At Stephens College, an A+ matters more than a win

According to athletic director, ‘We are a dedicated student-first, athlete-second kind of program’
Saturday, April 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Columnist Bryan Wendell


Maddie Marshall is so Hollywood.

History of the stars

Stephens College, founded in 1833, has a rich tradition of educating women in mid-Missouri, but its athletics program doesn’t have quite the same lengthy history. Here’s a look at some of the highlights of Stephens and its athletics director, Deb Duren: 1980: Duren left her job coaching volleyball at MU to teach at Stephens. 1984: Duren became volleyball coach for NCAA Division II Stephens but said the program “struggled along without any effort or energy.” 1988: Stephens canceled all sports programs 1988-1992: Each year, Duren questioned, in her end-of-year evaluations, why Stephens didn’t have an athletics program. 1992: Duren got the call to start a program. They resurfaced the tennis courts, bought equipment and held a garage sale to raise money for uniforms. Duren would later say that she was “the athletics director of a nonexistent program.” 1994: Stephens’ first year back on the field. It had a soccer, volleyball, swimming and tennis team. 1994: Duren became a full-time administrator for Stephens, which was then an NCAA Division III school. Duren still felt that the NCAA was not a good home for the small program. Division III schools are not allowed to give scholarships. 1998: Basketball was added. 2003: The soccer program was canceled because it had no place to play. Stephens still doesn’t have a soccer program because of scheduling conflicts with youth soccer and the City of Columbia. 2004: Stephens joined the the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. This meant it could recruit women for both academics and athletics, since the NAIA allows schools to give scholarships. 2005: Stephens began the process to add softball and cross country. 2006: Softball and cross country joined the sports lineup at Stephens. March 13, 2007: The Stephens softball team won a game, 4-1, marking the first time a Stephens team has won even a single game in the debut year of a sport. 2008: Stephens softball will join the American Midwest Conference, meaning it will be given a regular schedule and a more structured season.

From the glittery wrap that keeps her dark brown hair in place to her academic major — film studies — she seems like the kind of woman who would be at home on the left coast.

So what’s she doing in mid-Missouri?

She flashes that Oscar-winning smile and then explains that she’s found a home at Stephens College.

Stephens’ film studies program helps her pursue her passion in voice-over work, but the small, four-year, private women’s college has resurrected another love in Marshall: softball.

Her story is symbolic of the attitude of the Stephens College athletics program.

Other colleges pay millions in advertising dollars to convince the nation that academics come first, but few actually exemplify that lofty goal when they’re behind the closed doors of reality.

Stephens does.

• • •

For the softball team, that means full attendance at practice is rare, since the 3 p.m. start of practice conflicts with some classes. Unlike MU, Stephens only offers one section of most courses, meaning a student has less flexibility with her athletic schedule.

This school-first mentality isn’t limited to the softball team; every sport takes a back seat to education.

“Fashion design” is a popular major at Stephens, and when a fashion show comes around, which is colloquially known as the “Final Four of the fashion world,” athletes are expected to miss practices or games to present their work. Yes, even if that means the team has to — gasp — forfeit a game here or there.

If that seems foreign to you, you’re not alone. But Stephens is alone when it comes to its take on the importance of athletics.

At most colleges, the administration, alumni, fans, students and community members breathe down the necks of the coaches and accept nothing short of success.

At Stephens, the focus on academics naturally means winning comes second.

“I have never felt pressured. I don’t feel like my job is in jeopardy if we don’t win,” said softball coach Chris Collier.

The college added softball to its six-sport NAIA program this season, but it already has something to hang its hat on: It won a game.

Some may scoff at the team’s 2-15 record this year, but it represents the first time a Stephens team has won a single game in any sport’s charter year.

“We have won two games more than anybody expected at this point,” Collier said.

Building a successful program takes time, and that means getting past some early growing pains and the frustration of the familiarity of failure. To hear them tell it, however, it’s all part of the fun.

Take Deb Duren, Stephens’ athletics director, for example. When she says winning isn’t everything, you actually believe her.

“It’s all about how you measure success and what the goals of your campus are,” she said.

The goals of her campus, she said, include sending women out into the real world with the confidence and knowledge that they will need to succeed. She understands that most student-athletes won’t be able to call on their athletic talents for a lifelong career.

• • •

For Duren, this mind-set represents an ideological shift. Duren coached volleyball for MU from 1974 until 1980, so she knows a thing or two about big-budget athletics. Her days were devoted to the program, and the administration was expecting top recruits and wins right away.

That’s the problem with Division I programs, she said. The big schools use scholarships, facilities and amenities to attract players sometimes even if they aren’t a good academic fit.

Each of the 10 players on the Stephens softball team has a scholarship, but each was determined to be academically right for the college before she was deemed athletically right for the softball team. That’s rare at many large schools, but at Stephens, where the athletics director is also a vice president and the softball coach works in the admissions office, it’s commonplace.

“If your school has the dollars, you can buy any athlete you want,” Duren said. “As a Division I coach, I could go recruit the best athlete but someone who didn’t fit our school. That’s not right. I did not like being in that situation. It’s too important a time in their life to not be the right thing.

“We are a dedicated student-first, athlete-second kind of program.”

That’s exactly what attracted Marshall.

The St. Louis native said her mom was surfing the Internet to find schools with film programs. Marshall was in her second year at Colorado at the time, but she wanted out.

She was intrigued by Stephens College, and she casually filled out a questionnaire. When she reached the section about sports interests, she checked the box for softball. Why not? She was a stellar softball player in high school.

Just an hour after she clicked her mouse to submit the form, her phone rang. It was Collier. After they chatted about her academic goals and Collier watched a tape of her playing, Stephens was interested in offering her a scholarship to join the team.

The combination of academics and athletics was too sweet to pass up, and Marshall said she is pleased with her decision.

So pleased, in fact, that when she does make it to Hollywood and become famous, it will be Stephens, not Colorado, that gets her donation.

“Colorado doesn’t need it,” she said.

• • •

Altruism seems to be a common trend for Marshall. She is practical enough to know that Stephens likely won’t be a championship program in her two-year stay. But she’s happy to be along for the ride and to help the program build reputation through repetition.

Marshall, one of the team’s captains, is playing for the women who are still in high school and will join Stephens in years to come and for the freshmen already at Stephens, like Texas native Lisa McEntyre.

McEntyre, with her cheeks sporting a rosy tint as she takes a break from warming up for practice, said she came all the way to Missouri from a small high school near Houston. Her recent softball memories include two high school state tournament appearances. In other words, she knows what it’s like to win.

She’s getting a new lesson at Stephens.

“We’re learning what it’s like to lose,” McEntyre said. “But we have our coach. He’s an encourager.”

She noticed right away that Stephens allows student-athletes to be more than just athletes. In high school, she said, softball was the priority. She’s able to balance both at Stephens.

The players know that Stephens will never be as well known as softball mainstays UCLA or Arizona. They know that Stephens likely won’t get Nike to pay to replace its maroon tops and white pants with fancy home and away uniforms adorned with a swoosh on every available patch of fabric. They’re able to accept that a debuting team won’t win much in its first year.

They can come to terms will all of those humbling facts because they are cognizant of the importance of an education.

Now if only they could spread that seemingly obvious message to the hundreds of other schools who haven’t yet caught on to reality.

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