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SLU v Butler

SLU players and fans celebrate after a win over Butler on Dec. 1 at Chaifetz Arena. (Photo by Chris Lee)

At a university where soccer has generated the greatest historical athletic success, re-establishing some semblance of a national reputation is a priority at St. Louis U.

Last season SLU’s programs made one concrete move and one systematic change that athletics director Chris May hopes will be a step toward that goal as the women’s team qualified for the NCAA Tournament and the men’s team transitioned to a new coaching staff.

The women were one of the biggest success stories of 2018-19 at SLU as coach Katie Shields’ team became the first on the women’s side to reach an NCAA tournament since the volleyball team in 2009.

The men had some growing pains but saw a relatively young group put together a 6-4-7 record with a dramatically improved offensive attack.

“These two programs can compete nationally and talk about competing for an Atlantic 10 championship regularly and being on the national stage competitively,” May said.

Shields is 69-40-10 in her six seasons, and the Billikens won the A-10 championship last fall before losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

SLU’s athletics school year was highlighted by the men’s basketball team’s run to the A-10 tournament title and berth in the NCAA Tournament. The Billikens won four games in four days in New York and earned national attention for their feat.

Meanwhile, Shields continued an equally impressive rebuild. She has kept high-end talent flowing into the program. Despite losing leading goal scorer Maddie Pokorny, the Billikens will return much of their firepower, including Hannah Friederich, who led the team with 30 points.

That puts the women a step ahead of the men and provides a vision of where coach Kevin Kalish hopes to have his team in coming seasons.

Kalish took over a program that had failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive years. But the process of returning to form began with a competitive team that tied nationally ranked Notre Dame on the road and had a 2-1 loss to top-10 Denver.

“Soccer is really important to us,” May said. “Katie has done a fantastic job recruiting regionally and nationally. With the evolution of the program, as they continue to grow, they’re getting local kids who want to come back and transfer.

“Both of them are having success with St. Louis products. Kevin took over and put his stamp on the program and is recruiting unbelievably well.”

Both teams draw well at Hermann Stadium. The women were 28th nationally in attendance in 2017 and last season averaged 788 fans. The men averaged 1,271, an increase of about 200 per game over 2017, when they were 32nd nationally.

This offseason, the turf on the playing and practice fields is being replaced and upgraded before the teams begin preparation for the 2019 season.

'GREAT RIDE" FOR MEN'S BASKETBALL

The men’s basketball and women’s soccer teams were the only ones to reach their respective NCAA tournaments. But that step by coach Travis Ford’s team is the most significant in terms of athletic prestige.

The attendance and energy level at Chaifetz Arena made large leaps, and May hopes that can carry over to the overall department.

“The year-end product was what we had hoped for,” he said. “It was a great ride, but the future is also very bright. It impacts every sport we have with the energy, passion and positives in how it impacts us in so many ways with all of the athletes coming through.”

Playing in the tournament also provides a financial boost. In general, the budget doesn’t change much, but May believes it is at a competitive level.

“We feel we can compete with how the budgets are,” he said. “Each sport has a different focus of where they’re trying to go. The programs are positioned in a way that they can compete in the A-10 and then grow from there.”