Learn to Play, Play to Learn
The New Landscape of Varsity Athletics and Recreational Sports

"It's been an outstanding year for athletics at Mines. In the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup rankings for Division II, which are based on performance in seven men's and seven women's sports, Mines placed 15th out of 288 universities - the school's best placement since Learfield added Division II to their rankings 15 years ago.

Success stories abound: the women's soccer team made it to the final eight in the national tournament; the men's cross country team finished 3rd in the nation; the track and field team included two national champions; the football team went 8-1 in the RMAC; the men's soccer team went 11-2-1 in conference play, going on to compete in the national tournament; and, for the first time, both the men's and women's basketball teams competed in the national tournament. In the Learfield Cup's April year-to-date rankings, Mines actually ranked 3rd in the nation.

Mines has had many great teams in the past; what makes this year exceptional is how many teams have succeeded at the national level. So the question is, why?

Athletics Director Tom Spicer can point to many reasons. At its foundation, the success of the athletics program is built on the talent and commitment of outstanding athletes and their coaches - but it also requires broad institutional support. "It takes a lot of people pulling in the same direction, and that's what's happened at Mines," said Spicer. "When you take a bunch of young people who have so much potential, and you unlock that potential, a lot of good things happen."

In recent years, funding for the athletics department has improved, and the track and field program provides a good example of the difference this can make. For each of the last five years, Art Siemers has led men's track and field to the top ten of Division II; five also happens to be the number of years he’s been full-time at Mines. For the four years prior to that, he coached part-time, dashing over each afternoon from his day job as a middle-school math and science teacher.

Being more available has been key, said Siemers: "In my sport, it's so individual. I need to adjust each of my top athletes' training so they peak for specific competitions. If I can spend time with them and hear how they are doing in other aspects of their life - how they are sleeping, how school is going - I'm in a much better position to coach them."

Quality coach-athlete relationships like this can also foster a more welcoming and tight-knit varsity athlete community. Soccer star Kayla Mitchell could sense this when she first visited the school. "They're very genuine people and that helped me decide I wanted to go here," said Mitchell. "We are truly like a family."

Mitchell came on board for the first year of the women's soccer program and has seen its evolution as success has built upon success. "Not only did the talent get better, but so did people's attitudes," Mitchell said. "As we started being more successful, we got more support. Our success made more people want to be involved." Now that the team has achieved so much - advancing further than any other Mines team ever in NCAA tournament play - Mitchell said the team is motivated to do as well next year, or even better.

Varsity athletes aren't just succeeding on the field. They also excel academically. There are some notable stars - at one point the women's soccer squad included three players with perfect grade point averages - but the more remarkable fact may be that GPAs among varsity athletes are higher overall than the rest of the student body.

"They stress academics really highly," said men's soccer defender Trevor Braun. "When we go on trips, the coach will always have designated study hours where all you're allowed to do is sit in your room and study."

Mirroring the success of the intercollegiate programs, Mines' nonvarsity athletics programs are also flourishing. John Howard, who directs intramural and club sports, believes there's some synergy: "A vibrant varsity athletics program definitely presents more opportunities for club and intramural sports." And in at least one case, the reverse is also true: He recalls that the year before the varsity women's soccer program was launched, women's club soccer made it to their national tournament. It took them a couple of years to recover their momentum after the varsity program absorbed some key players, but this year the club team went to nationals and did better than ever.

"Each successive year is our best year in club sports, and each year sees our highest participation in intramurals," said Howard. In 2001, Mines fielded eight flag football teams; this year, 68 teams competed. During the same period, intramural participation went from about 800 to 5,650 students. In club sports, the CSM Cycling Club is among the top four in the nation, men's and women's volleyball made it to nationals, men's rugby made it to the quarterfinals of their national tournament, and lacrosse is in the top 20.

One important factor behind this renaissance in sports at Mines may be the philosophical shift that took place several years ago when the school began articulating a vision for how athletics, recreational sports, and fitness activities should be viewed as integral to the educational experience for students, rather than secondary to it. One document put it this way:

Transforming young, talented minds into full-fledged professionals capable of solving complex technical, business and societal problems is accomplished through an interplay of multiple elements of campus life, both inside and outside the classroom. Team sports, intramurals, outdoor recreation and fitness activities develop essential skills for leadership, communication, problem-solving and stress management.

This shift helped channel additional resources toward athletics programs of all sorts, most notably by strengthening the case for a new recreation center. Harold Cheuvront, then the vice president for student life, began pushing for the facility back in 2000. He oversaw an extensive planning process that progressed smoothly until the challenge of funding the project bogged things down. The breakthrough came in 2004 when a campus-wide student vote approved the use of student fees to back bond financing for three-quarters of the cost; the remaining balance was covered through several large private donations.

The Student Recreation Center opened in 2007, and it's by far the most significant recent change to the athletics landscape on campus, both literally and metaphorically. Almost 1,000 people use the facility every day. There's a non-stop game of pick-up basketball in an upstairs court; yoga and aerobics classes are filled to capacity; the climbing wall is in near-constant use; the swimming and diving team, kayak club, water polo club and lap swimmers share the pool; intramural sports pack the facility on weekday evenings; the Outdoor Recreation Center does brisk business all year long, renting tents, bikes, skis, kayaks, and even river-rafting tubes; and Lockridge Arena serves as a venue for basketball and volleyball matches, as well as numerous other sporting and social events.

"It's the highlight of the campus tour," said Bruce Goetz, director of admissions, who believes it is a significant factor behind the rapid growth in the applicant pool he's seen over the last several years. "Parents and prospective students light up when they get inside."

Students are benefiting most from expanded recreational opportunities on campus, coming away healthier; less stressed; and, for those participating in team sports, with valuable leadership, communication and problem-solving skills. Students also have more opportunities to feel pride in their university, thanks to the achievements of the intercollegiate athletics program.

"There's a rising tide of enthusiasm," said President Scoggins, who, along with his wife, Karen, is an animated spectator at almost every game. "It's very moving to watch our student-athletes achieve at this level, with so many of the community cheering them on. It's really a great thing that's happening," he said, before adding with a smile, "and it is still happening. We are not finished yet." 

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