The tale of the Trinity Western University Spartans has some interesting implications for the rest of the CIS schools. For those who don’t know much about the university, it’s a small private Christian school (2,198 full-time undergraduate students in 2007-2008 according to SchoolFinder) that’s located in Langley, B.C., a Vancouver suburb of around 120,000 people (counting the city and the township, which are separate for administrative purposes). This doesn’t sound like a recipe for athletic success, especially considering the proximity of UBC and Simon Fraser University, two larger schools that both invest heavily in sports and are located closer to the centre of Vancouver and its substantial population. When you add in the other factors working against Trinity, such as the high tuition thanks to minimal provincial funding (SchoolFinder lists their undergrad fees as around $16,500 per year) and a tight student code of conduct, including a pledge to stop drinking that might deter some prospective recruit, it seems like Trinity has the cards stacked against them.
Despite all this, Trinity’s managed to pull off some great athletic accomplishments. Their soccer and volleyball teams are annually strong contenders despite playing in the stacked Canada West conference. The women’s soccer Spartans won this year’s title, while the men earned silver medals at nationals. Both of their volleyball teams are ranked in the top 10 nationally this year and have a solid history to boot; the men won the 2006 national championship, placed second in 2005 and earned bronze in 2004 and 2007, while the women finished fifth in 2006 and fourth in 2007. Trinity's basketball programs are also on a meteoric rise. After an 4-19 finish in a tumultuous 2007-2008 campaign that saw head coach Stan Peters fired at Christmas and file a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the university that he settled with them in March [myself, Sporting Madness], this year’s men’s basketball team (10-5) cracked Rob's Top 10 last week before knocking off the third-ranked University of Victoria Vikes and the second-ranked UBC Thunderbirds last weekend and rising to number four [all rankings are from Rob's RPI system]. They’ve now won seven straight games and are tied for second in the standings in the Canada West Pacific Division. The women’s team has also been great, upsetting the No.6 Regina Cougars on January 2. They're 8-7 on the year.
Why such success? In my mind, there’s a few simple reasons. They’re broken down below.
1. A university-level focus on athletics:
Athletics seems to be a priority for Trinity’s administration, and for good reason. It’s one of the best ways to attract attention to the school on a national level, and that’s attention that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Trinity isn’t like UBC, where the massive enrolment, school prestige and intensive focus on research bring an easy national reputation. They have to fight for attention, and they seem to have decided that devoting money to athletics is a good way to do so. Making athletics a priority is a huge step; it can be expensive, but it can also bring great rewards as well. It takes more than just focus for success, though, as the following points show.
2. Big fish, small pond:
Trinity’s Langley location can be seen as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they have a smaller local population to build around; on the other, they get more attention this way than they would if they were yet another small Vancouver school. They’re also close to other, bigger suburbs, such as Surrey and its 300,000+ people (and they have the advantage of a short commute; anyone who lives on the south side of the Fraser River knows about the nightmares of trying to get into Vancouver daily). Moreover, they have less sporting competition than their rivals at UBC and SFU. In Vancouver proper, there are so many big-time sports going on that the university games don’t receive a lot of attention. Out in Langley, there’s Jr. A hockey, but that’s about it. This makes their games a big draw locally, and thus, local media types such as Gary Ahuja of the Langley Times and Troy Landreville of the Langley Advance devote a good amount of attention to Trinity and do a great job of covering Spartan athletics. Thus, there are plenty of kids who grow up watching and reading about Trinity, and that must help the recruiting efforts.
3. Recruiting and connections:
Trinity’s coaches do a great job of scouting the local amateur club and high school games, and their athletic program realizes the advantages of building connections with local programs. They run extensive summer camps, often with varsity coaches as instructors (I attended a couple of soccer ones back in the day), and they also host high school tournaments. This has a couple of advantages; it gives Trinity’s coaches a great look at local prospects and also allows these prospects to check out the school and spend time on campus. Moreover, many of their coaches have extensive ties to local programs, and that can be seen as one of the reasons for the dramatic turnaround seen in men’s basketball, where they brought in famed high school coach Scott Allen from White Rock Christian Academy last year. Allen has managed to collect a strong group of players in just his first season recruiting at the university level, including former national rookie of the year Jacob Doerksen, college basketball star Louis Hurd and hot prospect Tonner Jackson. That’s made even more impressive by their previous lack of success in basketball; according to my CIS media guide, Trinity has never made it to the Final 8. In other sports, such as soccer and volleyball, Trinity’s long history of high-level play also helps them draw the cream of the crop; look at soccer freshman striker Nikki Wright (who I wrote about this summer), who picked up the Canada West rookie of the year, the CIS rookie of the year and the Canada West MVP while leading the Spartans to the national title this year. Other examples of great players who chose Trinity include Steve Rogalsky, a high-school acquaintance of mine who’s now playing for the Canadian national men’s volleyball team, Dayna and Kara Jansen Van Doorn, Trinity volleyball players who are now on [Scott Stewart, TWU Athletics] the Canadian national women's indoor and beach teams respectively, and Josh Howatson, a star setter who won the 2007 BLG Award as the top CIS male student-athlete. Success feeds upon itself, making it even easier to draw the top prospects, so it’s expected that Trinity will continue to shine for years to come.
4. Other connections:
There are plenty of non-recruiting connections that also pay off for Trinity. One of the big ones is their relationship with the Vancouver Whitecaps; Trinity's men's and women's soccer squads have frequently scrimmaged against various Whitecaps teams, and they've allowed the Whitecaps to use their facilities for training several times over the years. Trinity coaches in many of their sports have also built strong relationships with other CIS, NCAA and international programs; this leads to frequent exhibition trips against high-quality competition, which helps to improve both the skill and the reputation of a team.
Another factor that helps Trinity achieve success is their excellent facilities. Their soccer fields are some of the best around, which is why they're frequently used by the Whitecaps and some of their international opponents (I believe English Premier League side Sunderland even conducted their training at Trinity a couple of years ago when they came to Vancouver to play the Whitecaps). Their basketball and volleyball teams have always had decent gym facilities, and those are going to get an upgrade. Trinity is a partner in the construction of the Langley Events Centre, a major new sporting/concert facility that can seat over 6,000 people [Langley Times], and it looks like that will work out very well for them. They only have to contribute $3.5 million to the construction costs (the financial details are described in the above story) and should be able to use the facility for basketball and volleyball games. Compared to the original $230 million price tag [Anna Mehler Paperny, Queen's Journal] of the Queen's Centre, which is probably going to wind up being well below the actual cost, this seems like an absolute steal for Trinity. Moreover, the Events Centre is of sufficient size and quality to host large events (including the 2010 B.C. Summer Games), so there's a good chance we could see CIS volleyball or basketball nationals in Langley some time soon.
6. Focus and specialization:
One of the things that has helped Trinity the most is their strategy of focusing on a few sports and getting them right. They don't offer hockey or football, the two sports that require the most in the way of athletes, dollars and facilities, and two sports that they would have a much tougher time in. It's a lot easier to find 12 top-tier volleyball or basketball players willing to go to such a small school than the 24 or so needed for hockey or the close to 100 needed for football. Even soccer doesn't need that much in the way of funding; there's a higher number of players, but it's still miniscule next to football, and the lower facility and equipment costs also help. Trinity also doesn't focus on the small club sports, at least not in any way where the athletics department seems heavily involved; their website lists only teams in men's and women's volleyball, basketball and soccer. Perhaps as a result, their volleyball and soccer teams have been successful almost continously, and basketball seems to be on its way up. This narrow approach and focus on smaller, cheaper sports allows Trinity to fund each team at a high level and compete with much bigger schools, which often have to juggle resources between 16-20 teams.
In summary, Trinity manages to do a lot with a little. Some of their athletic accomplishments may come naturally, but the vast majority seem more due to the university's hard work and focus on athletic success. It might be worthwhile for bigger CIS schools to take a long look at Trinity's success and the reasons behind it; there's plenty that could be applied at other CIS institutions.