Tony Aker, a former football standout in Wisconsin at the high
school and college levels, was announced Tuesday as the new head football coach
at Lawrence University.
Director of Athletics Christyn Abaray said Aker, who has spent the
past four years on the coaching staff at Carroll University, will bring with
him a deep knowledge of Wisconsin and Midwest recruiting.
“We are excited to have Coach Aker and his family join the Lawrence University team,” Abaray said. “Tony is the right person at the helm to steer our program forward – implementing the steps to build, piece by piece. His experience, knowledge and energy represent what we will do — bring our Wisconsin and regional talent to Lawrence while continuing to embrace our national footprint, grow and develop our football scholar-athletes into leaders of the world and be active members of the community.”
Aker is the 29th head coach in Lawrence history.
“I’m beyond thrilled and excited to be named head football
coach at Lawrence,” Aker said. “I want to extend my thanks to
President (Mark) Burstein, Christyn Abaray and the search committee for
entrusting me to lead this great program. I look forward to developing our
current Lawrentians both on and off the football field, establishing great
relationships with our many alumni and working relentlessly to bring the best
and brightest future Vikings from our great state, region and beyond.”
Aker was an All-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference selection as a wide receiver during his playing career at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. In high school, he was a standout athlete at Brown Deer High School and was named the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Wisconsin Athlete of the Year in 2005. Before transferring to UWSP, he spent two years at Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota, where he was a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American and two-time all-region performer, helping to lead his team to the 2007 NJCAA national championship.
Aker was on the coaching staff at UWSP before moving on to Carroll, where he worked as associate head coach/offensive coordinator and coached the quarterbacks. He was most recently serving as the interim head coach at Carroll.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UWSP in 2012 and is working toward a master’s degree in education.
and I are excited to become members of the Lawrence community as well as
our greater Fox Valley community,” Aker said. “It truly is a great
time to be a Viking.”
For a complete story on the Aker hiring, see here.
How do you
get Lawrence students out in the community while also promoting the health of
children in the Appleton area? Little Vikes has it figured out.
The club, founded by two Lawrence University men’s hockey players, provides opportunities for athletics and general wellness education to children in the Fox Cities through mentoring and support from Lawrence students. The Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC) approved Little Vikes as an official club last spring, making it a new addition to the school’s repertoire of more than 100 student organizations.
’21 and Jordan Boehlke ’20 founded Little Vikes in the summer of 2018. The club
isn’t Toycen’s first experience with volunteer work. When he was a junior
hockey player in La Crosse, he connected with his community as a peer mentor for
little kids and youth hockey players into the locker room,” Toycen recalls,
“and they’d give us a pep talk or we’d give them fist bumps and stuff like
that. They loved it.”
assisted Coulee Region Sled Hockey in La Crosse, where individuals with
disabilities that prevent them from skating can navigate the ice on sleds. He
was moved by seeing people overcome obstacles to be active and have fun playing
the sport they love.
these experiences with him to Appleton, where he saw a need for mentors for
children needing wellness education.
“Getting to do stuff like that is what I really loved,” Toycen says. “I just wanted to do something like that here at Lawrence.”
Thus, Little Vikes was born. It’s still in its infancy, but Toycen and Boehlke say they hope it’ll grow well beyond its dozen members and will establish itself as an active student program that will live on at Lawrence long after they’ve graduated.
The mission is simple, yet has the potential for high impact in the lives it touches.
“We’re trying to promote an active and healthy lifestyle, while still putting an emphasis on education and things like that,” Toycen says. “We want the kids being active, learning sportsmanship and being on a team. Things that come from being an athlete I’ll definitely take into any job or career I choose to follow.”
becoming an official club, Little Vikes has been able to plot a clearer course
for community outreach. The most recent development is a budding partnership
with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Fox Valley. The club plans to host weekly
activities and events at the nonprofit youth organization’s local facilities.
Toycen also is
setting his sights on working with SOAR Fox Cities, a local nonprofit and
Special Olympics agency that provides a range of programs for disabled
In the meantime, the club’s activities are geared toward connecting with kids in the Fox Cities and spreading the word about its mission. In November, Little Vikes will hold its second annual Toy Drive for the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. The group also will visit classrooms at Horizon Elementary School in Appleton in February to make valentines.
These activities have something to offer the kids involved. And Toycen says Lawrentians need the community exposure that Little Vikes provides.
good to help and serve your community in whatever way you can,” he says.
“Especially people coming from out of state and out of the country, for them to
get a real feel for the Midwest and the Wisconsin lifestyle.”
Despite the focus on athletics, the Little Vikes club is open to anyone on campus dedicated to supporting wellness in Fox Cities youth. The organizers are setting their sights on growth.
“I want to
see the club grow,” Toycen says simply. “Part of the reason we went through
LUCC is to make sure it stays here. I feel like there’s a need for it. I want
to see that need be served each year well after both of us move on.”
Isabella Mariani ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.
Lawrence University will add a 22nd varsity sports program when women’s hockey begins play in the 2020-21 season, Director of Athletics Christyn Abaray announced.
“We are excited to bring intercollegiate NCAA women’s ice hockey to Lawrence University with a competitive start date of the 2020-21 academic year,” Abaray said. “The time is right. We can grow our regional footprint, increase the athletics opportunities for women student-athletes and enhance the overall experience of athletics at Lawrence.”
The addition of a women’s hockey team brings the roster of Lawrence women’s sports to 11, matching that of men’s teams. It marks the first program to be added to Lawrence athletics since men’s hockey achieved varsity status in 1986.
The work of getting the program up and running begins now with the hiring of the person to guide the team. Lawrence is conducting a national search for the program’s first head coach.
“We will hire a head coach this summer so that person has the full year to recruit our first varsity women’s ice hockey roster and integrate into the athletics department and greater institutional environment,” Abaray said. “It truly is an exciting time to be a Viking.”
The addition of the Vikings brings the number of NCAA Division III women’s hockey teams to 67, and Lawrence is in the middle of fertile recruiting ground. Minnesota has the largest girls’ hockey participation in the country, and Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois rank fourth through sixth, respectively.
The Lawrence women’s team is the 10th member of the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association, the premier hockey conference in the country and the home of the Vikings men’s squad.
“The NCHA is extremely pleased and enthusiastic with Lawrence University’s decision to sponsor an intercollegiate women’s hockey program, bringing membership in the women’s division to 10 programs,” NCHA Commissioner Don Olson said. “The conference is particularly pleased to have a present conference member initiate competition in women’s hockey and add to the strength and depth of the women’s division of the NCHA. In addition, Lawrence’s decision further establishes the NCHA’s leadership in the NCAA Division III hockey community as Lawrence becomes the fourth conference member to initiate sponsorship of women’s hockey in the past five years.”
The NCHA women’s conference started in 2000 with five teams, but the league was reshaped in 2013 when four teams, all from the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, departed. At that point, the NCHA had seven members, Adrian College, Concordia University Wisconsin, Finlandia University, Lake Forest College, Marian University, St. Norbert College and the College of St. Scholastica. Aurora University, Trine University and Northland College began NCHA play in 2017. The league has nine members heading into the 2019-20 season.
The winner of the NCHA playoffs receives the Slaats Cup and an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament. NCAA women’s hockey championship competition began in 2002 with Elmira College winning the first title. Plattsburgh State took the crown in 2019.
The Lawrence women will play at the Appleton Family Ice Center, which has been home to the Lawrence men’s team since 1999. The Lawrence women will move into the current quarters of the Viking men’s program as an expanded men’s locker room, student-athlete lounge, athletic training area and office space are currently under construction on the south side of the building.
Joe Vanden Acker is the director of athletic media relations at Lawrence University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“That’s when you start thinking, man, this is kind of a big deal”
Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications
Sometimes madness can be found in the unlikeliest of places.
Those who have even a passing curiosity of college basketball know the month of March is an unfolding tapestry of drama and strategy, unabashed joy and cruel heartbreak, playing out on hardwood courts across the country, often in spacious arenas housing hoops royalty but sometimes in small but achingly charming gymnasiums far from the spotlight.
So begins our flashback to 15 years ago, when the men’s basketball team from Lawrence University began its own magical dance through March Madness. It was a run that took the Vikings to the Division III Elite 8 before they suffered an agonizing 1-point overtime loss to the eventual national champions in a game that the then-Lawrence coach calls one of the greatest college basketball games ever played — even though the gymnasium in Tacoma, Washington, was mostly empty.
No, this is not a story that ended with a national
championship. History rarely remembers a team that came up two games short.
But March Madness is different. A good Cinderella story has
legs, made of moments and memories that live on.
Until March 2004, Lawrence had never won an NCAA tournament game. Ever. It hadn’t happened in 101 years.
They would win three on this post-season journey, a fourth slipping from their fingers, a Final Four berth just a few ticks of the clock out of reach.
Division III gets little love from national media, so this wasn’t quite the hysteria of Maryland-Baltimore County beating top-seeded Virginia last year. But it was big here. The Post-Crescent, the daily newspaper in Appleton, chronicled Lawrence’s run through the 2004 tournament with equal parts excitement and astonishment.
— — —
“Those brainiacs over at Lawrence showed they can ball with anybody on the Division III level, and those of you who were paying attention no doubt had quite a ball following their Shock the Nation National Tour. One point, one play from a spot in the NCAA Division III Final Four. Lawrence University? Tell you what, folks, on a larger scale, this would be like Lehigh making it to the Elite Eight in Division I.” Mike Woods, The Post-Crescent
— — —
As we check in with that 2003-04 team 15 years later, we
find that those players who posted a 24-5 record and went undefeated at
Alexander Gymnasium were far more than basketball players. It turns out they
were scholars, embracing the academic side of Lawrence as fervently as they
attacked their basketball preparations.
Chris Braier, a sophomore that season who would go on to
become the most accomplished player in Lawrence history, would also earn the
status of Academic All-American. Now 34 and a physician assistant in Chicago,
he earned his MBA in December from Northwestern University and has added clinical
health care consultant to his resume.
Three other players from that team are now doctors — Kyle MacGillis, a hand/wrist/elbow surgeon in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Jason Holinbeck, an orthopedic surgeon in Wichita Falls, Texas, and Brett Sjoberg, a radiologist in Madison.
Chris MacGillis, brother of Kyle and the leading scorer with
22 points in that Elite 8 game, earned his law degree and is now a partner in a
Milwaukee area law office.
Ben Klekamp earned his doctorate and now works as an
epidemiologist in Florida.
Another is a college basketball coach, another a financial
advisor, another a director of business development, another a manager of a
regional business. The list goes on.
Count John Tharp, the then-34-year-old coach of that team,
impressed. Not surprised, but impressed.
“The greatness of that run wasn’t necessarily just the
wins,” Tharp says as he chats from Hillsdale College, where he now coaches the
Division II Chargers. “The greatness of the run was the collection of people
that we had in the program at that time. You want to epitomize what a
student-athlete is, it was the collection of guys that were on that basketball
— — —
“This whole experience has left a mark that will never go away, and that’s a good thing. For the journey was full of tales and memories that have no shelf life.” Mike Woods, The Post-Crescent
— — —
An historic run
By the time the tournament began in early March 2004, the Lawrence campus had already taken notice that something special was going on. Despite having no player taller than 6’6″, the Vikings had imposed their will as they marched through the Midwest Conference schedule.
As the season rolled on, Alexander Gymnasium got down-right
rowdy. It was full. It was loud.
The Appleton Fire Department had to turn people away because
of fire code concerns.
“The vibe around campus, people were really excited,” Braier says. “The first game, there was a row of chairs along the baseline at Alex, and by the end of the year they had to build a whole new bleacher section on the baseline because of the crowds.
“When you would come to games, a lot of times the women would play before us, so you would come in during the first half of the women’s game, and you started noticing that there would be a line to get into our games. You couldn’t find a parking spot an hour and a half before the game. That’s when you start thinking, man, this is kind of a big deal.”
They won all 12 home games.
Then came the tournament. The run began with a first-round
86-51 blowout of Lakeland at a packed Alexander Gym.
“I can remember diving for a loose ball into the standing
room-only crowd in one of the corners and realizing that they’re 10 deep in the
corners to watch this game,” Braier says.
Then it was on to Storm Lake, Iowa, a seven-hour bus trip
into the round of 32.
“When we went to play Buena Vista and we were in Storm Lake,
Iowa, we had a ton of students who were at that game,” Tharp recalls. “That’s a
great effort to be there. It was amazing. To come out of that locker room and
to see how many Lawrence kids were there, and just people from Appleton who
were not even necessarily connected to Lawrence, that was incredibly special.”
Lawrence would beat Buena Vista 72-66, sending them to the Sweet 16 in Tacoma and a match up with Sul Ross State, a team from Alpine, Texas, loaded with size and talented junior college transfers. It was unchartered territory for any school from the Midwest Conference, which had never seen a team advance past the second round.
A thrilling 86-79 overtime win that included a late double-digit
comeback moved the Vikings to the Elite 8 and a showdown with the University of
Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a Division III power located just 60 miles west of the
Lawrence campus but light years away in terms of basketball history. The
Pointers at the time had advanced to the Elite 8 twice in the previous decade
and would go on to win back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005.
It was a nail-biter, neither team giving ground, filled with drama to the end — witnessed by no more than 400 or so people in a college fieldhouse nearly 2,000 miles from home. A late Stevens Point three-pointer sent the game into overtime — a bonus five minutes — and then Lawrence’s improbable journey came crashing down in the waning seconds of that extra period.
A made basket by the Pointers to retake the lead. Then a
last-second shot that would have won the game for Lawrence fell short. The
scoreboard read 82-81.
“I just remember being completely exhausted, dropping to the
floor,” Braier says.
Just like that, the ride was over.
“You felt like that last shot, how does that not go in?”
Braier says. “It’s like we were in a movie. In the movie, that shot goes in.”
Puget Sound, the host school, had lost the night before to
Stevens Point. Thus, witnesses in the arena that night were few.
“There weren’t more than 300 or 400 people in the crowd at that game, and it was probably one of the greatest college basketball games ever played,” Tharp says. “It was a phenomenal game.”
Stevens Point would roll through the next two games to claim
a national championship. Lawrence was left with what might have been.
“I think when you talk to everybody they all think we were
one or two possessions away from maybe having a chance to win a national
championship,” Tharp says.
After the game, even the Stevens Point coach wished aloud
that both teams could move on.
— — —
“The Vikings would
have gladly jumped at that invitation to play one more game together. On
Sunday, though, the talk in the airport was already moving to this week’s final
exams on campus, spring-break trips and other ‘real life’ adventures. The team
knew that this particular group, like all teams, only receives one chance to
write its story.” Dick Knapinski, The Post-Crescent
— — ——
“I think there was a sense of disappointment and heartbreak
after that loss,” Tharp says. “Afterwards, and over the years, I think there is
an obviously special place in everybody’s hearts about the run that was made.”
For Chris MacGillis, a senior on that team, the end of the journey hurt more than missing out on a chance at a national championship.
“I wasn’t emotional because we lost and I thought we should have won,” he says. “I just remember becoming emotional because of how proud I was and how happy I was to be with this group of guys. We were a very tight group. We all relied on each other and we all cared about each other, and we still do to this day. I was more emotional about not being able to do this with these guys anymore than I was about losing.”
Lawrence would continue to dominate the Midwest Conference for the next couple of years, going undefeated in the 2005-06 regular season and claiming the school’s first-ever No. 1 national ranking. They’d win a couple more tournament games, as well. But they never quite recaptured the glory of 2004.
“It really was magical,” MacGillis says.
Fifteen years later, most of the players on that team remain connected. There are job changes and weddings and children and other life moments to navigate. But the bonds formed during that memorable season remain to this day. For basketball players, a March Madness experience, no matter if it’s under the bright lights of D-1 or in the more dimly lit shadows of D-3, lodges in your soul and stays there forever.
When Braier was inducted into Lawrence’s athletic hall of fame three years ago, many of the players from that team made their way back to Appleton. Braier said it was a reminder to him of how special that group was.
“I always thought, man, these guys are ridiculously smart,”
Braier says. “That was my first thought when I first dealt with my teammates.
“I don’t think at the time you realize how special of a
group of individuals this was. It was just an everyday thing. … Everyone was
such a high achiever. You didn’t think it was anything different. But then when
you stepped away or you talked to friends from other teams, that’s when you
The coaches remain as connected as the players, despite a
decade and a half of travels and life experiences separating them from those
three weeks of madness.
“Those guys are part of my life, and obviously things have
changed a little bit with me being at a different school and those guys are all
over the country now, but I think everyone knows where everybody is at and what
everybody is doing,” Tharp says. “But what makes it special, I still think to
this day if anybody needed anyone else on that team, I think everybody would
still be there for each other.”
Braier is getting married in September and most of his
Lawrence teammates will be there.
There’s also a Las Vegas getaway every March that reunites
many of them. No better time than March to recall that fleeting moment when
Lawrence basketball got to dance.
“Man, I could talk about this forever,” Braier says.
Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: email@example.com
Lawrence University has received a $250,000 Tourism Development Grant from the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau for the renovation of the Banta Bowl. The grant, reviewed and approved by the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Tourism Development Grants Committee and its Board of Directors, will be distributed over a five-year period at $50,000 per year.
The proposed Banta Bowl renovations include raising and widening the field to accommodate soccer and lacrosse and the installation of a high-quality synthetic playing surface making the field more durable. This durability will increase opportunities for community groups to use the facility.
The project also will include new seating, locker rooms, press box, concession, restrooms, lighting, LED scoreboard and entrance plaza, all contributing to a modern, state-of-the-art stadium experience. The total cost of the project is estimated at $5.2 million.
“Lawrence is delighted to have the support of the Fox Cities for our highest priority capital project,” said Lawrence University President Mark Burstein. “Investment in a new Banta Bowl is the latest example of the long-standing relationship between the college and the community including Mile of Music, the Civic Life Project and the Division III Baseball World Series. I strongly support our football program and want to thank the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for their investment in Lawrence football and sports throughout the region. ”
The renovated Banta Bowl could attract a sizable number of visitors for overnight stays each year. The wider field will enable Lawrence to host regional youth soccer tournaments and summer camps, while the durable new turf will allow for concerts and events like the WIAA state football playoffs or even semi-pro football games. The new lighting opens up the opportunity for night games and the entire stadium feel positions it well for signature “championship” games.
“The Bureau’s Tourism Development Grants Committee along with its Board of Directors is thrilled to be able to offer this grant to Lawrence University,” said Chris Haese, Grants committee chair. “The renovations to the Banta Bowl will not only provide a boost to the Lawrence athletic program, but will also provide a great opportunity to enhance sports tourism, both of which will benefit the economy of the Fox Cities.”
The Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau’s mission is to strengthen the Fox Cities economy by attracting meeting, sports and leisure visitors through sales, marketing and destination development. Visitor spending in the Fox Cities was more than $392 million in 2012. The bureau estimates that spending created 5,500 jobs and $125 million in income for Fox Cities residents.
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the Fiske Guide to Colleges 2014 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Individualized learning, the development of multiple interests and community engagement are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.