COLUMBIA — A list of records displaying the best times in the history of the Stephens College swimming program is posted on the wall of the Stars’ natatorium. All but four of the 20 records come after 2004 — the first year Stephens began swimming as a NAIA program.
In the water below the sign, the Stars battle in-state foe Lindenwood University. Many of the races are tight, but Stephens can’t manage to pull out the win, losing 111-75. According to coach Laura Wacker, that score would have been much worse four years ago.
“Before 2004, the score would have probably been something like 152-27,” Wacker said.
In 2003, the Stephens College athletic department decided to make a change in the competition level of its teams and opponents, opting to move out of the NCAA Division-III level and into the NAIA. After a one-year transition period, in 2004, all of Stephens’ teams officially competed in the NAIA. The move brought with it a complete overhaul of the athletic atmosphere at Stephens. Because D-III sports prohibit athletic scholarships, Stephens could only offer academic and merit-based scholarships, which made recruiting talent to Stephens difficult.
“It’s a lot easier for me to have and get Division-I caliber athletes at Stephens,” Wacker said.
The NAIA, however, permits athletic scholarships, allowing Wacker and the rest of the coaches at Stephens can go after the competitive talent that would otherwise go to other schools that could offer money — like Columbia College, also an NAIA member.
“We certainly hope we can be on the recruiting radar for the type of athletes that Columbia College gets,” associate athletic director Dane Pavlovich said. “We might be recruiting more against Columbia College, but we still want to get our type of student-athletes.”
The talent level the Stars feature has yet to fully reach the NAIA level, though. The swimming team only recently came off its probationary period with the NAIA, thus becoming eligible for the NAIA Nationals for the first time in 2006. Also, Stephens still predominantly competes against the schools it played before making the move and has yet to join a NAIA conference. That will change next year when Stephens moves to the American Midwest Conference.
“That will open some doors as well as help attract athletes from all over the country as well as Missouri,” Pavlovich said.
The talent Wacker usually attempts to recruit has changed dramatically. Players she used to try to lure to Stephens were often high school athletes who came to the school for other reasons.
“Before we’d get a girl that probably didn’t think seriously about swimming in college who just decided to go to Stephens, and we got to get her on the swimming team,” Wacker said. “Now I can talk to people who are placing at state and have a lot to offer us.”
The talent infusion is apparent to the players as well. Senior Jennifer Shaw is no stranger to a high level of competition, swimming for Division-I Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for two years before transferring to Stephens her junior year. Shaw saw an attractive combination of personal attention and swimming at Stephens, and since transferring, she has witnessed talent at the NAIA level that rivaled even her old school.
“There’s actually some really fast girls in NAIA that could very easily have been at the D-I level,” Shaw said. “Most of the girls I swim against at Nationals are at a D-I level as far as speed goes.”
In October, Stephens participated in the Show Me Showdown at MU, a swimming event involving teams from all over the state. Stephens was overmatched in the invitational, with most of its entrants finishing near the bottom of each event. However, simply sending a team to the event is an accomplishment for the Stars, and, according to Wacker, a testament to how far the team has come.
“We wouldn’t have even been in the same pool at that event (before joining the NAIA),” Wacker said. “Now, I’d say the talent difference is night and day.”
As much progress as the team has seen, long-time NAIA members like Lindenwood still hold a competitive advantage over Stephens. But Wacker is confident the gap is closing.
“They’re (Lindenwood) a little bit above us still, but we’re catching up,” Wacker said. “Each year, we’re getting a little closer to them.”