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ISSUE 118 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/15/2005

Swing or Sing? Athletics an integral part of St. Olaf's unique appeal

By Marjorie Thirlby
Sports Editor

Friday, April 15, 2005

Every fall, high school students around the country compile lists of colleges they wish to consider. Impressively, St. Olaf ranks highly on the lists of over 3,000 yearly applicants. When St. Olaf becomes a top choice for a prospective student, often their final decision revolves around one of two things: music or sports.

For potential attendees of St. Olaf College, what aspects of the college initially pull them towards the Hill? The outstanding academic reputation, the liberal arts environment, the renowned professors, and the picturesque campus are all obvious reasons. However, when music or sports are the deciding factor for a prospective student, which activity holds the most weight?

Currently, about a third of St. Olaf students are involved in some form of musical activity (choir, band, or orchestra). The music program at St. Olaf is unquestionably one of the most renowned programs in the nation. From Christmas Fest to the Ole Choir Tour to the Orchestra Spring Concert, music has a significant presence on campus year-round.

Complementing the 752 students participating in music-related activities are 508 varsity athletes that play at least one of St. Olaf’s 27 varsity sports. Although athletics may not be as popular as music in terms of raw numbers, the interest in both are significant.

“Because of the strong nationwide reputation of music programs at St. Olaf, many students do consider St. Olaf because they want to be involved in music,” said Jenny Howenstine, Assistant Director of Admissions. “However, I would say that families do hold the athletic program in high regards as well – especially if they know the strong reputation of the MIAC conference.”

For students who chose to come to St. Olaf and play a sport, the quality St. Olaf athletic department and its prominent role in the MIAC often factors into their appeal.

“If you interviewed student-athletes, I would say that the vast majority of them feel that their sport or coach had a big impact on why they chose St. Olaf,” says Matt McDonald, Athletic Director and head baseball coach.

“And as each year goes by, athletic recruiting for Division III institutions becomes more and more competitive.”

In addition to the appeal of particular sports and coaches, Oles have advantages in comparison to other MIAC schools in regard to certain aspects of the athletic department.

“In comparison to other MIAC schools, St. Olaf offers 27 sports, making it the largest athletic program in the conference” says McDonald. “I also don’t think that any northern school in Division III can top us as far as indoor and outdoor facilities are concerned. We have beautiful settings for our fields and lots of land.”

In addition to the size and asthetics, St. Olaf has a leg up in competition in terms of on-the-field success. The 2004-05 fall and winter sports have certainly proved the college’s athletic prowess.

Last fall, the men’s cross country team won the MIAC title, placed first in NCAA Central Regionals, and took seventh at the NCAA Division III National Championships. The women’s team finished sixth at Regionals, eight points short of qualifying for nationals. Men’s soccer won the MIAC title and women’s soccer took third.

This winter, the men and women’s Nordic ski teams combined won the USCSA national championship. The alpine men and women’s teams took second and third, respectively, at Divisionals, and at the USCSA Championships, the women finished fifth and the men 15th. The women’s swimming team won the MIAC title, the men too second, and once again, the Oles send several contenders to nationals.

Now the Oles are moving through the spring, and the remaining sports teams look very promising. Based on the previous triumphs of the fall and winter teams, subsequent victories would not be a surprising occurrence for those of the spring.

St. Olaf’s athletic prowess extends far beyond the 2004-05 academic year. The men’s swimming and diving team won a record 20 straight MIAC championships from 1980-1999, the second-longest streak in conference history. The baseball team has compiled an astounding 30 consecutive winning seasons and six straight playoff berths, including three conference championships since 2000. The volleyball team took the MIAC title from 1993-1996 and again in 2002.

St. Olaf athletics must have a significant amount of appeal for prospective students. After all, a sports team like swimming couldn’t have won the MIAC title for twenty years straight without the distinct priority of athletic participation coming from elite high school athletes.

The popularity and strength of St. Olaf athletics are surely here to stay. However, the unique blend of sports and music contributes to the overall appeal of the college. Both departments will continue to support each other and attract prospective and current students.

“We in athletics have learned a lot from how people in the music department operate – how they go after and achieve excellence. If I had the option of having St. Olaf minus the music, the answer would definitely be no. They’re a big part of what St. Olaf is, and I think if you asked [people in the music department] I think they’d say the same thing about athletics,” McDonald said.

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