The Wins of Change | Think magazine | CWRU


The Wins of Change

CWRU's first national NCAA team championship capped historic year

A montage of student athletes celebrating and playing their sportsImage: Top photo by Conor Kvatek/USTA, bottom photos by Tim Phillis.
Athletes, left to right: James Hopper, Chris Provenzano and Michael Sutanto; bottom, left to right: Jamie Goldfarb, Cole Frilling and Kaili Gross.

The replay runs on a regular loop in James Hopper's mind. His return of serve, a crisp backhand, going unanswered. Match over. Sliding to the ground, hands covering his face. A teammate stampede.

The first team national championship in Case Western Reserve University history finally realized.

Those moments last May were the culmination of countless sunrise practices, relentless in-house competition, perseverance through COVID-19 and consecutive second-place finishes in the national title match.

A montage of Case Western Reserve University student athletes in actionIIMAGE: PHOTOS BY TIM PHILLIS AND USTA

On the left, top to bottom: Aaron Rucker, Isabella Russo, Ajay Mahenthiran and Maggie Storti. On the right, top to bottom: Diego Maza, Elizabeth Berry, Mitch Prendergast and Abigail Meneses.

"It was such a surreal feeling," said Hopper (CWR '23), after CWRU's win over Tufts University to become the 2023 NCAA Division III men's tennis champions. "All of our [tennis] alumni over the last 10 to 15 years being there made me realize we were not just representing ourselves, but also everybody who's been there along the way."

Head Coach Todd Wojtkowski's team had delivered the crown jewel to an already impressive campus display of sparkling sports success. Standout performances by several other CWRU men's and women's teams have become the norm. It's proof that on a campus where an old cement sidewalk scrawl reads, "The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell," selective admissions and rigorous classroom work need not preclude outstanding athletic achievement.

Headshot of Todd Wojtkowski
Todd Wojtkowski, Men's Tennis Head Coach

The renaissance is so widespread that 10 Case Western Reserve teams placed at the NCAA championships in 2022-23, the most ever. That includes women's soccer, which finished second after reaching its title match undefeated.

"There's a lot of very positive things and a lot of terrific experiences for our student athletes—and increasingly for our fans," said President Eric W. Kaler, who, since arriving in 2021, has joined broadcasts to provide color commentary for softball, and men's and women's basketball and soccer games.

Headshot of TJ Shelton
TJ Shelton, director of athletics

Those fans turned out in large numbers to cheer in frigid temperatures when Head Coach Abby Richter's soccer team played host at DiSanto Field to the NCAA tournament in November before reaching the final champion- ship game in December. They filled Horsburgh Gym during last season's basketball Round of 32. That's when Head Coach Todd McGuinness' Spartans made the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row after securing the university's first University Athletic Association (UAA) basketball title. And they were at Mather Park in spirit early in the pandemic, when cardboard cutouts of family, friends and pets provided an unforgettable home field advantage for Head Coach Josie Henry's softball team, which sub- sequently won its second consecutive UAA championship.

Confidence and belief in consistent competitive success has spread among athletes and fans alike.

"These athletes feed off each other's achievements," said TJ Shelton, the James C. Wyant Director of Athletics since 2022. "Success breeds more success."


But as recently as a decade ago, fewer teams enjoyed such success—particularly at the national level.

The turnaround began after Lou Stark arrived in 2013 as vice president for student affairs and hired Amy Backus as athletic director a year later.

Photo of Amy Backus with athletes as well as people in bleachers behind her.Photo: RYAN BAKER
Amy Backus was named athletic director in 2014. She retired in 2021 after a more than 40-year career in collegiate athletics.

Together, they began transforming a culture each described as "woe is me," one that accepted an also-ran status in several sports, offered outdated training facilities and believed that sports success was a bonus at a leading national research university—not an expectation.

Backus, who'd been a high school basketball star in Vermilion, 40 miles west of Cleveland, joined an athletic community that had promise but lacked an overarching ingredient.

"How can it be a great student-athlete experience if they're losing?" she once said to Stark.

Backus "changed everything," Stark said. Determined to raise standards and expectations, she tackled issues, big and small, instituting a coaching salary structure, making alumni outreach a priority and developing the slogan: "Compete, Win, Respect, Unite."

"We had a great group of coaches, hardworking people," said Backus, who retired in 2021. "My job was to provide the resources I could, to be their biggest supporter—but also to hold them accountable."

"'If you're not winning,'" she'd ask, "'Why? What do you need?' I tried to look at each situation and say, 'Is it a good fit? Do we need to make a change?'"

Simultaneously, the generosity of donors—often former student athletes—delivered a consistent boost, including funding facility upgrades and new uniforms for CWRU's 500-plus varsity athletes.

Athletics now enjoys a reputation closer to the university's academic stature—one reason it is attracting more undergraduates capable of handling a rigorous course load and who are solid athletes.

Moreover, CWRU's highly respected graduate programs, including its master's degree in finance, helped coaches take advantage of national eligibility extensions after COVID-19—which provide up to two more years of playing eligibility—to recruit talented and experienced players.

And coaching longevity has played a role, too. Wojtkowski, in his 16th year, says it took him almost a decade to "figure out exactly the kind of talented people, team chemistry and winning culture that we have to have to be successful."


Culture changes become entrenched when a university and coaches set high standards, athletes buy in, and success begins to lead to even higher achievements. That stood out for Hopper (CWR '23), who majored in biomedical engineering and was named UAA tennis Player of the Year last spring.

"It's definitely a community that loves to see each other succeed," he said. "So many great things [have happened] compared to even just five or 10 years ago."

Hopper, who began graduate school this fall at the University of Virginia, a Division I tennis power, is typical of many campus athletes whose determination to prove themselves is matched by their desire to excel in the classroom.

Having a lab requirement, for example, means athletes will be late for practice. Period. Coaches know it. Just like they know that overseeing students taking class tests during road trips is part of their job. Richter, for instance, proctored exams for nine women's soccer players the night before the NCAA championship.

"There's probably not a lot of D1 athletes in the Power 5 conferences that are able to [miss practice for academic obligations]," Kaler said.

Wojtkowski became adept at nurturing a competitive tennis team amid a demanding academic environment. And despite losing Hopper to graduation, he's confident about this new season with another strong class of recruits and five of his top players returning.

The Case Western Reserve University's men's tennis team lined up behind a giant NCAA sign after winning the NCAA Division III championship.

Part of his success: sunrise practices that pit juniors and seniors against first-and second-year teammates at everything from guessing heads or tails to which side best summarizes a coach-assigned TED Talk.

Team captain Diego Maza called Wojtkowski's ultra-competitive culture "contagious." It fed a chemistry that grew early in the pandemic when Maza, Hopper and two teammates rented a house in Cleveland Heights near tennis courts to further bond and stay in shape.

Turns out, accountability isn't a one-way street for this championship team. After the NCAA victory, players told Wojtkowski they expected him to make good on one of his promises.

Despite his often-mentioned dislike of tattoos and body piercings—"I don't want to mess with what God had in mind," he said, laughing—he told them on the eve of their first title match in 2021 that if they won it all, they could tattoo whatever they wanted on him.

"Upper leg, under my shorts where nobody can see it," said Wojtkowski, who got the tattoo just before an alumni Labor Day reunion.

On a campus where so many teams reached new heights, the lesson of the renaissance story isn't that some rules are made to be broken, but that records are.

CWRU posted unprecedented athletic achievements during the 2022-2023 academic year. They include:

Men's Tennis

wins the first NCAA team championship in the history of CWRU Athletics.

Women's Soccer

finishes second at the 2022 NCAA Division III Championship, the highest-ever finish by a CWRU women's team.

Men's Basketball

qualifies for the NCAA championships for the second straight year.


athletes are named College Sports Communicator Academic All-Americans, the most in a single year.


CWRU athletes earn All-America honors, the most in a single year.


teams qualify for NCAA Division III Championships, the most in program history in a single year.


Athletic Association (UAA) championships—men’s tennis, women’s soccer, men’s basketball, and softball.


Spartans receive the prestigious NCAA Elite 90 Award (for the highest cumulative GPA among competitors at their respective NCAA championship tournaments).

— Bud Shaw