Michael Seymour has seen the boost that a college can get from its sports programs.
“I’ve known the power of athletics from two previous places I’ve been, as far as engaging students and also helping improve enrollment numbers,” said the president of Alexandria Technical and Community College.
It has been years since the college has fielded a basketball or football team, or teams in any other sports. But this school year it launched a clay target team that won the Minnesota College Athletic Conference fall championship, and Seymour intends to add more sports this fall.
ATCC has applied to the National Junior College Athletic Association for member college status. NJCAA is the national governing body of two-year college athletics.
With approval, the college intends to offer competitive esports and men’s and women’s golf teams in the fall. It also plans to add a club team in bass fishing for the 2020-21 school year.
The additions stem from what Seymour and others heard from the public and its student body.
“From our strategic planning process and from our community listening sessions, we heard multiple times we should consider athletics,” Seymour said. He said that students wanted more of an identity for the college.
“When you’re building something from the ground up,” he said, “you get to kind of cherry pick and rethink what inventory of athletics you want.”
Some two-year colleges have very robust athletic programs, Seymour noted, while others haven’t gone that route. Financial decisions or Title IX issues have kept schools from adding or retaining sports, but those should not be concerns for ATCC.
“We’re going to look for support outside of our general fund for these activities, and we’re picking sports that are considered minor in terms of their cost,” he said. The school is not looking to the general fund to cover the projected cost of between $35,000-$50,000, but instead tap into fundraising and profits from auxiliary activities to underwrite athletics.
Reflecting the area
“By adding lower cost co-ed teams, we can add value to our academic offerings and take advantage of the benefits of our lakes region,” Seymour said.
The new sports are either tapping into the following they have in the area, such as hunting, fishing and golf, or growing interest, such as esports.
“We’ve been talking about finding programs that suit the lakes area. With golfing, we have a history of some really nice courses and some really good golfers,” he said.
Scott Dirck, who has been recognized as one of the top golf teachers by the Minnesota PGA and Golf Digest magazine, has been hired to be the head golf coach. He operates Scott Dirck’s Golf Academy at Geneva Golf Club.
The team is expected to practice at both Geneva and Alexandria Golf Club. Seymour said that officials at Fergus Falls Community College, which owns the longest-running streak in NJCAA Division III golf with nine straight trips to nationals, were pleased that ATCC will be adding golf.
Bass fishing is a fast-growing sport, particularly in high schools, and the college’s plans to start a club team will hinge on being able to find a coach.
“These (sports) are all playing off our tremendous amenities here in Alexandria,” Seymour said.
Esports on the rise
ATCC is diving into esports as it just begins to take off at the college level. The NJCAA only announced the creation of esports competition this past September, and this week began a spring league. Its website lists 38 colleges that have established esports programs.
ATCC would be the first two-year college in Minnesota to field an esports program through NJCAA. That would mean it would participate as an independent, competing against state universities or two-year colleges from other states.
Esports is competitive online video gaming that involves strategy and team play.
“It’s more than just computer PC games. Some play on a Sony Playstation 4, some on Nintendo Switch,” said Steve Richards, the college’s chief information officer and dean of educational services. “It is exciting.”
NJCAA Esports games this year include FIFA singles, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate singles and doubles, Rocket League 3x3, and Overwatch, which will feature six-person teams. Richards said the national organization is steering away from graphic violent games.
Seymour got wind of the emergence of esports at a conference meeting and became intrigued. He spoke to Richards, who said there is momentum behind the esports movement.
Its popularity is being fueled not only by players, he said, but by spectators, who watch it online or in public settings, such as esports arenas. The ATCC team would compete in a classroom on campus.
“We think there’s going to be a really strong interest,” Seymour said. The college also plans to expand its academic programming to include online cybersecurity.
Off and running
The college is in the process of hiring an esports coach. It has tabbed Tony Van Acker, an exercise science teacher at ATCC, as its athletic director.
The NJCAA will be conducting a site visit in Alexandria on March 9, and Seymour anticipates that approval of the college’s application could come the following month.
Two information sessions will be held on campus next week. From those student listening sessions, the college will be better able to gauge the interest among current students, with anticipation that the sports could help attract future students to the college.
This is all a first step, says ATCC’s first-year president. He would like to get the sports programs going and on solid footing, and see student support, before considering adding more sports offerings.
“NJCAA sports, both traditional and emerging, are evolving quickly,” said MCAC Executive Director Peter Watkins in a released statement, “and Alexandria Technical and Community College is well positioned to be a part of that growth.”