Q and A: Lewis & Clark College athletics on growth path
Mark Pietrok arrived at Lewis & Clark College in 1989 to serve as head athletic trainer. More than three decades later, Pietrok is entering his third academic year as the director of physical education and athletics at the southwest Portland liberal arts college. Prior to being named AD in June 2020, Pietrok served two stints as interim athletic director.
A 1985 graduate of the University of Portland, Pietrok misses the daily interaction with student athletes he enjoyed as a trainer. But he has his hands full overseeing a department that will soon grow to 21 varsity programs that compete in the Northwest Conference at the NCAA Division III level.
Pamplin Media Group recently sat down with Pietrok to discuss the state of athletics at Lewis & Clark and beyond.
The discussion was edited for clarity and length.
PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: What keeps you awake at night?
PIETROK: "COVID. And personnel. I've hired a lot of new staff this year, which I'm excited about. In most of college athletics, other than Power Five football, we do it for the passion, not necessarily for the money. People during COVID had time to think through what they're doing. I've had a number of great coaches leave just because they want to spend more time with their families. The other piece that's difficult for us, unlike some of my colleagues, is the cost of living in Portland has really gone up."
PMG: What are you excited about?
PIETROK: "We've got some momentum going. Wim (Wiewel) was our president (through June of this year). He came in and really embraced athletics. When he convinced me to move into the administration, I told him what my vision was. So we're adding two new sports, women's lacrosse and men's soccer. Along with that, we have our first real capital investment by the college in our facilities in about a decade. Our Joe Huston baseball and softball facility, the board approved a $4.5 million upgrade there. That will also help with us bringing on these two new sports.
My boss, who has now been named president of the institution, Robin Holmes-Sullivan, she came just before COVID to be vice president of student life, which oversees athletics. Robin is a former all-American basketball player (at Cal State Fullerton in the early 1980s), and then worked at University of Oregon for 20-plus years in student life and was very involved with athletics down there. So, she understands the importance of the athletic experience in the overall educational experience.
She and I have collaborated on moving the department forward in a manner that, hopefully, will help us become a little bit more competitive, without compromising any of our academic standards.
PMG: Can you talk about the improvements to your baseball and softball facility?
PIETROK: "Both fields will be some kind of artificial turf. There will be permanent restrooms, some storage and a training room. We're hoping to do bleachers and press boxes for both fields. It will provide us with another 100-by-70 (yard) practice field. You will be able to practice soccer and lacrosse and football down there. Right now, there's one field for all these programs and it's Griswold Stadium. And we share (Griswold) with Riverdale High School.
"The logistics of Griswold Stadium are challenging. We start practices there at 6 in the morning and the lights go out at 10 o'clock at night. And it's used nonstop. Doing this project is going to provide us some space and the ability to bring on these programs (men's soccer and women's lacrosse), which we think really fit Lewis & Clark's demographic."
PMG: Lewis & Clark has struggled for a while to field competitive teams. Talk about the challenges of competing in the Northwest Conference.
PIETROK: "We put a strategic plan together when Robin got here for what the role of athletics was here. One goal is, we want athletes to be about a quarter of the student population. Lewis & Clark's had a bit of a reputation for not being competitive and we want to change that.
The goal is to compete in the upper third of the conference in all our sports. People kind of laugh at me, but to me it's kind of an indication where we're headed. We've been last place in the all-sports trophy in the conference for over a decade. And (in 2021-22) we're not. At this level, you don't turn things around quickly. It's a process.
"One of the challenges that we face is we're one of the most expensive schools, with some of the highest academic standards to get in. What we've done is gone out and started recruiting students who consider participation in athletics an important part of their educational process. We've put some more resources into recruiting.
We're probably one of the higher-resourced (Northwest Conference) schools when it comes to recruiting, because the other piece for us is our demographic of who attends Lewis & Clark is not students from Oregon. A lot of our kids come out of California, Washington, Colorado. Arizona has become a big state for us. When Jay Locey was (football coach) here, he got into Arizona and he also had some connections in Texas.
The other piece that we do a great job with here is, if (football coach) Joe Bushman's down in Sacramento, he'll ask other coaches, 'Do you have anybody you'd like me to contact?' He may contact a women's volleyball player or a swimmer. We've really upped our game in the recruiting process, and it's really showed dividends.
We've got the biggest class of incoming freshmen student athletes we've ever had (166 student athletes). The school is doing really well with enrollment. The student population is just about 2,000 undergraduates. The incoming class is right around 650. So we're about 25%. (Athletes) used to be about 18% to 20% of the incoming class, and we wanted to bump that up to about 25%. We used to have about 325 student athletes. This year we'll have about 450.
If we continue with these numbers, we're probably headed to 550 or 600 student athletes, which would be great. That would be basically filling all our rosters. We've always been one of the smallest football programs in the Northwest Conference, and we're going to have our largest football team ever this year."
PMG: Talk a bit more about specific recruiting challenges for Lewis & Clark coaches.
PIETROK: "Money's always a critical piece. One thing that we've talked about over the last couple of years is we've got to go find the students who are looking for a Lewis & Clark type of education. We have to spend our time on the students who we think can matriculate, so you have to have very strong conversations with families right upfront and determine financially is it a possibility. Our enrollment management team here collaborates with us by telling us what to look for, where to go.
Kids who have high need, who have good grades have a good chance of matriculation here. They have to come out of strong curriculums. If I find a student who's been a teacher's aide for five out of his six classes, he may have a 4.0 but he's not going to come in here.
But, if he's had four strong years of math and science and English, those are the kids who are going to matriculate here, and they're also the kids who are going to be successful here.
That's the other part to it. We want to recruit kids to come here, but we want them also to stay here. Especially in the current environment in collegiate athletics, whether it's Division I or Division III, you have the transfer portal. So, we're very upfront about who we are."
PMG: How does the perception of Portland influence recruiting?
PIETROK: "Two years ago, when all the protests were going on here, a lot of people were wondering how are we going to do with enrollment? We did great. Portland's a great draw for us. The outdoors. Being able to get to the mountains, get to the coast. Our ability to work with Portland businesses and do internships.
Everybody was worried that the protests were going to drive people away, but the reality is that a lot of the students who come to Lewis & Clark are very active politically, and so it turned out we had the biggest class we've ever had here."
PMG: How has the transfer portal impacted your programs?
PIETROK: "You get some students who have success at the Division III level and they go 'OK, I've been pretty good here, maybe I can do better someplace else.' We had a track athlete this year who had a great year. He ended up getting a full-ride scholarship to a Division II school, and the opportunity to go compete at a higher level was really enticing to him. He was paying $50,000 a year to go to school here and now he's going to school for free. That entices parents as well. So, he had a very good experience here. The other piece was the school that he transferred to had a major that he was interested in. That's why we have to concentrate on the athletes' overall experience."
PMG: Have name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities impacted Lewis & Clark athletics?
PIETROK: "Not yet, in a real big way, but I think it is heading in that direction. We're trying to figure out how to best present opportunities to our student athletes and guide them. We're not providing opportunities. People are coming from the outside. It hasn't happened here, but there's been examples of student athletes at the Division III level that got involved in some NIL and had no idea that there were tax implications and ended up in some bad situations.
I don't see it ever being (at Lewis & Clark) what it is at the highest levels. I can imagine in some of the Division III schools that are in smaller towns, local businesses would love to engage student athletes in that type of thing. And it is a piece that schools using as a recruiting tool. For us here in Portland, probably not as much. For us right now, it's a matter of making sure we understand what's going on and how to advise our students."
PMG: What type of feedback about sports do you get from boosters and graduates when you interact with them?
PIETROK: "Well, they all like us to win. My Nike contract is a little different than the University of Oregon's contract. My conversations are about how we can provide an opportunity for athletes to have a great experience competitively, but also just the whole experience? We sent our crew team back to the Head of the Charles rowing regatta, one of the largest regattas in the world, last fall. The generosity of some boosters provided us the funds to do that. That is going to be an experience that those students talk about forever.
"A number of years ago, I went to the funeral of Fred Wilson, our longtime football coach and athletic director, I think eight or nine guys got up and spoke about Fred and told these glowing stories. I found it fascinating that not a one of them ever talked about the score of a contest. It was about all the other things, the road trips and the experiences and the friendships and the mentorship that they got. That really resonated with me. So, when I'm talking to boosters, that's what I'm talking about — trying to provide an opportunity to enhance the experience for the kids."
PMG: Other than the baseball and softball facilities, are other improvements on the way?
PIETROK: "Every one of our facilities is getting some kind of upgrade this year. Griswold Stadium is getting upgrades to the press box. We're doing a whole new filtration system on our pool. They're going to redo the front of Pamplin Sports Center and tear up the old rickety concrete so it's all flat. They're buying all new motorboats to help with the safety of our crew program. I've got a new scorers' table on order. It's kind of an exciting time.
We've had great enrollment and the board is committed to a lot. They're redoing the student center. We've got $50 million in capital improvement. And I'm hoping that we keep pushing the rock up the hill and moving us in the right direction to be a competitive athletic program."
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