File Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley hands the championship trophy to his players after the Cougars' 38-17 win over Baker (Kan.) in the NAIA championship football game in December, the Cougars' first football title.
File Saint Francis’ Kara Gerka goes up for a shot during the Crossroads League tourney last winter. The Cougars women’s team’s success was a surprise.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017 1:00 am
National title raises awareness
AD wants other sports to compete for crowns, too
GREG JONES | The Journal Gazette
Year in review
Cheerleading: 2nd NAIAs
Men's basketball: 23-11, 2nd round NAIAs
Women's basketball: 18-16, 1st round NAIAs
Football: 13-1, NAIA champions
Men's golf: 5th in CL tourney
Women's golf: 4th in CL meet; Marissa Singer 21st NAIAs
Men's soccer: 4-12-2, 1-8 in CL
Women's soccer: 8-10-2, 2nd round CL tourney
Softball: 22-27, 4th round CL tourney
Men's tennis: 2-16
Women's tennis: 6-14
Men's track: 10th at CL meet
Women's track: 8th in CL meet
Saint Francis athletic director Mike McCaffrey insists the NAIA national championship football program will hit the reset button this fall and work on defending its 2016 title. But the residual effects of the 38-17 win over Baker (Kansas) last December in Daytona Beach, Florida, will be around the program and the athletic department for some time, which is just fine with McCaffrey.
The Cougars' first national title in four attempts (as well as 19 seasons as a program) highlighted the 2016-17 athletic calendar for Saint Francis and will have plenty of carryover to 2017-18.
“There's nothing that gets departments, athletes, alumni excited about a university like a national championship, especially when it comes to the sport of football,” McCaffrey said in his office at the Hutzell Center on hot June day. “You couldn't have really scripted it much better last fall. It is special and something I will remember for the rest of my life, and I know a lot of other people will, too.”
The celebrations, pep rallies and ring ceremonies have all been done, with only maybe a brief banner ceremony coming in the fall. For the program and the department, it is onto the 2017 season. Saint Francis now has the trifecta of major NAIA national titles, winning a men's basketball championship in 2010, a women's basketball title in 2014 and now a coveted football crown after three consecutive runner-up finishes in 2004-06.
“What it does for all the other sports is say, men's basketball has one, women's basketball has one and football has one, so we're next,” said McCaffrey, who has been the school's AD since 2011. “Each sport has different challenges … that is not always lined up the way you want it to be so a national championship can be your goal every single year. But what this one did was reinforce to our current coaches and our current student-athletes that this is what we are here for and these are the moments that make everything worth it.”
McCaffrey said the national titles also set a high standard of excellence for the university and increases awareness among the athletic department's loyal donors.
“It raised the profile even more of our university, nationally and across the state of Indiana,” he said. “We are not unfamiliar to kids in southern Indiana or northwest Ohio when we go there. It helps name recognition, especially for an NAIA institution trying to compete with NCAA schools in recruiting.
“The interest in donors is probably the biggest thing. We have always had great support, since we started football (in 1998) … so when you win the national championship, (donors) feel as much of a part of it as we do. We have seen those folks re-energized.”
Although the football team's success topped the list of athletic accolades, there were other achievements in 2016-17. Among the most surprising were the success of the women's basketball program and freshman golfer Marissa Singer.
The Cougars women's basketball team, under the direction of second-year coach Jason Ridge, finished 18-16 but narrowly lost to back-to-back national champion Marian 59-57 on the road in the finals of the Crossroads League tournament championship game and qualified for the NAIA national tournament. In the preseason voting, the conference's coaches picked the Crossroads League runners-up to finish seventh.
“I think our women's basketball team was a year early,” McCaffrey said. “The (eight) freshmen … what they did was incredible. We were a year early, but to get to the national tournament and to get that experience for this young team … the pieces are now starting to come together.”
Singer became the school's first golfer to compete at the NAIA championships, won the Crossroads League tournament and was named a third-team NAIA All-American.
“Marissa has three more years, and I know the biggest thing that bothered her was that her team didn't get to go with her,” McCaffrey said. “The biggest goal now is let's put one or two more pieces around her and take the whole team down with her.”
Coming off a 2016 NAIA national runner-up finish, the men's basketball team got off to a school-best 11-0 record but had a midseason lull and finished 23-11. The Cougars advanced to the second round of the NAIA tournament but lost to Cornerstone 66-58.
“The program will sustain and add some pieces,” McCaffrey said of the men. “We have a good team coming back … disappointed, a little bit but still a successful season because our kids got great experiences.”
McCaffrey said he also sees the growth of the athletic department coming in the development of the land across Lindenwood Avenue, known as the Shields Athletic Complex. A parking lot in the area will be completed by the fall, with future plans for a track and tennis courts to be in place with the help of fundraising.
“The growth of the track program is going to almost going to dictate the necessity of one,” said McCaffrey, who added 45 track recruits this fall, which would push the program up to 70 athletes.