact, Stacey says the incoming class for fall 2016 is the most talented ever, and Citowicki calls the players committed for fall 2017 “absolutely unbelievable.” “Chris is always pushing his athletes to work harder and achieve more,” adds Stacey, “but at the same time, he’s kept it fun and inspirational.”
“When I was recruited, Chris said he wouldn’t just work on me as a soccer player but he would help me grow as a human being,” says Ellen Kokes ’16. “I would leave the program a stronger person. I really couldn’t say no.”
As much as wins on the field matter, they aren’t Citowicki’s most important measure of achievement. “Are we graduating good people who are going to thrive? That’s it,” he replies, when asked how he monitors success. “I want to create winners in life.”
Soccer isn’t the only Wildcat program experiencing record-setting success. Softball, under the direction of third-year Head Coach Colleen Powers, is also making history. The Wildcats went 34-11 in 2016, earning the most wins in program history. The team made the MIAC Playoffs and the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
The golf program, launched in 2011, is another happy story. The Wildcats finished third in the MIAC last fall, and are ranked No. 15 nationally. “The success of our golf team is incredible,” says Stacey. “It’s beyond what I ever dreamed we would have this quickly when developing the program just four years ago.”
St. Kate’s athletic history has definitely had its ups and downs, but Stacey is confident the program will continue its upward trajectory.
This season, just two years after setting the Project 60 goal, the University earned its highest number of all-sports competition points. “We made it to 59, just one point short of our goal,” says Stacey. “To get so close this quickly is an amazing accomplishment.”