Tag: Lawrence football

Aker: It’s time to re-establish Lawrence’s football presence in Wisconsin

Tony Aker poses for a photo outside the fence at a snow-covered Banta Bowl.
Tony Aker, Lawrence’s new football coach, is looking to bring excitement back to the Banta Bowl on Saturday afternoons. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

“Don’t flinch.”

It’s a message Tony Aker delivers frequently.

You’ll hear Lawrence University’s new head football coach say it when imploring his players to embrace the academic and athletic rigors that come with being a scholar athlete. You’ll hear it when he talks with his coaches about the challenges of rebuilding a winning tradition in a football program that was once among the nation’s Division III elite but hasn’t won consistently in years. And you’ll hear it when he talks about re-establishing the Fox Valley, the state of Wisconsin, and the upper Midwest as essential recruiting territory for Lawrence football.

“We talk about not flinching, coming in and accepting the challenge,” Aker said as he settled into his office in the lower level of Alexander Gymnasium in mid-January, a month into his first foray as a collegiate head coach. “It’s about these guys knowing they have to go and attack it, never backing down from any challenge. … When you have setbacks on the field or classes start to pick up and it gets a little tougher, we tell them, that’s what we signed up for. We tell our scholar athletes we want them to be excited about studying for an exam. I want them to walk up and slam that exam down and feel really, really good that they put the work in and they’ve done everything they could to put themselves in a position to be successful.

“And as coaches, we have to live it out. We have to have that don’t flinch mentality. We’re going to go in and attack everything, and that’s the same way we’re going to play football.”

A conference first

Aker, 32, makes a bit of history upon his arrival at Lawrence. He is the first African American head football coach in the Midwest Conference, the second among all Wisconsin colleges. The first African American head football coach at the collegiate level in Wisconsin was Fred Reese at Lakeland University in the early 1990s.

Aker said he counts a number of talented African American head coaches at the high school level in Wisconsin as mentors. He points in particular to Dennis Thompson, who became the first African American high school coach to win a state football championship at Racine Park High School in 2005.

“It’s an honor, it’s something I’m proud of,” Aker said of crossing that barrier in the Midwest Conference. “But I don’t really think about it. I’m proud of it but I definitely don’t want it to define me. At the end of the day, I’m a football coach and an educator and I take great pride in developing my scholar athletes. I’m just excited about the opportunity to be a head football coach.”

With challenges come opportunities

If enthusiasm alone was the ticket to success, Aker would already have the Lawrence program turned around. He knows the challenges are many. The Vikings are coming off a 1-8 season. The Banta Bowl, as beautiful a setting as you’ll find in Division III football, has failed to draw sizable crowds. Lawrence football has mostly fallen off the Appleton community’s radar. High school coaches in Wisconsin haven’t regularly looked to Lawrence as a landing spot for their players.

Aker isn’t flinching. Challenge accepted, he said.

Earlier in January, he attended the annual Red Smith Sports Award Banquet in Appleton, an annual event that brings together coaches, athletics administrators, and sports fans from around the state. It was a chance to introduce himself, to shake some hands, to begin the process of building positive relations here in the Fox Valley and across the state.

Aker, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s 2005 Wisconsin High School Athlete of the Year while at Brown Deer High School and later an all-conference selection as a wide receiver at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, had been working the past four years as an assistant coach at Carroll University. He knew Lawrence well, its proud football history and its recent struggles.

“It was very, very intriguing,” he said of the coaching opportunity. “And quite frankly, we have some work to do, and that appeals to me as well. I’m a firm believer in nothing that’s worth having comes easy. I wanted to come here and have the opportunity to help us get back to some of those past successes that we’ve had in the football program.”

From December: Lawrence names new football coach

Staying true to Wisconsin

“First and foremost, I’m a Wisconsin guy,” Aker said.

Originally from southern Indiana, he and his family moved to Milwaukee as he was entering eighth grade. He excelled at multiple sports at Brown Deer before going on to play football for Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota and then Stevens Point. He graduated from UWSP, having majored in sociology, and joined its coaching staff as a graduate assistant. That led him to Carroll, where he worked as an associate head coach/offensive coordinator and coached the quarterbacks, and most recently served as interim head coach.

Aker and his partner, Haley, have an 18-month-old son and a baby on the way, due in April.

Those Wisconsin roots, he said, will drive much of his philosophy as he looks to put a renewed recruiting focus closer to home.

“I take great pride in recruiting and being able to re-establish our footprint in the state of Wisconsin,” Aker said. “When you look at some of our past teams, especially our most successful ones, we’ve had a lot of scholar athletes from Wisconsin, Illinois, that upper Midwest and Great Lakes region. And we need to get back to that. I think that’s important. We are still a Wisconsin university, and we need to have that represented. Even as we continue to make headway and continue some of the national recruiting we’ve done, I would really like to have an inside out focus as we move forward.”

That includes a new emphasis on recruiting scholar athletes from in and around the Fox Cities.

“We have to try to do our best to protect the back yard,” Aker said. “Go in and find the best and the brightest and sell our vision and sell our great university and make them understand that you don’t need to go someplace else to succeed. You can accomplish all that and more right here. It’s something we have to take great pride in.

“We’re going to be visible. I plan to be out on many, many sidelines and in many, many bleachers come fall as we enjoy those Friday night lights, watching the great high school programs around the area.”

With that inside out recruiting focus, Aker believes, will come renewed excitement in the community for Vikings football. And better attendance and more energy at the Banta Bowl on Saturday afternoons.

“We’ve got to do a little bit of work in the community to make it fun again,” Aker said. “It’s a great setting, and this is a great university, and this is a great campus and a great town. We’ve got to get people here to show it off.

“We’re a part of the community and they’re a part of us, and we’re trying to get back to that as much as we can.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Tony Aker named football coach at Lawrence University: “I’m beyond thrilled”

Tony Aker

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.

“My family 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.

From tailgate party to Silent Disco, Blue and White Weekend is a time to celebrate

Lawrence football players prepare to come onto the field in a game at the Banta Bowl earlier this season.
Lawrence football will be a big part of Blue & White Weekend. A tailgate party at the Banta Bowl will precede the 1 p.m. game.

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

Get your gear ready, Lawrentians, because Blue & White Weekend is fast approaching.

What was formerly known as Fall Festival has been transformed into a weekend that celebrates all things Lawrence, with tons of fun things to do on campus — from a Friday night comedy show to a campus-wide tailgate party before Saturday’s football game to a Silent Disco Party.

The three-day celebration starts on Friday (Oct. 4).

When there is a lot going on it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming, so I have compiled a list highlighting five key things to look forward to this Blue & White Weekend. 

1) Intercollegiate Athletics Viking Hall of Fame Dinner, reception at 6 p.m., ceremony at 7 p.m. Friday at Warch Campus Center: 

A tradition that was once part of the Fall Festival is continuing into Blue & White Weekend. The dinner is a way to celebrate those being inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame.  

“Induction into the Lawrence University Hall of Fame is the highest athletics honor that Lawrence can bestow upon an individual,” Athletic Director Christyn Abaray said. “It is a marker signifying that the inductee was and will always be the cream of the crop in how they represented Lawrence on the field of play with distinct recognition at the conference and national levels.

“We forever look at those in the Hall of Fame as the beacons for Lawrence University athletics and inspirations for our current and future Lawrentian Vikings.” 

Meet this year’s inductees here.

For information on ticket availability, call the Office of Alumni and Constituency Engagement at 920-832-7019. 

2) Comedian Mandal, 8 p.m. Friday in Warch Campus Center: 

S.O.U.P. is known for bringing great acts to campus throughout the year. They are continuing that mission this Blue & White Weekend by bringing in Atlanta-based stand-up comedian Mandal, known for energetic performances and wacky humor.   

3) All-Campus Tailgate Party, 11 a.m. Saturday at Banta Bowl: 

Let’s go, Vikes! This is the second annual Blue & White Weekend tailgate party! It leads into the 1 p.m. football game. Food and camaraderie will be available. Grab something to eat, jump around in the bouncy house and enjoy the music provided by DJ King SZN.    

DJ King SZN is De Andre King ’20.

4) Football game, 1 p.m. Saturday at Banta Bowl: 

Touchdown! The Lawrence University Vikings will be competing against Illinois College. This will be their second home game of the season. Lawrence has not played against Illinois College since 2016, so be sure to go out and support our Vikings.  

5) Silent Disco Party, 8 p.m. Saturday in Warch Campus Center: 

This party is new to Blue & White Weekend, hosted by S.O.U.P., and promises to be loads of fun. Silent Discos are headphone parties, giving party-goers the opportunity to choose from three music options to rock out to. The music is controlled by DJs who will be in the room, and one of the DJs will be our very own DJ King SZN!

Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.

‘Tonight is perfection’: McKees’ outdoor rink is an Appleton oasis on ice

An aerial view of the ice rink in the McKees' yard.
The McKee ice rink measures more than 100 feet in length and hosts pickup hockey games three times a week.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Welcome to The Venue.

It’s a Tuesday evening in February, and the super snow moon — the biggest, brightest full moon of the year — is hanging over the outdoor ice rink in the Appleton yard of Chuck and Lesley McKee, shining like a beacon on a scene that screams, “This is how we all should embrace our Wisconsin winters.”

The rink, more than 100 feet long and 35 feet wide, is crafted with detail; the ice tended to with care, perfectly smooth on this 20-degree night. A dozen friends and acquaintances, pads on and hockey sticks in hand, ages ranging from 30s to 70s, skate across the rink in a game of pickup hockey, navigating around a large shagbark hickory adorned with lights while firing pucks into mini-sized goals.

“Tonight is perfection,” says Bill Carlson as he scans the scene that unfolds on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons — weather permitting — during the winter. He’s been coming to these makeshift hockey games at the McKee house along Green Bay Road — just a few blocks north of the Lawrence University campus — for 25 years.

“This is called The Venue, and this is the finest athletic facility in the state,” Carlson says with a wink and a smidge of exaggeration. He smiles and gives a nod to Chuck McKee ’68, the architect who has lovingly tended to this winter oasis for nearly three decades.

The McKees are alumni of Lawrence — both 1968 graduates — and are longtime friends and supporters of the school. Chuck, who retired three years ago after a long career as an Appleton physician, was a football star for the Vikings in the 1960s. He was a captain on the 1967 team that went undefeated and was inducted into the Lawrence Intercollegiate Athletic Hall of Fame two years ago. Individually, he was a charter member of the Hall of Fame in 1996.

The McKees have stayed closely connected to Lawrence through the years, attending shows and games, serving on boards. Chuck once served as director of the wellness center on campus and assisted as a doctor for LU athletic teams. Lawrence hockey players will sometimes come to the McKee ice rink to play low-key pond hockey after their season ends.

In many ways, this house is an extension of Lawrence.

Lawrence alumni connections: Learn more here.

Intercollegiate Athletic Hall of Fame: See Lawrence honorees here

A party on ice

It was the McKee daughters who first inspired an outdoor ice rink in the years after the McKees moved back to Appleton in the late 1970s. The rink was much smaller back then. But through trial and error, it would grow and become a more elaborate undertaking.

Others have taken notice.

In its January edition this year, Better Homes & Gardens magazine featured the McKees’ rink, showcasing an outdoor ice-skating party they threw last winter — it was dubbed Moon Over Ice and featured everything from homemade ice lanterns to an outdoor spread of food and drink. The elegant party was initially launched in the 1990s when the McKees thought it would be a good excuse to get friends and neighbors outdoors in the winter. It was halted after a couple of years, then revived again a few years ago.

“Everybody wore old-fashioned fancy clothes and I had a tux that I wore,” Chuck says. “It was really fun.”

If the weather cooperates, it can be a fabulous experience. If it’s too cold or windy or the ice doesn’t cooperate, then not as much.

The 2018 party fell into the fabulous category, a blessing considering the presence of the photographer working for Better Homes and Gardens. It was like a dinner party in a snow globe.

“That day it snowed all day,” Chuck says. “People were out setting up stuff from 10 o’clock in the morning, hanging lights and fashioning the snowbanks to put the tables on. We had a 30-foot-long table on the ice. It was really nice. The whole idea was to spend all that time outside, and everybody loved it.”

A player brings the puck up the ice during a Tuesday night game at the McKee outdoor rink.
Players range in age from their 30s to their 70s. “You lose yourself in this, in the hockey. You’re all the same age out there,” says 72-year-old Chuck McKee ’68.

Then there’s the hockey

The activity on the ice the rest of the winter is a bit less sophisticated than a dinner party. It’s about hockey, but mostly it’s about camaraderie.

There are upwards of 25 guys who come for the hockey games on a semi-regular basis, usually 12 to 15 on any given Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday, skill levels varying from some to none. They’re not necessarily friends outside of the hockey get-togethers, but they come because they’re drawn to the casual nature of the hockey and the friendly banter that comes with it, not unlike pickup basketball games or weekly softball leagues that draw players well beyond their athletic prime who still revel in friendly competition. This just happens to be at somebody’s house, a side yard transformed into an elaborate ice rink and a basement turned into a makeshift locker room.

“I’m most taken by how these various people got here,” Chuck says. “The only thing we do together is play hockey. Otherwise, very few of us have any close relationship.

“Probably only half or a third of the people who try this actually stick with it. We’ve had a lot of people who have said, yea, I want to give it a try, and then said, nah. It’s hard to predict who is going to stick with it.”

Marty Thiel came to the group this year. He’s 62, has been playing hockey since high school but had put his skates mostly on the shelf while his kids were growing up. They’re out of the house now, and one day he was asking around about where he could play some “old guy hockey.”

A week later he got a call from Chuck and an invite to join the group.

“Now I’m here three times a week,” Thiel says. “It’s everything and more. I’ll be sad when the season ends because the setting here is just perfect.”

The group helps the McKees keep the rink in working order. They come together on a weekend in December to help set up the rink, and then tend to it during the winter as if it were their own.

“It’s a human labor of love,” Carlson says. “During intermissions, about 15 shovels come out and we shovel the ice. It’s like a Zamboni with shovels. And then at the end of the night, there are a few guys who use the hose and spray another layer so it’ll be ready for the next time.”

Getting the ice just right took years of starts and stops, Chuck says. He found silage film, typically used on farms, that he cuts to size and places on the ground before making the ice. He puts up 6-inch-wide boards around the rink, turning his yard into a massive bathtub. He replumbed a faucet in the basement to accommodate a 1-inch hose.

“So, we take that hose out of the window in the basement and I just let the hose run for 18 hours when I know it’s going to be sub-freezing for five days or so,” Chuck says.

Then it’s a matter of chasing falling leaves as the water freezes.

“Brown oaks are usually the last trees to drop their leaves,” Chuck says. “And these shagbark hickories, one of them didn’t drop its leaves this year until January.”

Aerial view of hockey players making their way across the ice on the McKee outdoor rink.
A rotating cast of players show up on a given weeknight or Sunday afternoon to play hockey on the rink in the McKees’ Appleton yard. They navigate around a shagbark hickory on the east end of the ice.

But now, on this Tuesday night in mid-February, the leaves are no longer an issue and the ice is gleaming, the super snow moon providing a glow.

“Now is the sweet time,” Chuck says.

When the hockey is done, the players return to the basement, remove their pads, drink some beer and hang out. It’s a ritual that’s been playing out over and over again, with an ever-changing cast of characters, for nearly 30 years.

“Here’s what I think,” says Chuck, who at age 72 takes a back seat to no one on the ice. “Who gets to do this at my age? Who gets to sit down in a locker room and drink beer and play darts? I suppose I should be reading AARP books instead. You lose yourself in this, in the hockey. You’re all the same age out there.”

Chuck, who on this night was not playing because he had broken a rib on a freakish fall during a game a couple of weeks earlier, says the rink isn’t going anywhere, even when he eventually hangs up his skates. This ice thing is a hobby he can’t quit.

“Honestly, I’m going to make ice even if I’m not playing hockey,” he says. “It’s really fun. It’s like winter gardening.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

McCarthy Named Vikings’ New Head Football Coach

Rob McCarthy is the new head football coach at Lawrence University, Director of Athletics Mike Szkodzinski announced today.

Rob-McCarthy_newsblog
Head Football Coach Rob McCarthy

McCarthy, the defensive line coach at Carleton College and former long-time defensive coordinator at St. Olaf College, becomes the 28th head coach in Lawrence’s 122-year football history. A native of Deer River, Minn., McCarthy brings 25 years of coaching experience to Lawrence.

“I just think it’s a great, great opportunity,” McCarthy said of coming to Lawrence. “During my visits, I found a great excitement for football and a passion for excellence among the administration, faculty and alumni. That made me really want to be part of Lawrence’s rich football tradition.”

McCarthy said his first priority will be to build the Lawrence football family, and he wants to see greater depth in the program.

“No. 1, we want to build a football family where “I” is replaced by “we”, “team” is replaced by “family.” We will provide Lawrence student-athletes with a great experience. Winning will be a byproduct of doing things the right way,” McCarthy said.

“In addition, recruiting will be a priority. We have to get the numbers up to provide a quality experience. We want to recruit young men who want excellence in their lives, both in academics and athletics. We will recruit the top student-athletes from the Fox Valley, the state of Wisconsin and the country.”

Lawrence President Mark Burstein praised McCarthy’s commitment to the student and the student-athlete.

“One of the distinctive aspects of Rob’s candidacy was his strong support of students’ interest to pursue more than one passion or – as we like to say – ‘multi-interested students,'” Burstein said. “To reinforce this commitment, Rob has served through most of his career as the assistant men’s and women’s track coach where his student athletes have had significant success.”

“During my visits, I found a great excitement for football and a passion for excellence among
the administration, faculty and alumni. That made me really want to be part of
Lawrence’s rich football tradition.”

— Head Coach Rob McCarthy

Szkodzinski said McCarthy emerged from a talented group of candidates to be the next leader of Lawrence’s football program. A committee consisting of Lawrence administrators, faculty, students, trustees and alumni-athletes considered more than 100 applicants identified in a national search.

“We are very excited to welcome Rob to our staff as the next head football coach,” Szkodzinski said. “The applicant pool was tremendously competitive and Coach McCarthy distinguished himself as one of the top recruiters in our pool.”

Szkodzinski added that bringing McCarthy to Lawrence serves the best interests of the program and will keep the team moving forward. With the hiring of the McCarthy and the renovation of the Banta Bowl taking place this year, Szkodzinski reiterated the administration’s commitment to football and the Department of Athletics as a whole.

“Rob’s connections throughout the Midwest, Florida and nationally will serve our program well,” Szkodzinski said. “Not only will he be able to attract tremendous student-athletes to Lawrence, as he has at other excellent institutions, his experience as a coordinator led us to believe that he has the tools to help us succeed on the field as well. We know Coach McCarthy will be an asset to the entire department and look forward to watching our program move back toward the top of the Midwest Conference.”

This past fall was McCarthy’s first at Carleton after spending the previous 12 seasons at St. Olaf College. While at St. Olaf, McCarthy was part of a coaching staff that put together the best 12-year record in school history with a 73-47 mark. McCarthy was responsible for bringing a number of stellar players to St. Olaf, including one (Horace Gant Jr.) that went on to play in the NFL, a number of All-Americans and many All-West Region and first-team All-Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference picks.

“The applicant pool was tremendously competitive and Coach McCarthy distinguished
himself as one of the top recruiters in our pool.”

— Director of Athletics Mike Szkodzinski

McCarthy served in a variety of roles, most notably as defensive coordinator, for the Oles. He also worked as the special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator for St. Olaf, which won eight games in four different seasons during that 12-year span.

McCarthy began his coaching career at Concordia (Minn.) College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 with a double major in English and speech, communications and theater arts. A standout defensive lineman for the Cobbers, McCarthy earned All-MIAC honors and helped his team to conference championships in 1986 and 1988.

McCarthy Press Conference_newsblog
Rob McCarthy and Mike Szkodzinski attend a press conference announcing McCarthy’s appointment as Lawrence’s new head football coach.

After serving as an assistant coach at Concordia for the 1989 season, McCarthy moved to the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) in 1990. He served with the Tommies for five seasons and helped them win the MIAC championship in 1990. McCarthy then coached at Northwestern (Minn.) College and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire over the next five seasons. He helped Northwestern win the 1995 Upper Midwest Athletic Conference title and was part of the UW-Eau Claire team that took the 1998 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship.

McCarthy earned a master of science of education degree in learning disabilities from UW-Eau Claire in 2000. He then returned to coach for one season at St. Thomas and one season at Pensacola (Fla.) High School before moving to St. Olaf.

After coaching for most of his career in Minnesota, McCarthy said Lawrence provided him exactly the opportunity he was seeking, both for himself and his family. McCarthy and his wife, Angie, have three children.

“It’s a great place to raise a family,” McCarthy said. “I wasn’t just going to leave. It needed to be the right program. When this came up and everyone raved about Appleton and Lawrence, we knew this was the one.”

Lawrence has been playing varsity football since 1893 and ranks third in Midwest Conference history with 16 league championships. The Vikings have won 496 games during their storied history, and that includes the distinction of being the first Midwest Conference team to host, and win, a NCAA Division III playoff game.

Lawrence has nearly 450 All-Midwest Conference selections since the league began choosing teams back in 1937. The Vikings have 66 All-America selections, starting with Claude Radtke in 1949. Lawrence also is the only school in the Midwest Conference to have a player, Scott Reppert in 2003, selected for the College Football Hall of Fame.

Watch a video of a press conference introducing Coach McCarthy. (Note: The press conference actually begins at the 15:50 mark of the vide0.)

About Lawrence University
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 2015 and the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.