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Monday, May 17, 2021

Wilmington University's Sports Push

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Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan
Kevin Noonan has covered and commented on the Delaware sports scene for more than 30 years, everything from amateur recreation leagues and high schools to local colleges and the Philadelphia professional teams. He’s been voted Delaware Sportswriter of the Year multiple times and currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for CBSSports.com and teaches creative writing courses at Wilmington University.

Last week, we talked about the University of Delaware athletics department and its quest for the big time.

This week, we’re talking about the Wilmington University athletics department and its quest for the small time.

Wilmington – which started in 1968 in a converted hotel on Route 13 with 194 students – is growing at a phenomenal rate. Its enrollment now includes about 6,000 undergraduates and almost daily the school is adding new buildings, new programs and new locations.

Now it’s giving its sports programs a big push into small-college athletics. It started in 2004 when the school made the jump from the NAIA to NCAA Division II, which is still considered small college, but does allow Wilmington to award scholarships, the first big step to the small time.

And now that push has a real centerpiece, a new athletics complex being built off of Route 40, a few miles from the school’s main campus in New Castle. It hasn’t received a lot of media attention, but the new complex is a major move for the Wildcats, whose sports programs are squeezed by the densely-populated area in which they are located. Wilmington has a nice gym and was fortunate to be located near Wilson Field, one of the best baseball facilities in the state, but there just wasn’t enough space for the Wildcats to stretch their legs.

Now there is.

“I know the center will be state of the art,’’ Wilmington athletic director Frank Aiello said. “Anything this university does is first class. They always put their heart into what they do.’’

Another sign of growth of the sports programs is the need to reach out beyond Delaware’s borders for athletes. For years, Wilmington’s teams were mostly manned (womanned?) by local talent – in fact Wilmington used to have more First State kids on its rosters than the University of Delaware, even though the Blue Hens had more teams.

That local focus has changed through necessity, and a quick and completely unofficial and unscientific survey of the 11 teams fielded by the Wildcats shows a total of 179 athletes on 11 teams (98 women and 81 men). Of those 179 athletes, 63 are from in-state, which means 116 aren’t.

We thought about looking up Delaware’s teams and comparing the two schools’ number of in-state athletes, but, frankly, that sounded like way too much work. Besides, you get the idea – Wilmington is growing and its athletics program is part of it. The university’s president, Dr. Jack Varsalona, has had the school on the fast track for a while now. Varsalona dreams big dreams and he has the energy and the influence to make those dreams come true.

Aiello has also been instrumental in the growth; since he arrived on the scene eight years ago, the number of student-athletes Wilmington has almost doubled. Before taking the job at Wilmington, Aiello was the athletic director and girls basketball coach at St. Elizabeth High, and there’s not a better liked or more respected administrator in the state at any level. He and Varsalona are a formidable team that has transformed Wilmington athletics and will continue to transform them.

And Wilmington needs something to get people – fans, media and especially alumni – excited about its teams. Wilmington is a commuter school that doesn’t even have dormitories and its athletic programs have never had, and may never have, the alumni support that most colleges enjoy. And they don’t get much help from the two main media outlets in Delaware, The News Journal and WDEL radio. They pretty much ignore the Wildcats, and the newspaper usually relegates them to a paragraph or two on the back page.

So, that is the next step and the next challenge for Varsalona and Aiello — getting people in the stands to root for their teams and to care about them. When that happens, the Wildcats’ big move into the small time will be complete.

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan32@aol.com.

 

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