The 2021-22 began with more questions than answers for Kansas Wesleyan Director of Athletics Steve Wilson.
KWU, like the rest of the nation and world, was coming out of the COVID-19 global pandemic when the school year began in August following 18 agonizing months of lockdowns, remote learning, cancellations and life adjustments no one could imagine.
What transpired the next 10 months made Wilson exceedingly pleased and proud. Twelve Coyote sports qualified for NAIA national championships with individuals or teams led by the women’s bowling team that advanced to the NAIA Semifinals in March.
The result was a second-place finish in the Kansas Conference’s Commissioner’s Cup standings behind Friends after winning it the previous two years.
In the classrooms KWU produced 131 KCAC Scholar Athletes and 20 teams compiled impressive 3.0 cumulative grade averages.
Wilson reminisced on the just completed 2021-22 season and looked ahead to ’22-23 during a recent question-and-answer session.
Question: What are your overall thoughts on the season?
Wilson: It was a fun year. We started in a pandemic and one could argue we are still in a pandemic. We kind of saw things go rollercoaster related to COVID but it was not nearly what we had in 2020-21. We had some idea how good it was going to be in terms of the coaches knew what kind of talent they had coming in and they were doing a good job of – of culture setting and things like that. But we were pretty intentional in the summer about doing a lot of little things right and then were able to move that into the season.
Every sport had excitement this year. Men’s basketball is a team that for years has been talented but coach (Anthony) Monson did some things to build some intentional relationships and that trust was there quicker. You look at what baseball did and I think that coaching staff would tell you that in mid-March they would not have seen themselves in the national tournament but they stayed persistent.
Look at softball, that season didn’t start the way they wanted it to, but ended really well. They were playing better than many teams in the country toward the end of a successful run. Women’s bowling goes into a semifinal and is one of the four best teams in the NAIA at the end. Obviously, football was fun, as was volleyball and soccer. Just unpredictable stuff that all came together and it was an extremely successful and fun year.
Question: What was your reaction to the Commissioner’s Cup standings?
Wilson: I have to remind myself that before I got here that third was as good as we’d done and third was the goal. Going in we’d won back-to-back. When the COVID shortened season happened a lot of people said ‘well, they weren’t going to hang on to it’ but we were going to hang on to it. And we proved that the next year and then it came down to the wire this year. (Friends Athletics Director) Rob Ramseyer and I traded texts a couple of weeks ago and there’s going to be healthy competition with them going forward. You look at the sports where there was differential in points, and it’s not very many, but they finished ahead of us in a couple of them. I was talking to (baseball coach) Bill Neale and he was trying to blame himself for us not winning the Commissioner’s Cup. I said ‘You couldn’t have made up nine points’, but that’s where we are as a department. Everyone is accountable. I think we’re in a healthy place, and we celebrate the fact that we were one of the two best in the KCAC – we don’t rest on it. We know what the goal is and we know that that we need to be atop the Commissioner’s Cup standings.
Question: Was the bounce back from the pandemic what you wanted and expected?
Wilson: I think it became reality on homecoming when you looked up in the stands and saw more than 2,200 people – the record football crowd. People were hungry to be out and our fans deserved a product that they could watch and have fun with. We had good attendance across the board. You look to the basketball game at Bethany, that’s as full as their gym has been in a while. It was as loud and lively as that rivalry has been in a while.
But it still gave you that uneasy feeling when there was a packed crowd and that’s just because we hadn’t seen it for the 18 months before that. It’s a psychological thing when you’ve been so used to big crowds as a bad thing in society. But you realize we need to have fun with this because this is what we’re back to, this is what we want.
Question: How did fundraising efforts go in the first year after the pandemic?
Wilson: It’s as good a year as we’ve had since I’ve been here and fundraising was a definite high point for the University as a whole, this year. It was a little unconventional, the roadmap to getting there wasn’t quite what it had been in previous years. But we surpassed what we needed to surpass this year and we were able to do some extra things. And there are still some things that are coming that I’m really excited about.
Question: What are some things you did to facilitate the academic success the department had?
Wilson: Twenty teams over 3.0 (grade point average) out of 25 – that’s unheard of. I looked back last year and the most anyone had in the country was 24. So, we were right on with the top performing academic athletic departments in the NAIA. We had a 3.015 (GPA) as a department and 131 KCAC Scholar Athletes. The COVID year was tough. We ended that year with students not here and things were just different in terms of grades and it took us a little bit to rebound. We didn’t quite get to 3.0 in the previous academic year and that’s something we put laser focus on this year and we were able to get there.
Just proud of everyone in this department and really proud of (women’s basketball coach/assistant athletic director) Ryan Showman‘s work. Ryan and (women’s volleyball coach/senior woman leader) Jessica Biegert and some other coaches decided that as a leadership team we needed to standardize how we were going to do study halls, how we were going to do academic performance. We did that, did the work, and more importantly, the students did the work. That’s how we got to 3.0.
Question: Was there any particular moment competition-wise that stood out for you?
Wilson: Oh gosh, there’s a lot of them. One was following and watching our bowling team get to that Final Four. Getting to that that national semifinal was pretty fun. Sitting in Hartman Arena and watching (men’s basketball) play an extremely talented IU-South Bend team was one of them too. Women’s basketball beating Sterling in our gym was pretty fun, not many teams get to say that they did that this year. The football playoffs were memorable for a variety of different reasons. There were a lot of unconventional things this year but just really proud of the way we started and the way we finished. We were represented in 12 NAIA national championships this year and that’s unheard of. I say it’s unheard of – we were in 11 the year before.
Question: What are your top goals for the 2022-23 year?
Wilson: Number one is to get back on top of the Commissioner’s Cup. We’ve got some hotspots we’ve identified that we can definitely make up some ground and will make up some ground. We want to have another wildly successful Night With the Yotes. Now it’s going into year four here, this is my hometown and it’s a chance to make some deeper connections with people of Salina. We’ve got some great staff on hand and those connections are happening. Really excited to reconnect with the Salina community and keep connecting with the Salina community and go above and beyond for our student athletes. Most important thing we’ll do this year is keep the foot on the academic gas pedal. We have to continue to achieve in that area, and we really have to define what success is in all areas of the student-athlete experience. When we define it, then we live it, and we’ll have another banner year.
Question: What are the biggest challenges that you see in 2022-23?
Wilson: Everything costs more than we anticipated a couple of years ago. We can either point to the reasons or we can we can pull up our bootstraps and deal with it and figure out how we go out and have a student athlete experience that’s second to none in the midst of rising costs. I think there are social challenges in our world and we need to be mindful of how that affects our students. Mental health is a big deal and we’re going to continue to support our students. We’re going to do some things that absolutely have to happen to keep our students healthy. Not just our students but our staff. You look at the last two years and our coaches, athletic trainers, administrators – people are worn down. We’ve got to figure out a way to get folks out of here, get recharged and then get back to it with that same tenacity that they had this last year.