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Pioneers explore unfamiliar territory

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by: COURTESY OF LEWIS & CLARK COLLEGE Quarterback Keith Welch leads the Northwest Conference in touchdowns rushing and ranks second in both touchdowns passing and total yards — and the Lewis & Clark Pioneers are off to an almost unprecedented 6-0 start.

Dreams are easy to come by and difficult to attain.

Keep that in mind when you ponder what Chris Sulages has accomplished with Lewis and Clark's football program.

The Pioneers are 6-0 overall and 3-0 in Northwest Conference play going into Saturday's date at perennial power Pacific Lutheran (4-2, 2-1).

This is big news, because Lewis and Clark is a football school as witchcraft is to modern medicine.

Losing has been a tradition at Palatine Hill, where the last 6-0 start came in 1963, when Fred Wilson was coach and John F. Kennedy was in his final months as president.

If the Pioneers win out - and that's a chore, with PLU, Willamette and Linfield left on the schedule - they'll secure their first Northwest Conference championship since sharing the crown with the Wildcats in 1991.

When Sulages, 38, arrived on the scene in 2003 as offensive line coach and recruiting coordinator under Mike Fanger, L and C was in the throes of 14 straight losing seasons. In 2004, Sulages took over as head coach, and the next year the program hit rock bottom - canceling its conference season after four non-league games because of low squad numbers.

Beginning in 2006, L and C went 1-26 over the next three seasons. The Pioneers were 2-7 in 2009 and 4-5 last year, the school's best record since going 4-6 under Chuck Solberg in 1996.

This season, L and C has beaten six opponents in succession, sparking a wave of interest that hasn't been prevalent on Palatine Hill in decades, or maybe ever. Last year, the Pioneers averaged 800 spectators for each home games. This year, they have drawn 1,978 for Claremont, 2,012 for Whitworth and - during Homecoming weekend last Saturday - 3,010 for Puget Sound.

The Pioneers, averaging 40.5 points per game in their spread offense, are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Keith Welch, who has rushed for 532 yards and 13 touchdowns and thrown for 1,486 yards and 11 TDs, with only one interception.

Welch says early in his senior year of high school in Fairfield, Calif., 'I was talking to Stanford and Idaho State. Then I broke my arm (in the third game), and they disappeared.'

Sulages and Lewis and Clark persisted.

'They recruited me the heaviest,' the 6-foot, 190-pound Welch says. 'I came on a visit and liked it. Coach Sulages was real welcoming, so I decided to come here.'

L and C's losing brand didn't worry Welch.

'I knew we could come in and change it,' he says. 'We did it at my high school. I know the process of changing a program around.'

Sulages, a former offensive lineman at Weber State, felt the same way.

'I'd gone through it as an assistant coach at Occidental,' says the L and C head man, who also has coached at Weber State, San Diego and Cal State Northridge. 'I didn't know how long it would take, but I knew that with hard work and finding the right guys and creating the right atmosphere for the players, eventually it was going to happen here.'

Attracting talent was the No. 1 mission.

'Recruiting is how you change a program,' he says. 'That's the hardest part of the job. Football is 10 percent or less of my job. Recruiting is the biggest piece. It's year-round. You have to be at every school in the area, big and small, and find the guys who will help you win.'

Sulages had hurdles to overcome. First, the program's reputation as a loser. Second, strict academic standards that left many prospects unable to qualify. Third, L and C is one of the most expensive schools in the region - in-state tuition this year costs more than $38,000. And, as with all NCAA Division III members, no athletic scholarships are available with which to help.

When Sulages started as head coach, 'there wasn't much interest' from prospective recruits, he admits. But he was dogged in pursuit of players with a 3.5 GPA or better, high SAT or ACT scores and a willingness to join a program that hadn't won in quite awhile. Also, players with some ability to play football.

'They're out there,' he says. 'You have to go find them.'

Sulages sold L and C's academic reputation and the value of a degree at the school. And the chance to play right away.

'You get 40 games in your college football career,' he says. 'How many of them do you want to play?'

Sulages has also been able to sell improving athletic facilities, including a new artificial turf at Griswold Stadium. And he has enjoyed the support of Athletic Director Clark Yeager, hired in 2006, and Barry Glassner, in his second year as president.

'He is on the sidelines during games,' Sulages says of Glassner. 'He does a great job supporting us.

'It doesn't matter what level of program, if the administration and people at the top understand how to support you, you can be successful.'

Finally, Pioneer football is. And the denizens of L and C have noticed.

Through an hour walking the campus, I asked 10 random students - five male, five female - if they knew the football team's record. Eight of them did. Seven have attended games this season.

Allegra Haines, a freshman on the track and field team, has gone to all the games this fall, in part because of the undefeated record.

'It has been a million years ago since that happened,' she says. 'People are becoming more interested. There are different crowds of people who go. People are starting to realize we have a good team.'

Freshman Cleo Wilde knew it was Homecoming last weekend, but hasn't been to any games.

'I've heard in the past we haven't had the strongest teams, so it's exciting,' Wilde says. 'I don't hear much about it in the circles of friends I'm in, but the people who are into it are really into it.'

Freshman Claire Agosti has gone to all the games this season. 'It's so exciting,' Agosti says. 'I've heard we're putting more (money) into sports and getting our teams together.

'I think it's a really good benefit. It keeps everybody together. The games are truly a cool experience. Everyone's so proud of our team. It's a prestigious (academic) school, so there are varying views, but I think it's a good thing.'

Senior Ethan Alsobrook attended the Homecoming game with his mother.

'There's an increased emphasis on the football team since I was a freshman,' Alsobrook says. 'It's nice to see it's finally paying off, that our school isn't cursed.

'Most of my friends don't attend games frequently. But at last Saturday's game, because it was Homecoming and the team is doing the best it's ever done, I saw a lot of people I recognized.'

Alsobrook has his opinions on the 'increased emphasis' in football.

'I get the sense the school has been spending a lot more money on athletics,' he says. 'A lot more athletes are being recruited. The administration is trying to shed the free-spirited, northwestern image of the school.

'A huge part of it has to do with alumni giving money to a school where they have a winning football program to root for. A sports program represents a huge part of graduates' ties to a college. They feel more connected. It's a calculated cost benefit for the school.'

And, says Alsobrook, 'a lot of people haven't made up their minds as to whether it's worthwhile to put such an emphasis on athletics, given that we have one winning season to show for it so far.'

Sam Smith, a junior cross-country runner, echoes Alsobrook's sentiments.

'People recognize the achievement (of the football team) and are happy that it's happening,' Smith says. 'But with tuition costs so high, they wonder where the money that's going to the program is coming from.

'I'm sure a lot of money is coming from donors who are giving specifically to football. It's what happens when you have the largest donor base.'

Lewis and Clark's athletic department budget for the 2010-11 academic year was actually reduced from the previous year, sports information director Kristian Martin says. Part of that budget comes from student fees, but students don't have to pay additional costs for a ticket to attend any athletic event.

Alsobrook is right on one thing. More athletes are being recruited.

'Over the last five years, we probably have 150 to 200 more athletes on campus,' Sulages says. 'And we're connecting with more non-athletes for support. There's just a different feel on campus.'

And at games.

'The crowd is crazy now,' Welch says. 'When you win, people are going to come.'

The opponents, who previously looked at L and C as a patsy, are taking notice, too.

'They see we are a team that competes,' Welch says. 'They have to respect us now.'

Sulages, as the chef who helped cook up that newfound respect, is enjoying the results.

'I'm excited for the older players,' he says. 'A couple of guys who redshirted as freshmen were 0-9 that first year. And some guys who played here are in the stands, watching as alumni, understanding they're part of the foundation of it all - that's the biggest satisfaction.'

It only gets harder, though, beginning at PLU on Saturday.

'I like 6-0,' Sulages says, 'but we're working hard to get to 7-0.'

That would be a step closer to fulfillment of the ultimate dream.