The history of athletics at Lawrence stretches all the way back to 1868 and the rise of baseball as a popular game. The first printed score of a Lawrence contest was the baseball team's defeat of the Badger Juniors in a 54-43 slugfest.
The real start for intercollegiate athletics at Lawrence came in 1889 when Lawrence invited Ripon College for a track and field day. After a few more athletic contests, the two schools met in Oshkosh in 1891 to create a constitution for the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Assocation. Five schools formed that conference, which survived until 1921 when Lawrence, Ripon and Beloit College joined the new Midwest Conference (MWC).
Football took center stage during the early years of Lawrence athletics with the first season coming in the fall of 1893 under the guidance of coach David H. Walker. Lawrence's football fortunes took off under the guidance of Mark Catlin, who led Lawrence to four consecutive state championships, and the school's first Midwest Conference crown in 1924.
Two more football coaching legends had great influences on Lawrence's athletic history. Bernie Heselton coached the football team from 1938-64 and served as director of athletics. Ron Roberts joined the football staff in 1963 and took over as head coach in 1965. He amassed a 121-54-1 record while his teams won six conference championships and advanced to the semifinals of the 1981 NCAA Division III playoffs. Lawrence was the first MWC team to host and win a NCAA playoff game and remains the only school in conference history to reach the national semifinals.
Other long-time coaches with tremendous contributions to the college include Art Denney (1923-64), Mary Poulson (1964-93) and Gene Davis (1959-91). Denney coached cross country and track and field and served as director of athletics. Poulson was a pioneer in women's sports and coached tennis, basketball, volleyball and fencing. Davis served as cross country and track coach and coached the swimming and diving squads.
It was early during Denney's tenure that Lawrence officially became the Vikings. Prior to the mid-1920s, Lawrence athletic teams were called the Blues or the Blue-Somethings (for example, the swimmers were the Bluefins). In January 1926, the sports staff of the student newspaper, The Lawrentian, held a contest to pick a new mascot or team name, with the winner to go to the Lawrence-Hilltop basketball game in Milwaukee. The winner was Steven Cincowsky '29, and the vote was Vikings 252, Blue Jays 56, Trojans 46. The Viking name did not take a firm hold until 1929, when the Ariel yearbook took on a Viking theme.
The legends of Lawrence athletics stretch back to men like the Tippets, Ralph, Earl and Walter, who were football, basketball and tennis standouts for the school before World War I. Lisle Blackbourn from the class of 1925 starred for Lawrence and later went on to coach the Green Bay Packers.
Lawrence's first All-American was track standout Jim Fieweger '43 and the first football All-American was Claude Radtke '50. Lawrence football players have gone on to earn All-America honors 79 times.
It was women's sports that gave Lawrence its first national champion as Diana Ling '94 won the long jump at the 1994 NCAA Division III Championships indoors at UW-Oshkosh. Two others, Andy Kazik '02 in wrestling in 2002 and Mike Gattnar in fencing in 1995, also claimed individual national titles.
The biggest splash by Lawrence athletics since the turn of the century came with men's basketball in the 2000s. In the 2003-04 season, Lawrence won the MWC title and qualified for the NCAA Division III Tournament. Lawrence would go all the way to the Elite Eight before dropping a heartbreaker in overtime to eventual national champion UW-Stevens Point with a trip to the Final Four on the line. No other team in MWC history has advanced that far in the men's basketball tournament.
The 2005-06 men's basketball squad posted an undefeated regular season at 22-0 and were the only team in the country at any level to record that achievement. Lawrence would go on to win three more games (two in the MWC Tournament and another in the NCAA Tournament) to reach the Sweet 16. Lawrence finally saw its season come to an end before a standing-room only crowd at Alexander Gymnasium. The 2005-06 team also became only the second team in MWC history to achieve a No. 1 national ranking, a spot the Vikings held for two months from January into March.