From the first step on the freshly cut grass of the soccer field to the ending buzzer of a basketball game, Stephens College athletes leave it all on the court while the athletic department faces the reality of competing in an environment where athletics is measured differently from other teams in the NAIA division.
“Today’s athletic world, especially at the level that we are, is very competitive,” Tony Coleman, acting athletic director, said. “And not so much competitive in the sports themselves, but competitive in the schools and the academic side, making sure the school fits the students as well as a particular sport.”
Head soccer coach, Xander Kennedy, said Stephens’ athletic department is a good complement to the institution as an outlet for active young women. It provides opportunities and engages young women, allowing students to continue in the sports they have grown up enjoying.
However, Stephens is working through a number of obstacles to generate an athletic department that is more focused. Hurdles that impede Stephens’ success in the conference include: low numbers and injuries, academic toughness, lack of home terrain and low support levels from the Stephens community.
Chris Duncan, head basketball coach, said his team was left in a bad place this year because he doesn’t have the team he thought he would have.
“I do think it’s because I’m a new coach, and there were a lot of changes made last year with me coming in,” Duncan said. “Expectations were different than the previous coach, and because of that we had some players leave.”
As far as physical content, however, Duncan says he has cut down during practice. He said with only seven or eight players in practice, he is trying to keep everybody healthy. He has had to cut practice time in half and work on basic fundamentals of the game, breaking down the offense and defense.
The cross country team, led by Travis Cook, has the minimum, five runners, needed to get a team score. If one runner is hurt or can’t attend a meet, Cook said it’s more discouraging because the team can no longer receive a team score.
“We have 10 girls,” Rose Obunaga, head volleyball coach, said. “I normally think players get really tired, and they need a break once in a while. So if you have big numbers, you can do a few substitutions to let them rest, but since we have few numbers, I’ve trained them to have that endurance like going five games nonstop.”
Obunaga said with a laugh that her team was “in the hands of God,” but she is taking precautions to avoid injuries. She tells the team not to pursue the really tight balls and let them drop, and she emphasizes the importance of being verbal on the court to avoid collision.
Kennedy said the soccer team, which began the season with 20 girls, lost some athletes throughout the season due to injuries and lingering eligibility issues.
“As we are slowly getting people back, we are losing people at the same time. Soccer is not American football, but it can be hard on your body. It’s a lot of running, and it is a contact sport absolutely,” Kennedy said.
With the season beginning in the spring and practices well on their way during the fall semester, Tracy Dean, head softball coach, said she feels like she has pretty strong numbers – the only team confident in its numbers.
“I think our name is getting out there,” Dean said. “I really want to build a strong foundation in terms of having a lot of freshman and new faces this year. I want to be able to develop the program so that next year when we come in, this year’s newbies can get us started and develop from there and grow in terms of talent.”
Adam Samson, sports information director, said it takes time to promote the program and to get Stephens athletics, with many coaches in their first or second year, to the place and level of other teams.
“There’s a lot of turnover, and so when there’s turnover with a coach, that means there’s going to be turnover with student athletes as well,” Samson said.
Ideally Duncan would like to grow the basketball program to at least 12 girls to have a competitive team.
“It might take two or three years down the road to do this, but we’d like to have 15 girls on the roster just for reserve,” Duncan said.
Stephens College is known for academic achievements. In fact, Coleman said the student athletes GPA at Stephens overall as a department is higher than the rest of the campus.
“We check students’ GPA while they’re in season, and then we track them while they’re out of season to see if we are creating any problems,” Coleman said.
Although Stephens athletes have seen achievement in the classroom, some degree requirements don’t promote success on the field or court.
Because academics is pushed so hard at Stephens, Duncan said that finding the right fit with students in a degree program that is workable with athletics is important.
“I, on the soccer team, have had theater majors, fashion majors and equestrian majors, and they’re the ones coming to me with specific dilemmas or conflicts with scheduling issues with their academic programs,” Kennedy said.
That, Duncan said, is what he’s had to learn coming from another college to Stephens.
Compared to other teams in the American Midwest Conference, Stephens athletic facilities show some contrast and make do with the situations given to them.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say having a soccer field on campus wasn’t one of my top desires right now,” Kennedy said. “What we practice on isn’t a soccer field. It’s a relatively flat space that has a couple of goals, but we don’t have lines. Anybody could come out, and, this seems to happen all the time, push the goals to one side of the field or the other.”
The soccer and cross country teams both rely on the city for the use of Cosmo Park for home matches, while softball uses the American Legion fields.
Because both locations require fans to make the trek around town, Kennedy said it’s much harder for Stephens student fans to make an appearance.
“Having a bigger fan base at (cross country) meets would be amazing because usually it comes down to a few parents at a meet,” Cook said. “Going back to the Joplin meet, that was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve had as a coach because of all the work the girls have put in and I was the only one there to cheer them on.”
The Stephens athletic department is taking steps to gain media attention and promote the growth of Stephens athletics, despite all the obstacles the department and teams must face.
“I think one of the biggest things is to promote the Stephens College athletic department and to promote our student athletes for their achievements for their work outside of their sport, particularly their academic achievements and their work in the community, and also to try generating media attention from the local and regional media,” Samson said.
With Samson in place as the full-time sports information director, Kennedy has seen a dramatic difference in Stephens athletics.
“The number of articles and press the soccer team has been getting is frankly amazing for a team that is not high profile and not particularly successful,” Kennedy said. “I feel like I’ve sat for more interviews in the last month than I have my entire life.”
In his first year, Samson is already embracing his title to build the future of the sports information department and trying to expand on media records and coverage.
“When you’re pushing stuff out to the media, the media is going to be one of the best sources to generate interest and get the word out there about a certain program,” Samson said. “It’s going to at least let people know that it’s there.”
With the help of Samson’s media outreach and the recruiting efforts of the coaches, Stephens athletics is moving in the right direction to generate athletic attention.
“I think in time we’re going to start seeing some changes,” Duncan said. “President Lynch has told me there’s going to be some changes in curriculum, and they are trying to add more degrees.”
“The program we most frequently get asked about that we don’t have is nursing,” Kennedy said. “I really think expanding our health sciences and biology programs could be very beneficial for this school. A lot of athletes are in those areas, such as pre physical therapy, pre med, and pre vet, and I actually think in part a reason that’s a decent fit is because any of those programs are academically rigorous, but as far as the time, the schedule and scheduling requirements, they seem to be slightly less demanding.”
Duncan also said the addition of an athletic training and management field would attract athletes.
The athletic department is staying positive with its sight set on a bright future for Stephens athletics.
“We have to stay positive,” Duncan said. “We can’t let it get us down.”
Story by senior Emily Park