When Paul Lueken, the Director of Athletics at Slippery Rock University, was going through a difficult period of his life following the loss of his wife, the love and support he received from the university was the shining light in dark times.
“The highlight of my career here—in the 25 years I’ve been here—is the amount of support that’s been given to a guy that’s just trying to do the best he can for a quality athletic program,” Lueken said. “Having gone through life struggles in raising a family, losing a wife to cancer and moving on in a positive way. I have an amazing wife and family now and it’s just awesome. I think it’s one big family here, and you know families don’t always get along, we’re not perfect, but for the most part, we all love each other. That’s what it’s all about.”
Lueken attributed the strong family atmosphere around The Rock in helping his own situation while also creating an environment where the top student-athletes around Pennsylvania want to come to further their academic and athletic careers.
“I think it’s our family atmosphere that’s attractive to a lot of student-athletes,” said Lueken. “I’ve heard that from a lot of recruits and transfers and that it feels different here when they come visit opposed to other places. They feel very much at home and comfortable here.”
During Lueken’s 25 years in charge of the SRU athletics department, the prestige of the program has produced numerous Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference champions across all sports, qualified for the national playoffs in multiple sports, and produced professional athletes in the NFL and MLB.
The Rock’s prolonged and constant excellence on the field, court and in the classroom led to the Next College Student Athlete website, ranking SRU in the top 20 nationally.
The NCSA rankings were calculated based on the search results of over two million student-athletes on the NCSA recruiting boards, the results of the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges and the IPEDS graduation rates of more than 200 NCAA Division II athletic programs.SRU ranked third in the PSAC, behind West Chester University and Mercyhurst University, and no. 20 in the NCAA.
Lueken pointed to rock-solid academics, great coaches, an excellent support system, quality facilities and the overall family atmosphere to ranking so high nationally.
The Rock’s athletic prominence has led to high-profile transfers choosing to spend their final years of eligibility in Slippery Rock. Projected NFL draftee Wes Hills and Division II All-American Micah Till are two obvious examples.
Lueken pointed out that while there have not been too many examples of players going to the professional levels at SRU, the exposure to scouts and the perks of playing for nationally recognized teams give The Rock the edge in bringing in high-caliber recruits.
“We’ve shown that if you come to Slippery Rock and you have the ability to play at the next level, whether it’s the NFL or the MLB, that we have graduates that are out there and have had some success,” explained Lueken.
Brandon Fusco, Marcus Martin and Ian Park are all recent Rock alums who were given opportunities to play in the NFL. Matt Adams and Lou Trivino were both drafted into the MLB. The men’s basketball team has placed countless players in the professional leagues overseas in recent years.
“This past year, every team was in here to see Wes [Hills], the year before, almost every team was here to see Marcus [Martin],” Lueken stated. “We’ve had the baseball scouts and we’ve had some guys that have been able to go there. It’s not rampant; there’s not a lot of them and it’s not our core mission, but it’s a good, quality spin-off of what we do.”
The success of transfer students and the increase in the opportunities of Rock student-athletes reaching the professional levels have been fortunate by-products of Rock student-athletes excelling in the classroom and on the field of play, according to Lueken.
“Although it’s very much focused on the individual, track is one of them [that embodies what it means being a Rock athlete]. I think football has had some great success here, especially these last few years. We had women’s basketball going for quite a while and we’re hoping to get that back. Men’s basketball has done well. Our soccer teams have done well,” said Lueken.
Coaches like Jeff Messer (baseball), John Papa (men’s and women’s track and field), Laurie Lokash (volleyball) and Matt Meredith (tennis) have experienced extended runs of success otherwise unseen in the PSAC, and their constant presence has brought stability to the entire program.
Lokash, Messer and Papa have spent a combined 101 years in charge of their respective sports teams.
That’s the length of 25 classes of students coming in as freshmen and graduating as seniors at Slippery Rock.
Newer coaches like Shawn Lutz (football), Bobby McGraw (women’s basketball), Ian Grady (men’s basketball), Jessica Griggs (women’s soccer), Kelsey Van Alstyne (lacrosse) and Julie Swiney (field hockey) have brought new energy and passion into the program.
Lutz and Griggs have led their respective teams to NCAA playoff berths while McGraw, Grady and Van Alstyne have led their teams to PSAC playoff berths.
“We have a very well-rounded athletic program here,” said Lueken. “We’ve had some coaches who have had some longevity here which has brought consistency into the quality of our program. And the newer coaches that we’ve brought in have been able to keep it going.”
While academic excellence has become a norm in lacrosse, women’s soccer, softball, women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s track and field, tennis, men’s baseball, football and men’s soccer, the field hockey team has become the pinnacle of student-athlete success.
The field hockey team’s collective GPA has ranked inside the top three in all of Division II field hockey since 2010. In 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2017, The Rock led all of Division II field hockey.
Lueken credited the academic excellence across all of SRU’s academic programs in attracting potential student-athletes.
“I think our name helps,ww but I think it’s our reputation as a good academic school [that brings in recruits]. All our academic programs now are so accredited and widely known. All these national rankings the university gets now for being a top university certainly helps us with that, too.”
Often times, academics and athletics at universities in America have a disconnect that leads to hardship and subpar performance in either one or both of the areas. Lueken is proud that SRU has found a way to supplement academics with athletics which has led to increased performance in both areas.
If there is one thing that Lueken feels The Rock needs to improve, it would be beating division rival Indiana University (Pa.) more often.
“Any time we beat IUP,” laughed Lueken. “We’ve had a lot of great moments here so I don’t know if I can pick one but certainly a lot of them involve beating IUP.”