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This summer Alexandria Technical and Community College, a two-year school nestled into the lakes country of Douglas County, announced that it was adding four varsity sports: volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer and baseball.

The additions come at a time when other small Minnesota colleges have been cutting varsity programs, most notably the NCAA II football teams at St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota-Crookston, which were dropped after the 2019 season. The University of Minnesota, of course, also made headlines last fall when it announced the elimination of gymnastics and two other NCAA I men’s programs. The stated reasons have included everything from budget shortfalls to gender equity considerations to student apathy.

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“It seems counterintuitive,” said Alexandria College President Michael Seymour, who was appointed to run the college two years ago. “But this is really about providing a great education that surrounds and completes that student life experience.”

It also promises to attract student athletes as colleges already dealing with enrollment declines emerge from a year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Alexandria College, which had 400 fewer students last year (3,527) than it did four years earlier, hopes to have about 150 student-athletes on campus by the fall of 2023.

Winning ‘tiebreakers’

The push to add athletics at the Alexandria school predates the pandemic and is part of a broader mission to rebrand the college – long an important feeder to the region’s manufacturing base – as a place with an expanding portfolio, administrators said.

That’s an idea with strong support in the community, said Chad Coauette, a local nonprofit executive who serves on an advisory board that meets periodically with Seymour. “I think the public will embrace it,” he said. “This is a great place to live, a great community here in central Minnesota. Hopefully, this will help the school attract people – whether they come for the sports or the great academic programs.”

The additions will give Alexandria College an unusual, something-for-everyone mix of nine varsity sports.

The campus of Alexandria Technical and Community College.

Wikimedia Commons

The campus of Alexandria Technical and Community College.

The school already has men’s and women’s golf teams. A few years ago, it tapped into the region’s outdoors culture by adding two emerging sports: fishing (which begins competition this fall) and skeet shooting. It also added E-sports for the video gamers among its student body. The addition of soccer teams, meanwhile, could help the school reach more students from newer immigrant and refugee groups, such as Latinos and Somalis.

All of that was needed for the college to differentiate itself from schools of similar size and purpose, Seymour said. (While he didn’t name names, Ridgewater College, headquartered in Willmar, and Minnesota State Technical and Community College, with its flagship campus in Fergus Falls, also draw on central Minnesota students). As Seymour put it: “The strategy was about winning more of those tiebreakers.”

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A new era

A version of Alexandria College opened in 1961 (as Alexandria Technical College), first offering men’s basketball and later adding women’s basketball, cheerleading and a dance line before dissolving its teams in the mid-1990s. In 2010, the college added liberal arts courses, becoming one of the state’s many comprehensive community colleges that offer technical degrees as well as associate degrees that serve as the foundation for transfer to four-year schools. The new teams, which will compete as the Legends (the school’s new nickname, which replaced the Norsemen), will begin competing during the 2022-2023 school year.

Alexandria College is one of 24 two-year colleges that compete in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference, which has undergone many changes over the years.

Several of the two-year colleges in the Twin Cities region dropped varsity athletics years ago, while many outside the Twin Cities gradually scaled back their offerings, most now offering a half-dozen programs or so. Two years ago, Ridgewater College (where I teach) dropped its football program.

Alexandria College isn’t the only exception, however; Century College, in White Bear Lake, for example, has added varsity baseball and volleyball programs in the past decade.

Local support

The new teams at Alexandria College are getting off the ground with money raised in the community, though eventually the programs could be supported, at least in part, by the school’s operating budget.

Jeff Wild, Alexandria College’s executive foundation director, said the college raised $70,000 for athletics at a fundraiser last fall and another $30,000 at a golf tournament last spring. “I was overwhelmed by the support,” he said.

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The school is renovating a gymnasium for the volleyball team and may one day turn land on campus into a soccer field, but it otherwise has access to facilities in and around the community.

Jason Fischer

Alexandria Technical and Community College

Jason Fischer

The golf teams compete at Geneva Golf Club just outside of Alexandria; the baseball team will play at historic Knute Nelson Memorial Field on Lake Winona; and the fishing team, of course, holds competitions at many of the region’s lakes. An E-sports room on campus has been decked out with comfy leather chairs and huge TV screens.

Among the school’s coaching hires was Jason Fischer, who led St. Cloud Community and Technical College to four NJCAA Division III World Series appearances. That suggests the school wants to compete – not simply draw students.

“We are putting together some strong teams with strong coaches,” said Adam Hammer, the school’s director of marketing and communications. “We’re not just putting teams together and running around in circles.”