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Published: Sunday, 5/20/2012

Knights aim to recapture football, basketball glory

School not willing to weaken admissions policy

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Fr. Ron Olszewski. Fr. Ron Olszewski.
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A supporter of St. Francis de Sales approached school president, the Rev. Ronald Olszewski, not long ago suggesting the school model its athletic programs after Ohio State or Miami (Fla.), two universities embroiled in scandal recently for skirting NCAA bylaws.

The implication is St. Francis, with pronounced struggles in football and basketball in recent seasons, should lower its rigid academic standards, compromise its core values, and disobey rules to ensure a winner. Olszewski's response to the fan?

"Maybe we can be like Air Force."

Anyone who knows Olszewski knows he's a fanatic of Knights athletics who loves to win and hates to lose. They also know he places academics above all else, that he will make no concessions to get a promising young athlete through the door, and that he discourages his coaches from violating rules in the recruitment of a player.

Some have contributed that unbendable philosophy to the erosion of the football and basketball teams, both of which are coming off the worst two-year stretch in school history and will enter next school year led by a third coach in four years. Olszewski broached the deceleration of the programs last month in a letter published in the spring issue of the campus magazine, Knight Life. Addressing friends of the school, he wrote, in part, "We must be who we are and be that well."

Olszewski said he wrote the letter to acknowledge "the elephant in the room." Football was 3-7 in 2011 and 4-6 in 2010. Basketball was 2-18 and 5-16.

Deteriorating is the competitiveness of rivalries with St. John's Jesuit and Central Catholic, parochial schools with reputations of being more flexible than St. Francis in their efforts to stock their teams with standout athletes from various societal and economical backgrounds.

"Everybody was talking about it, but nobody wanted to bring it to the fore," Olszewski said of the Knights' descent. "I know people are talking about our programs at St. Francis sliding, declining. 'They don't care about football and basketball anymore.' ... We had two horrible, horrible seasons as far as win-loss records go, so I thought we had to address that."

Its two marquee sports not withstanding, St. Francis is rolling in success. Capturing championships in the inaugural Three Rivers Athletic Conference were golf, soccer, cross country, and swimming and diving. The baseball team sits in second place, one game off the lead.

Cross country was eighth at the Division I state meet; swimming and diving produced back-to-back state runner-up finishes the last two years; and hockey lifted the state title trophy in 2011. Overall, Knights have won 26 state titles in seven sports.

"When you're down in football and basketball, there's a perception you're down in everything," athletic director Carl Janke said. "That's not true."

It wasn't long ago football and basketball were a subject of pride at the school. Under hall of fame football coach Dick Cromwell, St. Francis collected two state titles and 11 City League championships, advanced to the state playoffs 13 times, and posted an overall mark of 208-85-1.

The program started careening downward in 2006, with the Knights posting a 3-7 mark followed by back-to-back 5-5 seasons. An 11-2 record and a berth in the regional finals in 2009 -- Cromwell's final year -- marks the lone winning season in the last six years. The coveted Irish Knight, a trophy given annually to the winner of the St. Francis-Central Catholic football game has gone to the Irish eight straight years. St. Francis leads the series 28-24-1.

Cromwell's successor, Mike Blochowski, resigned after last season, posting seven wins in two years.

In basketball, coach Brad Britton didn't last two full seasons before resigning in January after the Knights began 0-11. He and Olszewski wouldn't say whether the resignation was forced. Britton was 5-27.

Britton's predecessor, Nick Lowe, experienced relative success in nine seasons, going 113-62 and resigning after taking the Knights to their first City League championship game in 19 years. Lowe, who cited a desire to spend more time with his family, resurfaced at Bedford after one year and led the Mules to the Class A regional semifinal last season.

Lowe and Blochowski declined comment when asked to address any limiting factors of succeeding at St. Francis.

Britton, who accepts blame for not being effective as a coach and harbors no ill feelings for the school, suggested a talent gap exists between the Knights and many of their opponents.

"We need to get some better basketball players and particularly better athletes," he said, adding that reviving the program can be done, "it's just going to take a lot of hard work."

Hired to replace him was Travis Lewis, an assistant coach at Owens Community College the last two seasons who earned seven letters at Eastern Michigan in basketball and football. Appointed football coach was Chris Hedden, a former University of Toledo assistant who served as offensive coordinator in 2008.

"You look at our selections of new coaches, and I think it will move us in a very positive direction," booster club president Andy Beckstead said.

The quickest path to success for Hedden and Lewis will be to reverse a trend of top athletes attending other area schools.

To gain entrance at St. Francis, a student should strive to score within the 40th percentile of the high school placement test, a measurement used by many private high schools to determine one's capability of succeeding academically. St. Francis also considers one's grades and any letters of recommendation. Legacies of the school, as well as brothers of current students, are given preferential treatment. No such favors are provided to exceptional athletes with subpar academic scores.

"I have never seen that happen here," director of admissions Rick Michalak said.

St. John's principal Brad Bonham declined to discuss whether his school lowers its admission standards to bring in quality athletes. Bonham also declined to reveal specifics of the school's distribution of minority scholarships.

St. John's Web site shows it offers a minority scholarship program, but it does not list the number of recipients, and, unlike other scholarships listed, the size of the scholarship is not given.

Of St. Francis' 630 students, minorities make up 17 percent, the most at the school since 19 percent in 1990.

Compounding St. Francis' struggles to attract premier talent is its steep tuition -- $9,800 for next year -- its modest athletic facilities compared to other traditional powers in the city, and its relatively small amount of money per scholarship distributed. The highest scholarship, for $2,500, is reserved for those who score in the 98th or 99th percentile of the placement test. The next biggest scholarship is for $1,000. No student is offered a full-ride, not even 2011 valedictorian Keon Pearson, a minority who is on a full-ride at Harvard University. Two scholarships are awarded to minority students, each for $1,000. Roughly 16 percent of the student population is on scholarship, and two-thirds are given some form of financial assistance, Olszewski said.

"I've had all kinds of people ask me what kind of athletic scholarships do you give? 'My son's getting this athletic scholarship from this school or this school,' " Olszewski said. "No school is supposed to give athletic scholarships."

Janke said the school's Academic Center, a $1.4 million facility currently under construction, will have no bearing on the school's admission standards.

Olszewski said building a state-of-the-art football stadium comparable to those at St. John's, Central Catholic, and Whitmer would be "financially irresponsible" because the Knights can play their games less than a mile away at University of Toledo.

Like St. John's, St. Francis offers only a college prep diploma and not a general diploma. Central Catholic offers both.

The backslide of the football and basketball programs has yet to adversely affect overall enrollment numbers. A 185-person freshman class is the second largest in the last nine years, Michalak said. Still, the school is 70 students shy of reaching its goal of 700, and Michalak believes success in marquee sports could bring the exposure needed to make that happen.

In 2001, an astronomical 247 eighth-graders showed up for the placement test days after the Knights captured the Division II state football crown. That's about 40 more students who took the test from the previous year.

"We don't count on it, but having good athletic teams attracts not only good athletes but kids that want to be a part of winning athletic programs as a spectator," Michalak said. "It's their school too."

There's reason for optimism. The freshman class went 8-2 in football and 16-3 in basketball, winning a TRAC title with a 12-2 mark. Olszewski said he received about 30 applications a piece for his football and basketball coaching positions before zeroing in on Hedden and Lewis, whom he refers to as "zealots" because of their passion.

Among his thoughts published in the letter, Olszewski wrote "we must win more than we lose." So, is a 6-4 football record the new standard?

"This whole thing forced us to think about what we want from our athletics," he said. "A 6-4 season might be OK in a given year, but sometimes we have to win it all. I'd love state championships. I'd love everybody to be striving for that.

"I hope we're going to return to those championship days."

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.



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