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Blugold athletics: When D-III brings out the best

| Denise Olson

The Blugold track and field men arrived at the 2019 NCAA Division III Championships as the team to beat, so it's not entirely surprising that they brought home the first-ever men's D-III outdoor title. What did come as a bit of a surprise was how they literally ran away from the field, taking the championship by a spread of 30 points over second-place MIT.

This historic accomplishment from the men's team is one of many other firsts for the 2019 track and field program. The season brought record-breaking 1500-meter finishes from Kyler Lueck, record discus throws from David Kornack, the fifth-best decathlon finish in meet history from Dylan Cooper, as well as Coach of the Year, Assistant Coach of the Year and Field Athlete of the Year awards for head coach Chip Schneider, assistant coach Dan Schwamberger and senior David Kornack, respectively. 

That's a whole lot of national NCAA success, proving that UW-Eau Claire is growing its powerhouse status across more D-III programs every year. As students evaluate their college choices, those high-talent student-athletes who may wonder what kind of team and individual success is possible in D-III can increasingly look to UW-Eau Claire as the place to find excellence in academics and athletics.

Coach Schneider, two of his men's track and field athletes who transferred from D-I programs and one of his women's team members describe the special recipe for success that UW-Eau Claire has created to bring national acclaim to not only track and field, but many of our D-III athletics programs. 

Top-notch academics

Chip Schneider Headshot

Chip Schneider, head coach, Blugold track and field

"Our biggest recruiting tool is the school," Schneider said. "Our athletes do come here to be successful track and field athletes, but they wouldn’t even look at us if we weren’t an excellent academic institution first. Once recruits really look into what we offer them on the academic side of things, it is easy to sell them on the success they can have as an individual and with our team." 

It was, in fact, the academics that brought Illinois transfer David Kornack to UW-Eau Claire, and deciding to join the track team was secondary.

David Kornack_portrait

David Kornack

"What drew me to Eau Claire was the actuarial science program, and it was the coaches who convinced me to come out for track. They understood what I had come from in D-I, and what I didn't want to deal with again in terms of sports," Kornack said. "There are many advantages to being in D-III, the biggest of them is being able to balance school and sports. Academics always comes first here, and you have plenty of resources to help you succeed." 

Coaches who care

Schneider's role as head coach is critical in the management, strategic planning and development of the program, but for the recent accolades and championships, he is quick to share credit with his coaching staff, who do a great deal of the heavy lifting. 

"I believe we have the best assistant coaches in the nation, and one of the largest coaching staffs out there," Schneider explained. "These coaches are willing to work for little to no pay because they love what they do and want to be a part of something special; they spend countless hours with the athletes helping them develop their talents to the fullest." 

"Unfortunately, most students who transfer from bigger divisions have had a bad experience, for any number of reasons," he said. "We offer a second chance for them to rediscover why they love the sport — once they are happy again, success tends to follow."

Standout runner Kyler Lueck has been open on campus and in local media in discussing his struggles with mental health, an issue which ultimately sidelined his track career for a time, and left him searching for an exit from UW-Madison and the stresses of a large campus.

Kyler Lueck_headshot

Kyler Lueck

"It was tough because I didn't know how to handle the pressures of a D-I school and what it was expecting from me," Lueck said. "Transferring to Eau Claire was a blessing in disguise. I wasn't planning on running again because of how much I had grown to dislike it. However, I had coaches who believed in me and a team that convinced me to give it another try. They saw the best in me and welcomed me when I thought I was done with the sport I loved."

Erica Oawster

Erica Oawster

Erica Oawster, regional D-III Women's Field Athlete of the Year in discus, found the academic support she needed from both faculty and coaching staff.

"It’s the perfect size school because I was able to get to know my professors and they truly cared about helping students succeed in the classroom and setting us up for life after college," Oawster said. "My coaches also emphasized being a student first and then an athlete; they cared about how I was doing in school and were a great resource to help me succeed in the classroom."

Finding the right balance

Schneider points out that high school athletes and transfer students choose UW-Eau Claire over a bigger division for various reasons, from less pressure in the sports experience to a smaller school for academic reasons. What they find, however, is unparalleled education and sports programs that are increasingly competing at the top levels. Coaches in all Blugold sports understand the needs of the student-athlete and can make more individual adjustments than may be possible at the big schools.

"We try to stress that athletics is just part of their life, not their whole life. If a student needs to practice at alternate times because of a conflict, we try our best to accommodate them so they can meet all their obligations," Schneider said. "But ultimately, being a college athlete helps students learn to manage their time more effectively and helps demonstrate what they see as important. That may mean that athletics takes a back seat to other things — the athletes determine the level of commitment to the process, not the coach."

Schneider sees another huge benefit among his athletes, which is that being a part of a team offers students another support system.

"In college, students are often put into life situations that force them to deal with certain issues on their own for the first time, which can be daunting," he points out. "Being a part of our large team, we can offer support that would not otherwise be available. They have a team and coaches looking out for them, not only as athletes but as people."

Oawster found the right mix for her goals as a Blugold, saying, "The environment and people at Eau Claire are what helped me succeed in academics and at the national level in track and field."

Looking back on his journey, Kornack says he’s happy with the decisions he made and does not have lingering wishes that he'd seen more D-I athletics success.

“I don’t regret it for a second,” he said. “My only regret is that I didn’t come here right away.”

For additional stories about athletes David Kornack and Kyler Lueck, coach Schneider or anything about Blugold athletics, see the links below.