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When other schools cut teams, Augustana added 3 — and later, 1 more

women's wrestling team

From the left: Sawyer Graham, Abbey Ellis, Kara Rohlf, Sandie Pfeil, Saniya Berry; (not pictured) Sydney Tajkowski, Ruby Gerhardt.

Augustana Magazine • Fall 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic put college athletics on the ropes. Large universities and smaller liberal arts schools — including Iowa, Michigan State, Stanford, Furman and Earlham — chose to drop or suspend at least one varsity sport in 2020 because of financial challenges.

At this same time, Augustana added three: varsity men’s and women’s water polo, and varsity women’s wrestling.

Despite hardships brought on by the pandemic, Augustana’s leaders chose to play offense. They did what they knew would strengthen the student-athlete experience and boost recruitment in the future.

Women’s wrestling

Adding a women’s wrestling team puts Augustana at the front end of a growing trend across the nation, particularly in Illinois and neighboring states in the Midwest.

Tony Willaert, who recently completed his fourth season as the head coach of the men’s wrestling program, will lead the women’s team. “I’m really excited,” he said. “Our local area has seen a lot of growth with girl’s wrestling so this will give us a great base for our recruiting efforts. I know we can develop a solid base over the next couple years and compete on the national level right away.”

The Vikings inaugural women’s wrestling team, with recruits from California, Nevada and Maryland as well as the Midwest, began competing in early November.

By establishing the 37th NCAA-affiliated women’s wrestling program in the nation, Augustana brought the program a step closer to reaching 40 NCAA member schools, at which point the women’s program will qualify for an NCAA- sanctioned national championship.

Women’s and men’s water polo

The decision to add water polo evolved alongside plans to build the Peter J. Lindberg, M.D., Center for Health and Human Performance, which features one of the top aquatic facilities in the CCIW. Plus, interest in water polo is growing quickly in high schools across the country, particularly in Illinois, California and Florida.

The men’s team competed this fall in the Lindberg Center’s Anne Greve Lund Natatorium, and the women will take on challengers beginning in February 2022.

Heading up both teams is Ryan Pryor, who compiled a 70-35 record in the last four years as the women’s head coach at Virginia Military Institute. He led the school to its first NCAA top 25 national ranking.

“Our ultimate goal is win DIII National Championships, and I believe we’ll take an important step toward that goal this year,” Coach Pryor said. “I preach to our team to ‘Focus on the process, not the prize.’”

Esports

Esports is the 29th varsity sport and the first all-gender varsity athletic team at Augustana. This addition was announced in July 2021 with plans to launch in the fall of 2022.

“Our club program has thrived for the last four years,” said Dr. Wes Brooks, dean of students. “We knew expanding that program and taking it to the next level would support the goals of the athletic program and co-curricular offerings at Augustana.”

Pew Research Center suggests that 72% of high school students play video games.

The Augustana team will fill the varsity roster for select games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Rock League, Valorant, Madden, NBA2k and FIFA.

Joe Loomis, former head coach of esports at Carroll University, will lead Augustana’s program. He is a member of the National Association of Esports Coaches and Directors.

“Augustana esports will create a value-driven, student- centered community dedicated to enriching student life on campus while creating a holistic approach to gaming culture and esports competition,” Coach Loomis said.

The Vikings will compete against esports teams from colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada during regular season and title championships.

Although not officially launching until 2022, Augustana’s esports team is competing now (watch games via Twitchtv). The team was 26-11 as of early November.