N.J. school gains national prominence

May 19, 1991|By Frank Lawlor | Frank Lawlor,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

TRENTON, N.J. -- There was a time when Trenton State College had such image problems that there was talk of changing the school's name to disassociate it from the New Jersey capital, eight miles down the road.

If the college's athletic program was known for anything at all, it was for a Life magazine photo of the football team -- taken after it ended the longest winless streak in the country.

What a difference a little success makes.

In National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III circles, Trenton State now connotes national-caliber teams, and within the year such magazines as Money, Barron's and U.S. News & World Report have listed the school as being one of the nation's best college values.

With Trenton State playing host to two NCAA tournaments and with three of its teams challenging for national titles this weekend, many on the suburban Ewing Township campus are saying that the school's athletic and educational successes go hand in hand.

"Our athletic program is an extraordinary statement of quality and underlines the college's commitment to excellence," school president Harold W. Eickhoff said, while watching a softball playoff game last week. "It may be the most visible expression of that commitment."

It is especially visible at Packer Hall, which is crammed with NCAA trophies, plaques and awards.

Since 1979, Trenton State has won more national titles (17) in more sports (five) than any of the 313 other schools in Division III. In the same span, it has finished second nationally 15 times.

The school with the next highest total of first- and second-place finishes is the University of California-San Diego, with 22, but it has 26,000 students to Trenton State's slightly fewer than 5,000.

The benchmark year for counting Division III championships is 1981, the year the NCAA began holding a variety of national women's tournaments. It is not a coincidence that Trenton State started climbing the charts soon after.

"I think it's fair to say that Trenton State ended up being a little more serious a little earlier on the women's scene," athletic director Kevin McHugh said.

Softball coach June Walker seconds that. She had spent four years at Division I Boston University but was looking for something more suburban when she arrived for an interview at Trenton State in 1973.

"What encouraged me about the school was that, at the time, they had 12 women's sports and only 10 for men," said Walker, whose teams have won three national championships. "I thought maybe these people are serious about women's sports."

A couple of years later, Walker and Brenda Campbell, the women's tennis and women's swimming coach, suggested to Roy Van Ness, then the athletic director, that the women's athletic programs, like the men's, should be divorced from the physical-education department.

"We all coached one or two sports, plus we taught half-time or better," Walker said. "It was impossible to do it all adequately."

The administration came through, giving women's coaches more time to scout, recruit, attend clinics and generally make careers of coaching their sports.

"This was right before a lot of budget crunches started happening, so we were able to get several full-time women's coaches before anyone else in Division III," Walker said. "Our timing was great."

In 1981, when the NCAA began holding division championships for women, Trenton State moved directly to the fore in Division III. Since then, it has won a women's title in lacrosse, softball, field hockey or tennis in every year but two.

This spring, Trenton State's eight varsity teams posted a combined regular-season record of 109-22-1, and all got into NCAA postseason tournaments.

Its winning ways augment Trenton State's reputation for hospitality. Blessed with perhaps the best athletic facilities in Division III, the school has played host to nine NCAA tournament finals since 1984.

Last May alone, Trenton State was the site of the Division III women's tennis finals, the softball and women's lacrosse quarterfinals, the regional baseball finals and the New Jersey Athletic Conference men's and women's track and field championships.

Thanks largely to former Trenton State students, both the Division I and III women's lacrosse championships began yesterday at Lions Stadium, which boasts the first drain-through artificial surface in the country. From 1978 to 1983, the student body twice approved tuition surcharges that helped get the 5,000-seat stadium and other sports facilities built.

But the stadium is only part of it. For instance, when McHugh arrived from Division I Bowling Green for an interview, he first happened to stop by Trenton's modern baseball field -- with scoreboard, announcer's booth, screened bullpens, bleachers and dugouts. Bowling Green's field didn't even have a fence.

The support of the New Jersey university system helps explain how Trenton State was able to afford such amenities, but there are other schools in that system, and there are other state systems. Trenton State has enhanced its facilities with money made on summer sports camps, including about $30,000 last year. And it then has lobbied to play host to NCAA championships.

"We actively go out and try to host NCAA events, even if it costs us," McHugh said.

Money isn't the only support the athletic program gets. Eickhoff, the school president, gets kudos for such feats as attending three championship events in three states in one weekend.

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