SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. - With Great Lake State Weekend set to begin, we sat down with Dr. David Paitson, LSSU Athletic Director, to recap the past year in athletics and discuss the future of the department.
Q: Talk a little about the progress and accomplishments that the athletics department as a whole saw last year.
It was an exciting year. There were positive results in all facets of athletics including team performance, academic performance, community engagement, revenue generation, and fan following to name a few. Hockey had its best season in 23 years, and hosted its first WCHA Playoff series where the team secured a pair of home wins over Bemidji State. David Mitter became the first Laker cross country athlete since 1993 to qualify for the NCAAs. Both men's and women's tennis qualified for the GLIAC postseason for the first time in nine and seven years respectively. Volleyball and women's basketball increased their win totals and were much more competitive than in recent history. In the classroom, athletics as a whole recorded a 3.155 grade point average, which is the highest GPA on recent record. Several teams scored better than a 3.3 including hockey, men's golf, women's tennis, women's golf and women's basketball. Hockey goaltender Nick Kossoff's 3.96 was the highest in the School of Kinesiology. The student-athletes were also heavily engaged in the community and LSSU Athletics was named the United Way of the EUP Community Partner of the Year. Attendance numbers were up for all of our ticketed sports including hockey (35%), volleyball (21%), and basketball (19%). Revenues in ticketing were up significantly and sponsor revenue is the highest in department history.
Q: Even with the strides forward, there are still challenges ahead. What can you tell us about some of these difficulties?
We are behind much of our competition in terms of facilities and resources. The resources provided by the university correlate directly to the size of our enrollment and we build upon that allocation with ticket sales, sponsorship, fundraising, and game guarantees. With regard to facilities there are several positives. The Johnson Controls energy saving project's new LED lighting provides a noticeable difference in all three facilities (Cooper Gymnasium, Taffy Abel Arena, and Student Athletic Center). There are a few bells and whistles with the lighting in Taffy Abel that have enhanced the game presentation. Additionally, a new cooling tower and Zamboni will aid us in making quality ice for years to come. Two outdoor tennis courts were repaved courtesy of a generous donor and equipment was significantly upgraded in our Laker weight room benefiting all of our teams. Although there is much more to do, we are happy with these improvements. Similarly, our staff is limited in size, but proficient with their time. We will continue to work to add new positions in key areas as the university grows enrollment and we can find additional revenue to offset these expenses. Our focus is on people, plan, and positivity. Control the things we can control and strive to make progress every day.
Q: In 2018-19, the cumulative average GPA for student-athletes was 3.155, the highest on recent record. Describe what this achievement means to the university.
It is a positive reflection to the university and to athletics. The GPA is a marker of that helps us track that progress, but our main mission is to prepare our student-athletes for their lives after sports. Their growth comes in the classroom and within their time as an athlete. As an athlete they learn leadership skills, teamwork, goal setting, sportsmanship, etc. These skills are part of what makes them uniquely qualified for the workforce.
Q: This year six of the seven of the head coaches are returners with the exception of men's and women's golf head coach, Tony Crisp, who was recently promoted from volunteer assistant coach. How essential is that stability to the overall success of the athletic department?
Having a quality team is everything. Our opportunity for success is dependent on the quality of our coaches and we have a solid team. A year and a half ago we signed all of our full-time head coaches to multi-year contracts. We appreciated the support of the administration to make that investment. Making long-term commitments to our head coaches reduces the uncertainty around each program. The benefits of slowing the revolving door come in student-athlete retention, eliminating recruiting gaps, and just overall continuity. To be successful for an extended period of time it will be important that we continue to invest in our staff.
Q: The men's hockey team had its best season in 23 years last season. What does it mean to Lake State and the community to have the hockey team back on the rise?
We are in a historic hockey hotbed with the twin Sault Ste. Marie communities (Michigan and Ontario). Hockey is a major part of our community. It's important we build on that heritage. We will use our game at the GFL Memorial Gardens in February to highlight local hockey and promote our university. Athletics brings opportunity for exposure. The GFL game announcement secured national attention in the hockey press. Additionally, on Friday, October 25 Laker hockey will be showcased nationally on the NBC Sports Network when we travel to Notre Dame. Those opportunities come more frequently when you are successful. A competitive team is vital to our athletic program and the university in general.
Q: Volleyball opened the 2019 season looking to build on the momentum the program made last season. What can you tell us about the team that Coach Dave Schmidlin is building?
We have a very young team (17 sophomores and freshmen) with emerging talent. Coach Schmidlin has been a relentless recruiter and we will see the benefits of his efforts as the team matures and learn to play together. Upperclassmen like Amada Reid are important team leaders in our development of the younger players. The volleyball program was at such a low point three to four years ago. It takes time to turn a program around, but we are seeing significant progress. We are expecting a breakthrough in another year or two.
Q: Some restructuring was done to the coaching staff of the golf programs with Tony Crisp's promotion and the return of Brent Pusch as an assistant coach. What can we expect from Lakers golf this year?
Women's Golf is having an amazing fall with its first ever first place finish and a second place finish early in tournament play. Credit to the off season work of the student-athletes and to the coaching staff. Golf is our only team where we do not have a full-time coach, but we feel like we have a solid structure in place. It is sort of a three-pronged attack with Head Coach Tony Crisp providing leadership to both teams, Brent Pusch lending his skills as a PGA pro to develop player techniques as well as his vast network of contacts to assist us with recruiting and Gavin McIver, a student-athlete a year ago, providing assistance to both Tony and Brent. The combination of the three should provide the student-athletes with a solid experience.
Q: Men's and women's tennis both qualified for the GLIAC Tournaments last season. What has Coach Luke Ogren done with these programs and what is in store for them this year?
He's recruited talent plain and simple. On the women's side AlexiAnn Druin made an immediate impact as the 2017-18 GLIAC Player-of-the-Year as a freshman and followed up with a good sophomore year. She is an example of the quality of the recruits Coach Ogren has secured. This year we secured two Division I transfers, making for a more formidable women's lineup. The men's team returns five of our top six, including our No. 1 player Joe Gillman, as well as a couple of talented freshman recruits. We expect competitive performances from both teams.
Q: David Mitter became the first Laker to compete in the NCAA Cross Country Championships since 1993. How important is an individual achievement like that to the future of the Cross Country/Track and Field programs that Coach Rob Gallinger is building?
David's accomplishment helped put our Cross Country program back on the map and the notoriety benefits our recruiting. The Track & Field/Cross Country programs are starting to turn the corner. Coach Gallinger is now established in the role and new assistant coach Roger An has brought a lot of positive energy. The vibe is good and we expect to be competitive.
Q: The men's and women's basketball teams have bright futures with both programs making strides in the last few years. These two teams saw 19% and 21% increases in attendance last year. How important is an increase in attendance to the future success of these programs?
Fan involvement is a reflection of the product and the marketing of the product. Fans, alumni, students, etc. want to see competitive teams. If we are making strides in that direction, I believe they will support us. The revenue from ticket sales and sponsorships go directly into the budgets of those programs. That revenue is essential in making our programs financially solvent.
Q: With more stability in place at the start of the school year than in recent years, what has your focus shifted towards?
Staying focused on our key objectives and shifting from stability to consistent improvement. We will work to secure resources, continue facility improvements, and really begin to engage our letter winners in a meaningful way. We will also build on our alumni mentoring program established via women's basketball last year and work towards a faculty mentoring program as well. We are also promoting a hockey event in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario that will occupy a lot of our time. Finally, we will begin to give serious consideration to adding a new women's team in the not too distant future.
Q: How crucial is it to continue to expand awareness of the Athletics department through the student body and the community? What can fans expect in terms of content and coverage this year?
We will continue to tell our story and build our following. Expanding our footprint will help student-athlete recruiting and university enrollment. Our consumers are our students, campus community, alumni, and the Sault Ste. Marie community on both sides of the St. Mary's River. We will be actively engaged with each. Our student body brings the energy we need to our events which is essential. We will also reach out in the region and when we have a worthy story on a national basis.
Q: Sault Ste. Marie is a very tight-knit community. How important is it to have the support of the community and so many local partnerships in place?
Our partners are essential to our success. They are active with us on the messaging and promotional front and the revenue generated from the partnerships goes directly into the budgets of the teams with which they are aligned and positively contribute to the financial bottom line. For a town the size of Sault Ste. Marie the involvement from the local business community has been remarkable.
Q: What are your top three goals for Laker Athletics in the next year?
Build on the improvements made on the field of play, academically, and in the community. Make meaningful strides in engaging our letter winners. Utilize our special event at the GFL Gardens to build our relationship with our sister community Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, highlight our local hockey heritage, and showcase our university academic programs.