Category: Athletics

Kenya Earl’s record-setting career at Lawrence has been a thrilling journey

Kenya Earl brings the ball up court Jan. 15 vs. Grinnell at Alexander Gym.

Story by Joe Vanden Acker / Athletics

It’s almost unfathomable to think what Kenya Earl nearly missed. The Lawrence University women’s basketball star has earned numerous accolades, set multiple records, and will go down as one of the greatest players in Lawrence basketball history.

Earl’s latest achievement was breaking the career scoring record in Lawrence’s 66-48 win over Grinnell College on Jan. 15. She now stands at 1,489 points, two better than Claire Getzoff, a 2006 graduate and Lawrence Hall of Famer.

The alternate reality for Earl was college life without basketball at her hometown school, the University of Iowa, and that was going to be the choice. A big assist goes to former Lawrence coach Ashley Wellman for getting Earl to Appleton.

“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep playing, but luckily (Wellman) kept reaching out,” Earl said.

Wellman said Earl believed she might not be good enough to play college basketball. Wellman, with a knowing smile, assured Earl she could definitely play the game at the next level, and she made the drive from Iowa City to visit. After that, it was basically a done deal.

“I just wanted to get here and play, play basketball,” Earl said. “Everyone was so nice. The team was so nice.”

Scoring record falls during Jan. 15 game against Grinnell

Kenya Earl celebrates with her teammates after breaking Lawrence’s all-time women’s basketball scoring record on Jan. 15.

Earl became an instant sensation for the Vikings. She posted a double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds in her first collegiate game and has piled up 22 more double-doubles in the ensuing seasons. Earl finished her rookie season at 17.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and was an All-Midwest Conference selection.

“I was lucky to start and that gave me a lot of confidence,” Earl said of her rookie season in 2017-18. “I wasn’t expecting a whole lot in the beginning. I gained more confidence from my team.”

Head coach Riley Woldt took over the program in 2018, and he knew Earl was a fine player but the appreciation quickly grew.

“Another special thing about Kenya is how versatile she is,” Woldt said. “(The coaching staff) quickly realized that if we kept her down (in the post), teams could double- and triple-team her. We needed to open up her role on offense so, one, she could get touches and get more touches, and two, we could have more balance and flow on offense.”

Taking advantage of Earl’s outside shooting ability (she has knocked down 92 3-pointers in her career) and her knack for getting to the foul line (she’s a career 85 percent free-throw shooter), she averaged 16.8 points and 8.4 rebounds as a sophomore in 2018-19. Earl was a first-team all-conference selection that season.

Student profile: 2 Minutes With … Kenya Earl

After two seasons, Earl was well over halfway to Getzoff’s career scoring record of 1,487. Her teammates quickly pointed that out.

“When I hit my junior year, people were saying, ‘You could break the all-time record,’ and I’m thinking what are you talking about,” Earl said.

A five-time Midwest Conference Player of the Week, Earl had the best season of her career in 2019-20 as she broke her own season record with 443 points. A first-team all-conference selection again, she averaged 18.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

“Going into my senior year last year, we got canceled due to COVID and that was hard,” Earl said. “I wanted to come back just to figure out my academics more and that once-in-a-lifetime chance to break this record.”

A biology major, Earl is the only player in the league this year averaging a double-double at 14.9 points and a conference-best 10.4 rebounds per contest. She entered the season just 208 points away from breaking Getzoff’s record. 

“I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself and psych myself out,” Earl said. “This season I’m just trying to win games for my team and chip away at it.”

Earl’s low-key demeanor belies the fire that burns inside the player, Woldt said.

“I love what she brings to the table every single day. She’s early to practice, goes to her own hoop to get ready for practice. But she’s not distant. A total team player. Our humble warrior,” Woldt said.

While Earl’s offensive exploits draw the attention, she is a good defender and ranks third on Lawrence’s career list with 722 rebounds and second with 94 blocks.

“What I’ve been really impressed with is that Kenya’s become a really smart, savvy defender,” said Woldt, adding that Earl draws the other team’s top post player but also is good on the perimeter and in help defense.

“Her growth that we’ve seen is that she understands our defense, but she knows how to contest shots, put her body in a place to help.”

The Vikings have continued to grow as Earl has matured. Lawrence is 6-8 this season and tied for fourth in the league at 3-3. The top four teams make the MWC Tournament, and the Vikings are eyeing one of those spots. 

“We’ve been talking all season about what our goal is, and our goal is to reach the top four,” said Earl, who has 10 regular-season games left. 

The other individual goal for Earl could be one last record. She stands just 77 points away from breaking Lawrence’s all-time scoring record of 1,565 held by three-time All-American Chris Braier.

“I hear a lot about Chris Braier, and I’ve met him a couple of times. To be put in the same category as him is mind-blowing,” Earl said. 

“The team goal is the most important right now. It would be really nice to make (the tournament) and going out with a bang this last year.”

Earl is in the twilight of her career, and that brings a harsh reality for Woldt — getting ready for life after Kenya Earl.

“You can’t replace a Kenya Earl. It takes multiple players to replace all the things she does,” said Woldt. “The Kenya Earls, the Clarie Getzoffs, the Felice Porratas only come around once in a great while.”

Joe Vanden Acker is director of athletic media relations at Lawrence University.

Casey Korn ready to put in the hard work of building a hoops winner at Lawrence

Coach Casey Korn leads the men’s basketball team through drills in a late October practice in Alexander Gym. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Casey Korn knows where he wants to go, where he wants to take his Lawrence University men’s basketball team.

March.

That’s the dream. That’s always the dream for college hoopsters. But Korn, about to begin his first season as the Vikings’ head coach, knows it’s the details and work habits tended to in summer, fall, and winter that will determine what success might come in spring.

“The goal is to try to be at the top of the Midwest Conference every year, which will give you the opportunity to play basketball in March,” Korn said. “From experience I can tell you, March basketball is a lot of fun. But you can’t skip steps. You have to work hard in February. You have to work hard in October. You have to work hard in July.”

Schedule and other information on Lawrence men’s basketball here.

That will be the message as Korn leads Lawrence onto the court for the first time at 5 p.m. Nov. 6, a game in Alexander Gym against Marian University. It comes just two months after Korn was hired to lead the program following Zach Filzen’s departure to take a coaching job in his home state of Minnesota.

It’s been both a dream and a whirlwind for Korn, who was already living close to the Lawrence campus when he accepted the job offer from Director of Athletics Kim Tatro in early September. A native of the St. Louis area, he and his wife, Ashley, had moved to Appleton three years ago when Korn took a job as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. It reconnected him with his former college teammate, Matt Lewis, who was in the process of building a powerhouse program in Oshkosh.

Casey Korn came on board as Lawrence’s new men’s basketball coach in early September.

It was in Korn’s first year at UWO that the Titans won the NCAA Division III national championship. They would qualify for the tournament again the following year. Korn was taking notes every step of the way.

“Just the standards, the high expectations,” Korn said of what he learned through the UWO experience. “They have high standards and don’t apologize for them.”

It was on the recruiting side in particular that Korn said he got an education. He had been a high school coach prior to coming to UWO, so recruiting was new to him.

“I learned a lot about the relationship piece of it,” Korn said. “Helping 17- and 18-year-old high school students feel comfortable, and helping them to make a decision. Sometimes you are not the right choice or the right fit, but if you do right by people and you’re honest with people, it’ll work out. You are going to find the people who are right for your program and want to be here.”

Flashback to when March Madness gripped the Lawrence campus

Korn played both basketball and baseball as an undergraduate at Cornell College. He graduated from Cornell in 2009 and recently finished his master’s degree in athletic administration from Concordia University, Nebraska. He coached high school basketball at various schools in Missouri over the course of nine years before joining the UWO staff in 2018.

Now in his first head coaching position at the collegiate level, Korn leads a Lawrence team that features All-Midwest Conference standout Brad Sendell and two other returning starters, Brandon Danowski and Julian DeGuzman. But because the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season last year, Korn is looking at nine newcomers among first-year and sophomore players.

His message to those players has been simple: Work hard, take care of your studies, and help build a program that you and your peers can take pride in.

“Overall, we just want them to set a standard for who they want to become and who we should be here at Lawrence,” Korn said. “Mistakes are going to be made along the way. But we’re going to continue to grow and continue to learn from them as we go. That’s what our philosophy is going to be. We want to excel on the court and in the classroom, and we’re going to put a product on the floor that people will be proud to come and watch.”

Men’s basketball coach Casey Korn said he’s focused on building a foundation for sustained success: “We will have high expectations.”

The ongoing pandemic has kept things from fully opening up. Lawrence’s winter sports policy will limit attendance for indoor events—each student-athlete will have a two-person pass list; other than that, only Lawrence students, faculty, and staff can attend.

That means another of Korn’s priorities is temporarily on pause. He wants to increase the frequency of youth basketball camps held in Alexander Gymnasium and make Lawrence basketball a more visible presence in Appleton. He wants his players to volunteer in local schools. He wants them to be seen.

“Once you start building some of those relationships—with the schools, the teachers, the students—all of a sudden maybe they’ll come and support what you’re trying to do,” Korn said. “Again, it’s that big relationship piece, and that’s a big part of what we’re trying to get done.”

The next step for Korn and the program comes with the Nov. 6 season opener against Marian. The plan is to get better each day, each week, each month, and in the process build something that can be sustained, he said.

“Winning is fun, I will say that,” Korn said, reflecting on the March basketball he’s experienced. “We will have high expectations. This is a good league, the Midwest Conference. It’s not a one-bid league where you have to win your conference tournament to get into the national tournament, but that’s the easiest route to go. That’s where we want to be. We want to be a program that grows to be a staple in this conference and plays in national tournaments. … But you can’t skip steps.”

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

Cross country, soccer teams lead huge athletics weekend for Lawrence

Teammates surround Lawrence University’s Emma Vasconez Saturday after she scored a goal in double overtime against Monmouth College to send Lawrence to the Midwest Conference Tournament. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University closed out October with a sensational weekend courtesy of its men’s and women’s cross country teams and its men’s and women’s soccer teams.

Both cross country teams won their Midwest Conference Championships on Saturday at Tuscumbia Country Club in Green Lake, the first time both have been crowned champs in the same year in Lawrence history. Cristyn Oliver, a sophomore from Redondo Beach, California, won the women’s individual championship, a first for Lawrence since 1998.

Cristyn Oliver poses with Midwest Conference Director Heather Benning following her winning run Saturday in Green Lake.

On the soccer field, both the women and men qualified for the Midwest Conference Tournament, both for the first time since 2011. The women did so in a thrilling double overtime win over Monmouth College on Ron Roberts Field at the Banta Bowl. The men, meanwhile, lost 1-0 to Monmouth but qualified for the tournament when Lake Forest fell to Grinnell.

It was a historic weekend for the Vikings, and one that points to the upswing Lawrence athletics programs are on.

“It was a great day to be a Viking,” said women’s soccer coach Joe Sagar, who has led a revival of the soccer program since coming on board in 2018.

The women’s soccer win came with plenty of drama. Emma Vasconez, a sophomore from Huntley, Illinois, scored her first collegiate goal in the 105th minute, lifting Lawrence to a thrilling win in the second overtime and setting off a wild on-field celebration. Lawrence needed a win in order to qualify for the four-team conference tournament.

Coach Joe Sagar celebrates with Emma Vasconez following her game-winning goal at the Banta Bowl. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

“I think the late goal is a testament to how hard we have worked all season, our dedication, and our willingness to never give up,” Vasconez said. “I’m happy I was able to contribute to such a special moment and honor our seniors who have dedicated so much to our program. Being on the field and sharing an emotional moment like that with my team and coaches, and with our parents watching in the stands, is something I’ll never forget.”

Sagar called it an “amazing achievement” for a program that hit rock bottom when it went winless three years ago.

“It was such a perfect end to the regular season, and seeing Emma, who has been such a key part of our success this year, score her goal was exciting and emotional,” he said. “Emma took a risk and was composed enough to put the ball into the goal and send us into the postseason for the first time in a decade. The happiness on all of the players’ faces reminds us all of why sport is so important.”

The women’s and men’s soccer teams will go into their respective conference tournaments as No. 4 seeds, and both will face top-seeded Knox College in the semifinals.

Lawrence University’s 2021 Midwest Conference women’s cross country champions.

The cross country teams, meanwhile, wrote their own history on Saturday, the women securing a conference title for the first time since 2001 and the men claiming their first conference championship since 2011.

Oliver went where no Lawrence runner has gone in 23 years, winning the women’s individual cross country conference championship. She did so by a whopping 48 seconds, putting up a time of 22:30.72 on the 6,000-meter course. Lawrence took the team title with 42 points, 20 points better than second-place Grinnell.

“Cristyn had a humongous lead right after the mile mark and just kept cruising,” Coach Jason Fast said. “She’s been like a machine. Once she hits the course, there’s no stopping her.”

Lawrence University’s 2021 Midwest Conference men’s cross country champions.

In the men’s race, Lawrence took the team title with 46 points, four points better than Cornell College. Collin Beyer, a first-year from Portland, Oregon, led the Lawrence men, placing third over the 8,000-meter course in 26:15.44.

“I was telling them during the race that we’re doing it,” Fast said of his men’s team. “They knew we were doing well, and when they finished they knew we ran really well. They had their best race of the year when they needed it.”

Director of Athletics Kim Tatro called Saturday a milestone day, one Lawrence will build on moving forward.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with the success of our men’s and women’s cross country programs,” she said. “To win both team titles and essentially secure every possible award at the Midwest Conference meet is unheard of. And to have both men’s and women’s soccer in the Midwest Conference tournament is phenomenal, especially when you understand the recent history of our programs. Our women’s team didn’t win a game in 2018 and Coach Sagar and the current women in our program have turned that around quickly.  In similar fashion, our men’s team only won four games in 2018 and Coach (Will) Greer and the men in our program are to be commended on the strides they have made to improve our program.”

For more action from the Vikings’ incredible weekend, including wins for the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, see the Lawrence Athletics web site.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Joe Vanden Acker, director of athletic media relations, contributed to this report.

As student-athletes, embrace balance between academics, sports, self care

Karina Herrera ’22 is a captain on Lawrence’s 2020-21 women’s basketball team.

Story by Karina Herrera ’22

If you’re a student-athlete, like me, you know that balancing the demands of academics and athletics can sometimes be overwhelming.

It’s hard, and it’s not for everyone. But finding that healthy balance is doable and necessary. Drawing on my experience—heading into my fourth year at Lawrence, I’m an English (literature) major and a captain on the women’s basketball team—I’ve compiled a list of six tips to help you maintain your equilibrium while being a student-athlete. No matter which of Lawrence’s 22 varsity sports you’re playing, keep these things in mind:

1. Be health-minded

This means eating well and getting enough sleep. I know that our schedules can get really crazy and sometimes we just don’t have time to sit down in the Commons for an entire meal, but that doesn’t mean you should skip out on food. I recommend stocking your residence hall room with snacks and fruit—think protein or granola bars, apples, crackers, muffins and yogurt (if you have a fridge). You also can grab a to-go meal from the Café or a paper bag lunch from the Corner Store and eat it on the go. Most professors will let you eat in class, so you don’t have to worry about not finishing your food in time—as long as you’re not disturbing the class, of course.

You also need to make sure that you’re getting ample amounts of sleep—at least seven hours. This is something I struggled with my first and second years, so I know that it’s easier said than done. For some reason, I would leave a bulk of my homework to finish after practice, and then I’d stay up as long as necessary to finish my assignments, which would sometimes take until well after midnight. Don’t do that. It might be hard, but pick a reasonable time to stop doing homework—no matter how much you have left—and just go to bed; your body needs that rest. 

2. Be proactive with your studies

When you’re in season, it might seem like there’s no time to complete assignments. Between practices, lifts, traveling, and every other team activity, getting your work done is challenging. What helps me to stay on top of my work is really just knowing my schedule and committing blocks of time to work on assignments. Get a routine going. If you know that you have an hour or two between classes, use that time to get easy assignments out of the way. If you have an away game, bring your work with you, find a seat on the bus with an outlet and take advantage of the free WiFi to get some work done. Wake up early at the hotel and chip away at your workload. Don’t wait to do assignments until after you’ve come back from games or practices—it’ll just cause you more stress and, in the end, you’ll have less time to get it done right.  

3. Rely on teammates for support

More often than not, one of your teammates will have taken the same class as you or had the same professor. Use them as a resource. They can give you insider tips on how to do well in the class. Or maybe one of your teammates is a tutor and can help you with a paper or they know how to help you solve a problem. Also, sometimes your teammates will know some resources to help you that you hadn’t thought about. A lot of the time, my teammates and I will study together even if we’re working on different assignments. Ask your teammates to do the same because just being around that kind of atmosphere can help put you in that homework mindset.

4. Take study breaks

Sometimes your mind can’t focus and you need to give your eyes a break from looking at screens or books. Ask a teammate if they want to go to the gym and get a small workout in, go for a walk along the river or just stroll down College Avenue for food or beverages. Balancing the student-athlete life also means incorporating time for activities that don’t involve either. I know that I can’t sit for hours on end trying to complete one assignment, so taking breaks to reset my mind helps me to be more productive.

5. Be honest with coaches

It’s important to remember that you’re a person first, then student and then an athlete. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with something in your personal life, talk to your coaches and let them know that you’re not at your best. Your mental health is important and should not be overlooked. The coaches at Lawrence also understand that the classes are challenging and stressful, so if you’re falling behind on an assignment or you have a big test coming up, discuss your concerns with them to see how you can come to a solution so that you’re not sacrificing one over the other. And if you get injured, no matter how insignificant you think it is, let your athletic trainer and coaches know. Not communicating these things with your coaches can affect your performance in the classroom and in games or meets.  

6. Why so serious?

Speaking as a senior captain, my last piece of advice is to simply have fun. Don’t be too serious about it all. Give your best effort, of course, but don’t burn yourself out trying to do everything perfectly. You’re not going to remember all the shots you miss or the pitches you didn’t swing at. It’s the memories from team dinners, karaoke bus rides, inside jokes, and the friends you make that you’ll take with you after you graduate. Not to sound cheesy, but enjoy it while it lasts.

Karina Herrera ’22 is a student writer in the Office of Communications.

Vikings athletics sidelined until January as Midwest Conference suspends play

Lawrence University’s Banta Bowl

The Midwest Conference has suspended play for the fall season following a meeting of the league’s Presidents Council on Monday.

The presidents of the 10 conference institutions made the decision to suspend play for the fall season and to delay the start of the winter sports season through the end of 2020, according to a statement from the Midwest Conference (MWC). The presidents made the decision in coordination with their athletic directors in order to protect the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches, staff, and the campus and local communities, the statement said.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes is our top priority,” Director of Athletics Kim Tatro said. “With the surge of COVID-19 cases around the country, we believe this is the best course of action to protect our student-athletes, coaches, faculty and staff.”

See Lawrence’s Planning for Fall 2020, including FAQ, here.

See more on Lawrence Athletics here.

See Midwest Conference FAQ here.

The MWC will continue to monitor the factors impacting the decision for suspension of the fall and winter sport seasons and take action to resume athletic competition when it is deemed safe to do so, according to the statement from the league office.

Tatro, who has been a member of the Lawrence coaching staff since 1993, saw her final season as the softball coach cut short back in March as the pandemic forced the cancellation of the rest of the spring sports season.

“This was a very difficult decision for everyone involved in the process,” Tatro said. “Our student-athletes want to compete and our coaches want to be leading their teams. We certainly understand the desire of our student-athletes to play the games they love so dearly, but the dangers of exposure to COVID-19 are just too great.”

Lawrence teams that are affected by this are football, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s tennis, men’s and women’s cross country, and volleyball. The start of competition would be delayed for men’s and women’s basketball and men’s and women’s swimming (indoor track also is included, but Lawrence traditionally doesn’t compete during the indoor season until January). The Presidents Council had decided in mid-July to limit fall competition to Midwest Conference opponents only, but a dramatic increase in cases around the nation forced the league to evaluate the situation further.

“Throughout the summer Lawrence searched for ways to mount a fall athletic season while working hard to ensure our student-athletes and their coaches remained healthy,” Lawrence President Mark Burstein said. “After many conference conversations it is clear that not all members can support the NCAA health guidelines for competition. In light of this situation, I deeply regret that the conference has decided to not proceed with competition this fall. This is a significant disappointment for me personally, and I am sure is a disappointment for many. I know Athletics Director Tatro and her team will find ways to keep our student-athletes engaged and in physical and mental shape, and I look forward to seeing our programs compete in future seasons.”

The Midwest Conference joins more than 20 NCAA Division III conferences that have suspended play for the fall season.

Decisions regarding men’s and women’s hockey, which both fall under the auspices of the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association, and men’s and women’s fencing, which is part of the Midwest Fencing Conference, will occur at a later date, according to Tatro. All four of those teams are scheduled to begin their seasons with practice in October.

“Our hope is to get through this arduous time and return to some sense of normalcy,” Tatro said. “I eagerly anticipate the day when our teams can return. Adversity is something our student-athletes deal with on a regular basis and this situation is no different. We will move forward in a manner that will make the best of a difficult situation.”

New court design unveiled, part of makeover at Alexander Gymnasium

A Viking ship is featured prominently in the new court design in Alexander Gym. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Joe Vanden Acker / Athletics

Alexander Gymnasium is already a grand, historic structure, but the home of the Vikings is getting a makeover.

The 91-year-old home of Lawrence’s Department of Athletics and the competition venue for basketball and volleyball is undergoing a transformation, which was funded through donations by alumni and friends of the University. The first phase is complete with the unveiling of the new basketball/volleyball court.

“We couldn’t be more excited and appreciative of the new floor design for Alexander Gym,” Lawrence Director of Athletics Kim Tatro said. “While resurfacing was certainly a maintenance requirement, the fresh new design work is an added bonus. We appreciate those whose donations made this possible.”

The main court will retain the east/west configuration that has been in place for 35 years, but the court will look dramatically different. Designed by Art Director Matt Schmeltzer of the Lawrence Communications Office, the court features a Viking ship that stretches from the 3-point lines on either end of the floor.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the new floor design,” said men’s basketball coach Zach Filzen. “It looks phenomenal and is extremely well-designed. The new court, in addition to the other renovations, will go a long way in improving Alex Gym. We have a special facility when it comes to character and history. Being able to bring some updated aspects to our gym should make it a very fun place to play and watch high-level competition in the future.”

Cutting through the waves, the Viking ship uses as a figurehead the antelope from the Lawrence coat of arms. The shield from the same coat of arms adorns the side of the vessel. On the massive sail is the center jump circle with Lawrence’s interlocking LU logo.

“We are really excited about the new floor,” volleyball coach Kim Falkenhagen said. “It is a great upgrade to the facility that is not only eye-catching but shows our pride in Lawrence athletics. Looking forward to getting the team out there and trying it out.”

The border of the court is done in the dark blue that has been worn by Lawrence athletes for more than a century. The free throw lane, known as “the paint” in basketball parlance, wears the same dark blue paint. Each baseline features the words Lawrence University, and the sideline in front of the bleachers says Home Of The Vikings.

Workers prepare the logo on the refurbished floor in Alexander Gym.

“We are already fortunate to have one of the most unique and distinct places to play,” women’s basketball coach Riley Woldt said. “I’m really excited for our current players, all of the Viking alumni, and the entire Lawrence and Appleton communities to see and embrace the new court design, one that does an awesome job of incorporating Lawrence tradition within the comfy confines of Alexander Gymnasium. It’s going to give off a great feel on game day but will provide some wonderful energy for all those who come through the doors on a daily basis.”

This is the first phase of improvements taking place at Alexander Gymnasium during the summer of 2020. Alexander Gym, which has seen three teams win a total of 11 conference championships over the years, also gets a new set of bleachers. The old wooden bleachers, which were the original set of pull-out bleachers in the facility, had been in the gym since the mid-1960s. The new bleachers are set to be installed at the end of May.

The final piece of the renovation is a transformation of the lobby. With its terrazzo floor and high-arching ceiling, the lobby will serve as home to the Lawrence Intercollegiate Athletic Hall of Fame and serve as a gathering space for fans and families of the Vikings.

Joe Vanden Acker is director of athletic media relations at Lawrence University. Email: joseph.m.vandenacker@lawrence.edu

Coach Kleiber ready to lead new women’s ice hockey program at Lawrence

Jocey Kleiber on launching a new women’s hockey program: “I’m just trying to get [the players] to buy into being the first players to wear our jersey next season, which is a pretty unique experience.” (Photo by Danny Damiani)

By Alex Freeman ’23

Lawrence University is launching a brand-new athletics program: Get ready for women’s hockey!

It will be the 22nd varsity sports program at Lawrence, bringing the roster of varsity sports to 11 women’s and 11 men’s teams. The Vikings will join the men’s hockey program in the competitive Northern Collegiate Hockey Association and play at the Appleton Family Ice Center. Lawrence will be the 10th women’s squad in the NCHA and one of 67 teams competing in NCAA Division III.

“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,” says Director of Athletics Christyn Abaray. “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. It truly is an exciting time to be a Viking.”

After an extensive search, Jocelyn “Jocey” Kleiber has been chosen to lead the new Lawrence University women’s ice hockey program as it prepares to embark on its inaugural season.

Kleiber was an assistant coach at the North American Hockey Academy in 2015 and 2016. She also served as a graduate assistant coach at Robert Morris University (Pa.) from 2013 through 2015. Prior to joining Lawrence, she spent three years as an assistant coach at Stevenson University in Maryland, helping to coach them to the Middle Atlantic Conference championship in 2018. A 2012 graduate of Niagara University, Kleiber was a standout defensive player for the Purple Eagles. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management in 2012 and went on to earn a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Robert Morris in 2015.

“What made Jocey stand apart was her detailed plan of growing a program from the beginning and her enthusiasm to become part of the community, here on campus, in the Fox Valley and the Upper Midwest,” says Abaray.

We sat down to talk to Kleiber about taking the helm of this exciting new program.

On Kleiber’s first day on the Lawrence campus as the new women’s ice hockey head coach, she did not yet have access to her email. By day two, she had 25 emails in her inbox from possible new recruits. From there, the recruitment process took off.

By the beginning of the 2020–21 school year, Lawrence will have formed its inaugural women’s ice hockey team—the first new Lawrence NCAA program since the 1980s. And Kleiber is building it from the ground up.

“I have a lot of friends that are coaches too, so they’ve inherited programs that have been around for 10-20-30 years,” Kleiber said. “So they have to try and change a culture, whereas here, you actually get to start the culture. … I’m just trying to get [the players] to buy into being the first players to wear our jersey next season, which is a pretty unique experience.”

With three years of experience as an assistant coach under her belt, Kleiber is excited to take on the challenge of being a head coach. For now, that means focusing most of her energy on recruitment.

Before the COVID-19 safer-at-home lockdown, Kleiber’s year consisted of traveling around the U.S. to watch women’s hockey tournaments, reaching out to coaches and potential recruits and helping to facilitate campus visits. Through this process, 30 recruits have already applied to Lawrence.

Kleiber hopes Lawrence can win 10 games in its first season. She acknowledges that the goal is optimistic, but she is confident that it is attainable as long as the players embrace the systems and strategies she presents.

From there, the team can start working to achieve a more long-term goal: a spot in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) championship. Eventually, Kleiber hopes they might even earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s going to take maybe some baby steps at first, but we’ll get there,” Kleiber said. “It’s just a process of [getting the team to] buy in. It’s getting everyone to be on the same page and getting it to work.”

Alex Freeman ’23 is a student writer in the Communications office.

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.