A common response in defining the term student-athlete is the word student always comes first. Just don’t tell that to an athlete at The College of New Jersey. They’re likely to fight tooth and nail to make it a first-place tie. Placing second in anything is simply not how they’re wired.
Make no mistake. Students select TCNJ because it is so highly acclaimed as an institution of higher education. Academics are the foundation of its excellence and esteemed reputation. Its athletics program, however, has evolved into a national powerhouse, and the combination of school and sport at the College is appetizing to a student hungry for challenge.
“To be able to have that mixture of academic reputation and athletic excellence simultaneously speaks volumes about our mission and our integrity at the school,” noted John Castaldo ’82, MEd ’83, director of athletics at TCNJ. “Our goal is to graduate student-athletes who will be leaders in the community. We create that balance of athletics and education, which I believe complement each other. I think we have it right here, and it’s evident by our achievements and the graduates we produce.”
The success of TCNJ’s athletic program is impressive in depth and number. Since Dave Icenhower MA ’78 led his 1978–79 wrestling team to the school’s first NCAA Division III national championship, the Lions have captured 38 NCAA titles in six different sports. They have been runners-up 32 times, giving them a total of 70 NCAA championship appearances—more than any other Division III college in the country. (The Lions also enjoyed considerable success prior to joining the NCAA, winning the NAIA men’s soccer championships in 1964 and 1965, the AIAW women’s lacrosse championship in 1981, and AIAW softball championships in 1980 and 1981.) Legions of TCNJ athletes have received individual All-American honors and 52 student-athletes have been named CoSIDA Academic All-Americans.
This stockpile of achievements belies TCNJ’s status as a Division III school. As such, TCNJ does not award athletic scholarships. Students gain admittance to the College based on their academic prowess and receive no financial assistance for athletic talents. Tales of full-rides and monetary gifts are not told at TCNJ, because that game is simply not played. Student-athletes enroll at the College to earn a degree and enrich their experience through competing in intercollegiate athletics. The athletics department and coaching staff work in tandem with the faculty to keep that picture clear, and, by all indications, it is working. Athletic teams continue to flourish, and of the College’s 560 student-athletes this past spring, 263 boasted a cumulative average over 3.0, and 157 had a 3.3 or higher.
“We’ve continued to improve on the successes that were started yesteryear,” said Castaldo, who was a Lions soccer player before coaching men’s basketball for 14 seasons. “We refuse to remain stagnant. Much of that is due to our coaching staff. There’s an old cliché in coaching that says, ‘Before young adults care how much you know, they need to know that you care.’”
The academic standards at TCNJ also remain high. Recently admitted students have an average SAT score between 1220 and 1360 and rank in the top 15 percent of their graduating class. From a recruiting standpoint, that makes the pool of prospective student-athletes very shallow for TCNJ coaches. Many high school athletes are off-limits because they don’t meet the admission requirements. So, with limited students to choose from and no scholarship money to dangle in front of parents, how does the College continue to churn out dominant teams loaded with talented players? There are several factors, but two specifically that drive the program.
First, the high academic standards could be construed as a hindrance to some college coaches, but for TCNJ teams, they are an asset. Coaches recruit players who have ability, and the intelligence they possess only enhances their physical performance. Throw a bunch of smart kids with ability on the playing field and opponents have trouble finding weaknesses. And it doesn’t stop there. As Head Football Coach Eric Hamilton ’75 explains, many of the character traits that drive success in the classroom are parallel to those revered in the world of sport.
“We have a lot of intelligent people who aspire to be the best,” said Hamilton, a former gridiron standout for the Lions who has coached at his alma mater for the past 31 years. “Our athletes here are extremely motivated, perseverant, mentally tough, and creative. Those attributes that help them achieve in the classroom serve them well in sports. I also think they develop poise, the ability to troubleshoot, and to learn to take constructive criticism through participating in competitive sports. So it helps them on both sides and prepares them for life after graduation.”
President R. Barbara Gitenstein echoed that sentiment, saying, “The experiences our students gain through athletics dovetail with what we provide in the classroom. Through competition, student-athletes learn to challenge themselves, support one another, face and overcome adversity, and work collaboratively toward a shared goal.”
In addition to attracting students with quality traits, there is a legacy of success that precedes the tenure of incoming freshmen. “Our students and alumni have a long history of being ferocious competitors,” Gitenstein noted. As golfing legend Jack Nicklaus has said, “Success breeds success.” Competitive athletes yearn to be part of a winner, so the wins and accolades accumulated by previous generations of Lion athletes appeal to high school juniors and seniors. By enrolling and playing sports at TCNJ, players know they’ll have an opportunity to compete for conference and national championships.
Alumni that left TCNJ in a blaze of glory can relish the fact that they have inspired the athletes of tomorrow. Current and future championship titles may not be attainable without the incentive of maintaining the high standards set by their predecessors. And in that respect, the success continues to perpetuate itself. That bridge between then and now creates a pride factor—sort of a ‘winners’ fraternity’—that can’t be manufactured. It serves as kindling that keeps the fire burning.
“Getting to nationals (indoor/ outdoor track) was always our goal, and at TCNJ, it was a very realistic goal,” said Carolyn Gray ’08, who was the female recipient of the Dr. Harold W. Eickhoff Outstanding Scholar-Athlete award. “We set the expectations high, but we were all very self-motivated. That standard of excellence helped us mesh as a team, which assisted in our achievements.”
Gray was an All-American track star in high school and selected TCNJ because it offered everything she was looking for in a college. She wanted to continue competing in track and major in biology. Gray won national championships in the 4 x 400 relay indoor and outdoor events while at TCNJ, and now is pursuing her doctorate in immunology at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I have friends who attended colleges on scholarship and it almost became like a job for them,” Gray noted. “At TCNJ, if you have exams and have to miss practice, the coaches are very understanding. We all love practicing and competing, and if any of us didn’t, we would simply move on. There was nothing holding us there— just our passion for the sport.”
Gray is one of thousands of female athletes who have experienced big-time success at the College. In fact, 31 of the 38 NCAA titles were claimed by women’s teams. Former athletic director Roy Van Ness receives great praise for committing to women’s sports before many institutions included females in their athletic programs. His vision, coupled with the successes enjoyed by June Walker’s softball teams, provided a head start for women’s athletics at TCNJ, and the program has never paused to look back. For example, the women’s tennis team, in capturing the 2007 NJAC Championship, has now won 25 consecutive titles. The lacrosse team has won 13 national championships; field hockey has amassed nine titles; softball owns five; and soccer has claimed three championships. The level of conquest is staggering, and the programs continue to build momentum.
Sharon Pfluger ’82 has been the face of the field hockey and women’s lacrosse programs for over two decades. Her current coaching record in lacrosse at TCNJ is 335-28, and her field hockey marks stand at 408-54. She has coached the Lions to 17 combined national championships, which included an amazing stretch of six consecutive lacrosse titles from 1991–96.
“The ongoing success of the women’s athletic program has many components, but it’s the players who truly make the difference,” said Pfluger. “They are very serious about attaining their goals, and work diligently every day at practice. The team always comes first. No one sees themselves as stars, but rather a group of young women extremely focused on achieving the task at hand. They have a vision and chase their dream with intense passion and desire.”
“As coaches, we view each team as our extended families and they are very important to all of us,” Pfluger added.
The pride in TCNJ’s athletics program is alive and well. Each year brings a fresh wave of team accomplishments and individual achievements. Whether it’s Karen Doane ’08 of women’s lacrosse receiving her nomination as a candidate for the 2007–08 Division III Athlete of the Year, baseball’s Billy Kropp ’08 being cited as an Academic All-American, or Hillary Klimowicz ’09 leaving her Division I basketball scholarship behind in 2006 to become the 2008 NJAC Player of the Year for TCNJ, Lion student-athletes carry the torch of excellence that was passed along by teammates and alums. The blend of strong history, intelligence, talent, and character has created a perfect storm that continues to blow through Division III opponents.
“We have great chemistry amongst our athletes,” Castaldo explained. “Even though there are many talented individuals, they’re smart enough to understand they can’t succeed by themselves. The essence of a good business is a group of individuals who work together for a common purpose. We like the product we’re producing as a well-rounded student-athlete. As I said, I think we have it right.”
What’s with that “43″ painted on the turf?
No, that’s not a typo on the new turf that was recently installed in Lions’ Stadium. Thanks to a little Photoshop magic, we were able to “paint” a “43″ onto the field to signify the number of national championships Lions teams have won over the years. For a full listing of each title, see below.
1964 Men’s Soccer
1965 Men’s Soccer
1981 Women’s Lacrosse
1981 Field Hockey
1983 Field Hockey
1985 Field Hockey
1985 Women’s Lacrosse
1986 Women’s Tennis
1987 Women’s Lacrosse
1988 Field Hockey
1988 Women’s Lacrosse
1990 Field Hockey
1991 Field Hockey
1991 Women’s Lacrosse
1992 Women’s Lacrosse+
+ title later vacated
1993 Women’s Lacrosse
1993 Women’s Soccer
1994 Women’s Lacrosse
1994 Women’s Soccer
1995 Women’s Lacrosse
1995 Field Hockey
1996 Women’s Lacrosse
1996 Field Hockey
1996 Men’s Soccer
1998 Women’s Lacrosse
1999 Field Hockey
2000 Women’s Lacrosse
2000 Women’s Soccer
2005 Women’s Lacrosse
2006 Women’s Lacrosse