The addition of wrestling to the menu of sports at Maryville University in 2011 occurred without fanfare but turned out to be a significant moment on the West County campus.
A Hall of Fame coach was hired. The team became the first at the university to earn a No. 1 ranking. And the program has produced two individual Division II national champions.
That decision also was the launching point for a massive transformation as Maryville has added numerous sports since that time, following a national trend that has seen many small colleges and universities expand their athletic offerings.
Other schools in the area have done the same. For many, the investment has been made in hope of increasing enrollment. Regardless of the reasons, schools such as Maryville, Missouri Baptist, McKendree, Lindenwood-Belleville and Principia are offering more athletic opportunities and more scholarships than ever.
“What we’ve done is look at the university as a whole and how we could grow the enrollment,” Maryville athletics director Marcus Manning said. “It’s a fluid plan. We’ve had different sports on the radar for a very long time. We look at trends the National High School Federation sends out and then dive down to think about the impact of adding a sport at the collegiate level.”
Maryville has since added men’s and women’s swimming, women’s bowling and men’s lacrosse. In the 2018-19 school year, the NCAA Division II program will start women’s lacrosse and a club hockey team.
Maryville was one of the first universities in the country to start an esports program and has won two national championships. Esports have grown to the point that the NCAA is discussing involvement.
Enrollment has grown every year since 2012, and the number of student-athletes has skyrocketed. The ability to offer additional scholarship money has been a significant factor.
“We have an athletic budget for every sport we have,” Manning said. “We won’t fully fund a program right away, but we make it enticing for prospective students. In Division II you can have an academic award and stack it with an athletic award and that can create a pretty good package.”
Missouri Baptist has engaged in a similar growth spurt of sports but for different reasons, according to athletics director Tom Smith. When he started, he wanted to add a football program to help grow a sense of community on campus. Some sports already had been added, but football helped things snowball.
The university has added men’s and women’s bowling, lacrosse, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and field and wrestling, men’s volleyball, women’s sand volleyball and many junior varsity sports. And, yes, Missouri Baptist has esports.
“A lot of schools do it as an enrollment builder, but that’s not our main priority,” Smith said. “We want to give kids an opportunity, and that happens to build enrollment. Our mindset is to have every athlete get a chance to have a legitimate experience. Some schools recruit massive numbers and half never see the field. We’re not going to do it that way.”
Missouri Baptist has about 840 students on athletic financial aid. Before the growth spurt, Smith said there were about 300 students playing sports. He joked that there are more students on the track and field teams than were in his graduating class at the school in 1983.
Some small colleges across the country have added so many sports that up to one half of their enrollment consists of students who are playing sports. For some it’s a matter of survival. Whatever the reasons, the St. Louis area has seen a similar uptick in NCAA, NAIA and club sports programs.
McKendree has added men’s and women’s swimming and diving, fencing, power lifting and women’s wrestling. Principia was the second D-III school in the country to form a women’s sand volleyball program and has club rugby and esports. Lindenwood has long been a proponent of widespread athletic offerings and competes in 27 NCAA D-II sports, the most in the country. Lindenwood-Belleville has boosted its lineup with men’s and women’s lacrosse and hockey and women’s wrestling.
Manning said Maryville has planned its sports lineup through 2022 but continues to consider the addition of club sports. With the expansion have come upgrades in facilities, such as installing new turf for baseball, soccer and lacrosse. Missouri Baptist has expanded housing and its fitness facility.
Smith said the biggest difference he saw was for the school’s homecoming festivities when the some of the goals of the expansion were fully realized.
“What we were all thrilled about was the different buzz,” he said. “We have alumni coming back now, and we’re not just that teeny hidden institution.”