Over the past few years, athletes from little Lindenwood University have stealthily but steadily begun kicking ass in national competitions. Seven Lindenwood Lions teams -- including soccer, wrestling, track-and-field and, yes, bowling squads -- took home championship honors last year alone.
Lindenwood's success isn't limited to traditional sports.
The school's trap- and skeet-shooting team took second place at the nationals in its first year in existence. Now entering its fourth year, it's widely considered to be the best program in the nation, with Olympic-caliber marksmen frequently besting rivals Purdue, Texas A&M and the University of Missouri. Head coach Joe Steenbergen says a new $6 million shooting facility is in the works, the better to train future champs.
The Lindenwood women's hockey team, currently ranked fifth among the nation's Division I American Collegiate Hockey Association schools, practices an hour and a half three days a week in Wentzville's CenturyTel Arena. "St. Louis is about ten to twelve years behind in the development of women's hockey," says head coach Vince O'Mara, former coach of the St. Louis Force, a local women's pro hockey franchise. "Now we've got some very strong people who are helping to develop it and growing the sport to where if a girl plays hockey, she doesn't have to play with the boys." Now entering its third year, the team will host the ACHA national championships next March.
Then there's coach Ron Beilsten and his men's roller-hockey team, who call the Matteson Triplex in St. Peters home. The varsity team went 17-1 in 2004-05 and has won the national championship title in every one of its four years of existence. Highlights from last year include bouncing back from the team's first loss in 60 games and sending three rollers to represent Team USA in this past summer's 2005 Men's Inline World Hockey Championships in France and the 2005 World Games in Germany.
"Inline hockey is a growing sport and not all that nationally know yet, but Lindenwood started the winning tradition and when all these other schools around the country see that, all the best players want to go there," says junior Greg Thompson, the nation's MVP for the past two years. "It's cool going to these events where a small school like Lindenwood is always beating up on Michigan State and the University of Florida."
Lindenwood's co-ed water polo team made it to the nationals last year -- and it's not even an official school sport. John Creer, the university's athletic director, says there'll be separate teams for men and women by the end of this year, and both will be official varsity sports by 2007. Meantime, last season Ted Greenhouse snagged Coach of the Year honors, Sam Lape was named Player of the Year and Lape and seven of his teammates were named to the state's first or second team in the Missouri Valley Division.
All told, Lindenwood fields teams in eighteen different sports.
How do coaches account for the 13,000-student school's uncanny ability to detect and attract under-the-radar athletic prowess?
"We have a large athletic program and outstanding facilities and are debt-free, and people shake their heads and ask, 'How in the world are you able to do this [while] we're having to cancel and cut back?'" says Creer.
He says it's hard to gauge exactly how much the school spends on sports, because, unlike most universities, Lindenwood's athletic department works on a request basis instead of a budget system. The sports don't generate enough revenue to cover expenses, Creer says, though ticket sales from football, basketball, volleyball, soccer and lacrosse make a dent.
Larry Lady, commissioner of the Heart of America Athletic Conference, says Lindenwood has influenced other schools to add new sports. "They're inspirational in the way they've accelerated in all these different sports in the past few years," he says. "It makes the other schools work harder, and that makes the Heart of America stronger overall."
Creer says the sports programs are a direct result of a university-wide effort to grow enrollment. Lindenwood president Dennis Spellman, he says, feels that "everyone should be involved in something. He would love it if every single student we have on our campus was involved in athletics. It stems from his philosophy that athletics is a vital component of the whole educational experience."
Statistics on how Lindenwood sports have directly affected enrollment are hard to pinpoint. While the different programs may initially attract students to the school, financial aid is based on character and grades, says Brett Barger, the school's athletic director in charge of marketing. "It's just not something we track in that way, since we don't treat athletes any differently than any other students."
Creer dismisses what he calls "dumb-jock syndrome," asserting that "at Lindenwood we have about 45 percent of all our athletes scoring a 3.0 [grade-point average] or higher -- and we're looking at over 1,200 athletes."
Beilsten concurs. "It's from the top down," the roller-hockey coach says. "The school puts such an emphasis and pride on getting quality kids into school. A kid that's an inline hockey player wants to be here because the school takes pride in and supports them. They get a level of support that, at this point in time, they can't get anywhere else. Whatever their expertise is, they come in and are appreciated and regarded in a little different light."