CANTON, Mo. — The road that snakes past the athletic fields and fraternity houses and rolls into the heart of the Culver-Stockton College campus is a solid representation of what is taking place on the Hill.
At every turn, there's progress.
Facility improvements are most apparent, but what is happening with the school's 17 intercollegiate athletic programs is equally exciting for athletic director Pat Atwell. Heading into his fourth year as C-SC's top athletic administrator, Atwell believes the Wildcats are climbing closer to being consistently competitive in every sport in the Heart of America Athletic Conference.
That also will make C-SC more relevant nationally.
"You can go through our sports and see, ‘Hey, you've done it,'" Atwell said, noting several programs that competed for Heart championships or national tournament berths in the past five years. "Now, can we be a little more consistent? On a cyclical basis, can we rotate toward the top of the league? That's our goal. To be competitive on a cyclical basis, knowing you're going to have big graduation losses at times, is doable.
"We don't want the lows to be as low as they have been at times for us and to cycle up where we feel like we have a shot this year."
Student-athletes report this week to begin training for fall sports, creating an air of excitement that has Atwell giddy to see what transpires.
C-SC will have 548 student-athletes on campus this year -- roughly half of the NAIA school's entire enrollment -- and more could be on the horizon. Atwell said preliminary discussions have taken place about adding men's and women's lacrosse in the near future.
Several schools within the Heart already fund lacrosse programs, and a number of NAIA schools in the Midwest have added it or will be.
"It's not just an East Coast sport," Atwell said.
Should the day come when C-SC expands its athletic?offerings, the school will have to address the need for enhanced facilities and additional personnel.
"You have to look at athletic training and how many kids can they take care of," Atwell said. "But we have a beautiful turf field with lights, and lacrosse is a spring sport. So there is room for growth. We just have to be cognizant that we want to make sure the experience is still attractive to the student-athlete."
That's an on-going challenge.
"How can we satisfy the needs when some of them come from high schools that have breath-taking facilities?" Atwell said.
He has a better grasp on that these days.
After spending 24 years at the NCAA Division II level, where he was the baseball coach and athletic director at Quincy University and athletic director at Drury University before coming to C-SC, Atwell has adjusted to a different governing body and different needs financially.
"I have a better handle on the NAIA," Atwell said. "I have a better grip on what it takes. I have a better feel so I can help guide our coaches into how to attack it a little bit. I have a better feel for our scholarshiping. What can we do with our scholarships to make it more competitive? We've been able to do some things that the coaches have bought into that help certain sports in certain years refill the cupboard."
Atwell also has made coaching moves that have piqued the interest of the C-SC fanbase and beyond.
In the last two years, he's replaced the head coach of his two most high-profile sports. Tom Sallay, a C-SC alumnus, was brought in to replace Jeff Duvendeck as the football coach and helped the Wildcats improve defensively last fall in his first season. After finishing last in the NAIA in total defense each of the previous two seasons, C-SC limited five opponents to 32 points or less and allowed the fewest yards per game since 2014.
Meanwhile, in April, Atwell hired Aaron Hill to take over the men's basketball program. A Canton native whose father, Steve, spent 14 seasons coaching the Wildcats, Hill brings instant credibility to a program just four years removed from back-to-back NAIA national tournament appearances.
It's also a program two years removed from a one-win season.
"Aaron has his work cut out for him, but we have faith in what he's doing and how he goes about his business," Atwell said. "He's very well respected in this area, and he's very well respected in the coaching community."
And he fits the mold of the C-SC coach. Hill joins a relatively young staff filled with coaches with area ties. Women's soccer coach Tyler Tomlinson is a Quincy native and C-SC graduate, while women's basketball coach Janette Burgin is a Quincy University alumnus. Both have done a solid job of tapping talent bases locally and regionally to be competitive.
The C-SC women's soccer program reached the quarterfinals of the Heart Tournament last year and is three years removed from playing for a Heart championship. The men's soccer program has done the same thing.
"It's the closest sport we have, top to bottom, to the caliber of play in the (NCAA Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference)," Atwell said.
While both programs expect to be competitive this fall, all eyes will be on the football program to see what strides can be made.
"To make progress there would be a pretty major deal," Atwell said. "What's progress? Your eyes know. Your eyes tell you athleticism and other things. At the end of the day, you sure hope you can win more games than last year, but your eyes tell you the athletic ability of young guys and what they might turn into."
It takes more than athleticism and talent. It takes financial backing to stay competitive.
So continued fund-raising and development of a workable scholarship structure remain priorities for Atwell.
"We don't have a lot of room for error," Atwell said. "When we award a higher scholarship, we have to be right more often than not. That's important for us to evaluate the talent, and when we make a substantial scholarship offer, can we be right three out of four times? They don't have to be All-Americans, but we need to be right enough that those kids help us compete for conference championships."
Reaching the conference's upper echelon is the goal.
"We're not going to be a powerhouse nationally, but we can be more competitive consistently in the Heart," Atwell said.