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Photo Credit: Chris Tumbusch
Anthony Hicks '00 (26) hurdles a Cal Lutheran oponent on his way to the goal. Photo: Chris Tumbusch

By Nick Dawson, Sports Editor, and Lena Tibbelin '99

Those who were concerned that Pacific Lutheran University's recent move to NCAA Division III status would send the school's athletic program into a wasteland of mediocrity can breathe easy.

That's because PLU's tradition of athletic excellence continues.

Sure, PLU has been a full-fledged Division III member for just a year, and one year doesn't necessarily provide a good basis for comparison. But that year was pretty normal compared to those that the school's athletic teams enjoyed for many years in the NAIA. And "normal" at Pacific Lutheran is very good.

Consider this: PLU was represented by teams or individuals in 10 NCAA Division III national competitions. Among that group, the Lute track and field squads had the greatest success, the men placing second and the women finishing third at the national meet. With similar strong showings by the football, women's basketball and softball teams, all of which reached the national tournament level, plus a smattering of outstanding individual performances, there was plenty of reason to celebrate the 1998-99 Lute athletic season.

"Last year was remarkable, and it showed," says President Loren J. Anderson.

Photo Credit: Josh Miller '01
The men of the novice open weight boat takes part in a time-honored tradition as they prepare to heave a coxswain, Kristin Hovenkotter, into American Lake this spring after winning a regatta. Photo: Josh Miller '01
Indicative of the success was PLU winning, for the 13th time in its 14-year history, the McIlroy-Lewis Trophy, awarded to the outstanding athletic institution in the Northwest Conference. The springboard to PLU again etching its name on the trophy was seven conference sports titles - football, women's basketball, men's and women's tennis, softball and men's and women's track and field.

The all-conference sports trophy, which is on display in the school's athletic department office, is the standard by which the athletic department has generally been, and will continue to be, measured in future years. "There's no question about it," says PLU Athletic Director Paul Hoseth. "For us, that has to be the primary thing.

"The challenge is this thing," he adds, pointing to the 1996 Sears Directors' Cup trophy sitting on a table in his office. The euphoria - and promotional opportunities - generated by winning the Waterford crystal cup has raised the expectation level of PLU athletes, coaches and fans. PLU won the first Directors' Cup presented at the NAIA level, and the award is now annually presented to the top NCAA Division I, II and III and NAIA athletic programs based on national-level performance.

Sisters Sarah Axley '00 (left front) and Christine Axley -Albright '00 (behind her) compete in a track relay.
Unfortunately, says Hoseth, "the way the scoring system is set up now, with an emphasis on national championships, it will likely not allow us to finish as high as we did in the NAIA." While 1998-99 PLU athletic year was pretty normal, PLU placed 20th in the NCAA Division III Sears Directors' Cup standings.

Make no mistake, 20th in the nation is outstanding by any measure. "Maybe we don't celebrate our successes enough because they have been so common," says Hoseth. "There are a lot of schools that would give just about anything to have the kind of success that we've had."

Part of the groundwork for the continued success was laid by former athletic director David Olson, who built PLU's program around the adage, "The pursuit of excellence through the joy of sports."

"In any program, tradition is important," adds President Anderson. "Tradition sets the standard and helps makes a difference."

Brad Moore, who starts his 20th season as head coach of the cross country and track and field programs, credits such individuals as Olson, former tennis coach Mike Benson '69 and the current administration with creating and sustaining an environment for success. "I think we as coaches are responsible for creating a family atmosphere for the athletes. There's a closeness within teams and with other teams."

Tara Millet '00 "We never want to sacrifice providing a positive experience for young people for wining on the scoreboard."

Paul Hoseth, PLU Athletic Director

Left:Center Tara Millet '00 works around a George Fox Bruin to make the shot during the 1998-1999 season.
Photo: Jordan Hartman '00

One of the successes coaches and administrators are most proud of comes in academics. Grade point averages for all athletes, according to Hoseth, are generally equal to or above that of the student body as a whole. "Our athletes are making significant contributions in the classroom and in the athletic venues," he says.

President Anderson agrees. "The most important thing about PLU athletics is that the program is built around the student-athlete, and the staff and coaches reflect that philosophy. It is also documented in the academic success of our athletes."

Pacific Lutheran's introductory year of NCAA Division III membership was a learning experience for administrators, coaches and athletes. It turns out that PLU and the entire Northwest Conference, despite an excellent NAIA reputation, were relative unknowns at the NCAA Division III level.

Women's Tennis
The women's tennis team, coached by Mike Benson '69, swept the Northwest Conference crown. Credit: Chris Tumbusch
"Last year, as the new kid on the block, we experienced significant challenges to having some well-qualified teams even get into their (national) tournaments," says Hoseth. "It has to do with being new in the NCAA, and that our geographical location is so far away from a significant majority of NCAA Division III teams." Hoseth guesses about five percent or less of the Division III institutions are west of the Mississippi.

The PLU football, women's basketball and softball programs provided several cases in point. Football and softball had similar stories: programs that had won NAIA national titles and made numerous tournament appearances yet were not considered among the West Region's top teams until very late in their seasons. Both eventually reached the national playoffs.

The women's basketball program doesn't have the same tradition, having won its first conference title in 1998. For three-quarters of the team's season, it seemed the coaching staff and players would have to settle for individual and team accomplishments. PLU had to wait until the tournament brackets were announced before they knew they had a spot in the playoffs. The Lutes then beat three teams, including a road win against the region's top-rated team, before coming up one game short of the Final Four.

Hoseth surmises that, until two years from now when Northwest Conference champions receive automatic national tournament bids in most sports, PLU teams will face uncertainty on this issue.

"That doesn't mean that we won't have the opportunity to compete, but I don't think we can assume that because we were relatively successful in the NAIA that it's going to carry over to subsequent years in the NCAA."

At a meeting over the summer, Hoseth talked to several individuals from a Midwest conference. "Midwest schools still have a stigma after about 20 years of Division III competition," he said. "They feel like they're too far west. We're going to be seen, by the East Coast-dominated division, like we're still driving a horse and buggy."

Still, Hoseth believes there is a bright future ahead for the PLU athletic program. Recruiting, facilities, and men and women who give direction to the PLU athletic teams are keys.

Matt Werner '00 was one of the two PLU regional wrestling champs. Credit: Lawson Kita '99

"The future is always going to depend on the quality of coaches we can attract, and not just for their sports knowledge but for the character qualities they can bring and share with their athletes," says Hoseth. "Over the years we've had outstanding coaches and people. We never want to sacrifice providing a positive experience for young people, for winning on the scoreboard."

"The tradition of excellence continues," adds Hoseth, "and it's still a great day to be a Lute."

Football - The PLU football team finished 8-2 and reached the first round of the national playoffs. The Lutes were 5-0 and Northwest Conference champions. Anthony Hicks '00 was the NWC Offensive Player of the Year, and Brandon Woods '99 shared the defensive honor.

Cross Country - Cross country runners Maree George '00 and Ryan Pauling '99 earned All-America honors at nationals, George placing fifth in the women's meet and Pauling finishing 14th in the men's race.

Men's Soccer - Men's soccer goalkeeper Jonas Tanzer '99 was voted Northwest Conference Player of the Year.

Women's Basketball - Led by Northwest Conference Player of the Year Tara Millet '00, the Lutes surprised everybody but themselves by advancing to the final eight of the NCAA Division III national tournament. PLU set a school record with 22 wins against just six defeats.

Men's Basketball - Men's basketball point guard Tim Kelly '00 led all NCAA Division III men's basketball players in assists.

Swimming - Mike Simmons '99 placed in two events as the only PLU representative at swimming nationals.

Wrestling - Matt Werner '00 and Mark Cypher '00 won regional titles and wrestled at nationals.

Softball - PLU led the nation's Division III softball teams in doubles and total bases while tying a Lute record with 39 wins. The team, led by Northwest Conference Player of the Year Tharen Michael '00, eventually played in the West Region tournament.

Tennis - The men's and women's tennis teams sent retiring coach Mike Benson '69 out by sweeping the conference crowns. For the men, it was their 24th in Benson's 30 years of coaching at PLU.

Track and Field - The Lute track and field teams made headlines throughout the year and capped off a great season with an outstanding performance at nationals. The men, led by national discus champion Luke Jacobson '99, placed second, while the women ended up third.

Credits | ©1999 | Comments