Higher roster numbers are associated with declining retention rates for male athletes at Pacific
Student-athletes are a major source of enrollment—and pride—for Pacific University. Nearly 60 percent of incoming male students play sports—a statistic that Pacific boasts about in speeches and promotional materials, and uses as a marker about the soul of the school. But that number also creates an unyielding problem, and casts a dark shadow across student retention: When these recruited athletes don’t make the starting team, or fail to get significant playing time, they don’t always stick around.
Said more plainly: Pacific University has a retention problem; male athletes are the number one group of students who leave Pacific, and they are leaving the college in an unprecedented numbers. While specific numbers were not available by press time, Pacific holds a somewhat middling retention rate of 75 percent. Within that number, it has been acknowledged that the leading cause for those feeble retention numbers are male athletes; presumably meaning that more than one out of four male athletes who enroll at Pacific leave before graduating.
The math is fairly simple: With squads in baseball, basketball and football more than quadrupling the number of starting spots, the chances of playing time for the vast majority of male athletes is low.
The Pacific football team, for example, has over 130 players rostered for the 2023 season. With 11 players on the field at a time, that means the program could host nearly five different lines of offensive, defensive and special teams. Even with active JV squads, that leaves a lot of players competing for prime playing time.
During his first year, Lucas Dahl was on the football team as a wide receiver. But when he returned for this year as a sophomore, he left the football squad (but is still a member of the track team). “I played for a really small high school,” explained Dahl, “Coming into college and being on such a big team, it sucks to feel like just a number.” He went on, “I think many people came in, and it wasn’t what they expected.”
Likewise, Boxer basketball has significantly fewer spots available than athletes recruited. One glaring statistic is that the team had 29 people rostered on the JV squad last year, and 16 did not return.
“At the end of the day, it’s a recruitment problem,” said Evan Thompson, who is one of those JV players who did not return. After one year at Pacific, he transferred and is now a student at Oregon University. He went on, “The JV starters would get maybe 15 minutes in a game that lasts 40 minutes.”
One bright spot, though, has been the baseball program, which also carries a large number of male athletes, but has developed a JV program that seems to be satisfying athletes’ desire for playing time, and for being part of the squad, while simultaneously developing a support system for the varsity program.
The Boxer baseball team has a 53-player roster this season, including 16 freshmen players. With nine men on the field, those numbers track the football or basketball squads, which all carry roughly five times as many players on their roster as starting positions. However, baseball’s retention rates are strong: Only three players left or transferred from last season; the rest returned.
An important part of that success has been the development of full squad unity, and particularly using the JV squad as an active development opportunity. Assistant Boxer Baseball coach Ryan Krout explains that he considers it essential in team growth that each player understands their value and sees a clear uphill trajectory.
“The way we look at it is we are always one team,” says Krout. “We practice together, same locker room; it’s just about scheduling more games, and we want to get as many guys on the field as possible,” he explained. “We can get our athletes on the field, and not just waiting around lifting and hitting all year.”
And Krout should know: He is a 2022 alumni who spent his freshman season with the JV team, known as the “Red Wave,” before jumping to the varsity team his sophomore season, eventually earning first-team All-Conference Honors his senior year.
“I was a JV guy,” Krout admits, referring to his first year at Pacific. “Honestly, the JV program was huge for me. I wasn’t ready for college baseball; it was scary and too fast,” he expressed. “Getting a year on the JV helped me get my confidence and grow a little.”
“We honestly treat our Red Wave program kind of like a minor league,” Krout continues. “It kind of ebbs and flows up and down to allow guys to get comfortable at the college level before being asked to play high-speed game environments on varsity.”
And that lesson and success with retention seem to be resonating with other coaches at Pacific. After speaking with the baseball team’s head coach, Brian Billings, and learning about their “minor league” strategy, head basketball coach Justin Lunt implemented something similar for his players, creating a “G-League” tournament.
The “G-League” provides non-varsity athletes more chances to play competitively and to display their abilities. The varsity players coach and officiate the mini four-team league aimed at creating team cohesion. The team conducts lighthearted post-game interviews and even has a Twitter account.
Lunt spent 12 seasons at Puget Sound and took the Loggers to seven Northwest Conference Tournament appearances, a Northwest Conference title, and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III basketball tournament. This year is his fifth season at Pacific.
“One of the reasons I left Puget Sound,” he explained, “was because I love the fact we had a JV program here.” He added, “I feel like there are opportunities when players come in as a freshman, that they may not be at the level they need to be, but then they get the opportunity to play.”
Lunt points out that he has players who started on JV and are now regular varsity team starters—and that two of those players from the previous season are now playing professionally abroad, including Ethan Chung, who graduated in 2023 and now plays professionally in Taiwan’s Plus League.
“I want to create the vibe that JV is more of a developmental team,” says Lunt. — Emily Rutkowski