Sylvania residents think of our community in many ways: great place to raise a family, good schools, cool downtown. But, with due respect to Lourdes University, I doubt that our first thought very often is “college town.”
However, there was no question about that designation a few Saturdays ago at Ebeid Recreation Center on the Lourdes campus. After a slow start, the Grey Wolves men’s basketball team transitioned to a fast-paced run-and-gun second half to top University of Michigan-Dearborn, 77-52. It was a win matching anything going on that particular afternoon in Ann Arbor or Columbus, and the crowd went crazy.
This energy has continued through last week when Lourdes captured its first conference tournament title in program history by beating Madonna in the finals. Later this week the team will have a chance to win the national title when it takes its 24-7 record into the NAIA tournament—the small college and university counterpart of the NCAA.
Men’s basketball is just part of an extremely successful intercollegiate sports program at Lourdes that essentially has been hidden in plain sight for 11 years. The school has more than 450 student-athletes from 31 states and 10 countries playing 24 sports. This includes baseball and softball, but also a competitive cheer team and esports. Men’s lacrosse, volleyball and wrestling teams have won national recognition.
Going big on sports was an initiative driven by former Lourdes president Dr. Robert Helmer who saw it as a way to increase enrollment (and visibility) at the private school. Today, 42 percent of all Lourdes students are athletes … every one of them paying at least half of their tuition, according to Janet Eaton-Smith, vice president of athletics.
“Lourdes does not give full athletic scholarships, but can provide up to 50 percent of tuition in financial aid for a person who is a good athlete and also a good student,” she says. “Our typical recruit has a GPA of 2.7 or higher, and our graduation rate is above 70 percent.”
One example of Lourdes’ appeal is Kyle McBride, a member of the women’s volleyball team who’s from Phoenix. “When I was in the recruiting process, I was looking at east coast schools … and Ohio was close enough. I visited over the summer, and the campus was super-pretty. Lourdes had the major I was looking for, and I really connected with the coach. They seemed to really want me here.”
Men’s volleyball team member Jeff Lam is from Vancouver, Canada, and first heard of Lourdes at a club tournament in Columbus. At the time, he intended to go to culinary school, “but my mom pushed me to take advantage of this unique opportunity at Lourdes,” he said. “Sylvania is definitely a change from Vancouver, but I think that the slower pace gave me time to consider what I needed and wanted … time to plan the next 5-10 years of my life.” Because of an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, he is currently playing as a fifth-year student and finishing work on an MBA.
Head men’s basketball coach Dennis Hopson is in his third year at Lourdes, and this marks his second 20-win season. While most of the school’s coaches focus on high school prospects, Hopson said his program has more options. “We have the NCAA transfer portal … we can recruit players from other schools, junior colleges and prep schools. This lets us go after experienced kids … and we are doing that.”
One of the transfers is Nick Welch, a fifth-year senior and starter. He grew up in nearby Temperance and played at two other colleges before finding a place here. “Things just fell into place at Lourdes,” Welch said. “Coach Hopson and I are wired the same. I’m very detail-oriented, and so is he. Plus, I liked the friendly atmosphere and Catholic values.”
Hopson understands that “you have experienced players for just one or two years of eligibility, and it’s hard to build a team that way. You need some younger athletes, too.” Despite the greater variety of his prospects, Hopson has fine-tuned a singular recruiting message that is clearly working.
“I tell kids they will be in one of the safest communities in the state … but also one with great restaurants, malls, access to water. There are a lot of small schools in our conference located in towns that don’t have things like this.”
“Mom plays a big role in her kid’s decision, too,” he adds. “They respond when we tell them about how most teachers here promote personal relationships with their students, so our players get individual attention. The team’s GPA is over 3.0 and we have a couple of academic All-Americans here. This is a school where student-athletes can actually be touched.”
Dr. Helmer, now president at Baldwin-Wallace University near Cleveland, looks back on his investment in Lourdes athletics this way, “I’m delighted to see the athletics programs and, most importantly, the student-athletes at Lourdes thrive. An intercollegiate athletics program, built on university values, contributes to both student and institutional success.”
And what about impact on a college town? The final analysis comes from current Lourdes President Mary Ann Gawelek. “Athletics has added vitality to our university experience. The rich diversity has advanced our Franciscan environment … and broadened the awareness of our hometown to many.”