Elsah, Ill. — Even some small colleges draw their identity from their athletic prowess. Principia College, however, isn't one of them. In the fall, Principia's football scores are buried in the fine print, if listed at all. And when alums talk about the school's athletic glories, they often hark back to the early 1960s when halfback Tuck Spaulding was a small college All-American, or around the mid 1970s, when basketball player Bill (Bird) Nietmann was something of a minor hoop legend.
Beyond that there have been other isolated successes, but no pattern to speak of, and generally a contentment with a low sports profile well suited to this quiet Mississippi River town north of St. Louis.
During the 1980s, however, tiny Principia has begun to make its mark in tennis. This week the college will send players to the NCAA's Division III national tournament for the sixth straight time. Leading the charge will be two defending champions, junior Courtney Allen at the women's tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich., and sophomore Toby Clark at the men's event in Claremont, Calif.
Only one other Principian (cross-country runner Mark Whalley in 1981) ever won an individual national championship, and no school has ever had the top male and female tennis players simultaneously.
Allen, who is going for her third straight title, may be joined in the 32-player field by undefeated teammate Sue Godfrey, Principia's No. 2 player and Courtney's doubles partner. Clark, meanwhile, is shooting to become the first back-to-back winner among the men. He will have company at the 64-player nationals, where junior Tom Kollock, a close second to Toby at ``Prin,'' will be entered in singles and doubles.
Athletic director John Bower, who came to his present post after serving as director of the US Olympic Nordic ski team in 1980, senses a can-do spirit blossoming on the school's varsity sports scene.
``I think we went through a low period where Prin had a long string of teams that didn't do very well and where kids were not very competitive, particularly in the major team sports. A kind of malaise of low expectations grew. That's changing because we've had some success recently.''
Attracting top-notch varsity athletes can be a challenge at Principia. As a Division III institution for Christian Scientists, it offers no athletic scholarships and academic demands are reasonably high.
A form letter describing the tennis program is usually sent to applicants who list tennis among their interests. But many turn out to be no more than recreational players. ``It's hard to get specific information on how good they are,'' says Lyn DeLaney, the women's coach. ``I may have a hundred names, but only three or four of these could even play on the varsity.''
A word-of-mouth network, however, seems to be growing, helped along by the participation of several Prin tennis players in student recruiting tours, a national fund-raising mixed doubles tournament aimed at building an indoor tennis complex, and the excellent reputation of the school's father-daughter coaching tandem.
DeLaney's dad, Larry Gerber, is the men's coach. Both Lyn ('76) and Larry ('49) are former No. 1 players at Principia, and both have been ranked players in the St. Louis area.
Lyn is a full-time faculty member, but Larry, who still runs a court construction business, is only a part-time staff member. He had coached at Prin after graduating, but left in 1960 to open a tennis club, only to return when the men's team asked him to in 1980.
``This is just a lot of fun,'' he says of coaching. One of the most pleasurable aspects of the job occurs over the school's spring break, when Gerber piles the team into his motor home for a week of practices and matches down South. Lyn organizes a similar Florida trip for the women, using school-owned vans.
Allen, a left-hander with a solid all-around game, played her high school tennis in Bloomington, Ill., where she was a state champion in doubles.
Principia proved to be an ideal place to continue in the sport, since the women's team had just won the national championship when she enrolled in 1983. Sometimes she wonders what she could have done at a bigger school, but likes the freedom Prin has provided. ``I'm on the court every day not because I have to be, but because I want to be,'' says the English major whose only loss this spring came to a Division II player.
Clark wasn't really sought after as a high school player in Tulsa, Okla., but made huge strides after entering Principia, where his father once played football under Gerber, an assistant coach.
A largely self-taught but tenacious player when Gerber got him, Toby has learned to compensate for his lack of height (he's 5 ft. 4 in.) with an unconventional game, heavy with topspin shots, that he says ``tends to drive people crazy.''
Certainly nobody at last year's nationals could figure it out, as he ignored his long-shot status to knock off the third and fifth seeds en route to the title. This spring, of course, he didn't sneak up on anyone, yet still compiled a 22-6 record.