PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Qualifying for the national championship tournament is a dynamic that motivates players and coaches at all levels of college athletics.
At the University of Maine at Presque Isle, a Division III independent, competing in the NCAA championships hasn’t been a viable option.
Starting in September, the women’s teams at UMPI finally will have that opportunity.
UMPI recently accepted an invitation to become a championship member of the Great South Athletic Conference, a women’s-only league based in Georgia. As a result, the Owls’ soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball teams have a postseason goal to pursue.
“The eyes lit up,” UMPI women’s basketball coach Marc Heidorf said of his players’ reaction to hearing the news.
“It was great to be able to tell them, next year we’re going down to Washington, D.C. [for the conference tournament], so we have a nice, little trip planned no matter what,” he said. “And now we’ve got a 1-in-8 shot; we’re one really good weekend from qualifying for the NCAA tournament, which is kind of the holy grail.”
UMPI will be invited to the league’s postseason tournaments in soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball. There will be approximately 50 student-athletes on those teams.
That quest will include long hours on buses, which already is part of the UMPI athletic experience. For example, UMPI must travel approximately 1,148 miles, each way, to compete in the GSAC soccer tournament in North Carolina.
Interim athletics director Paul Stone said the department will offset the cost of the postseason trips by cutting back in other areas.
The invitation last year from Great South Athletic Conference Commissioner Joeleen Akin was quite unexpected.
“I thought she was joking,” Stone said of his initial conversation with Akin.
Upon learning the details, including the fact UMPI would not be required to play regular-season games against far-flung GSAC teams, Stone knew it would benefit his student-athletes.
“I don’t think they’re looking at us as a long-term solution to their conference alignment, their issues, and it’s certainly not a long-term solution for us,” Stone said. “But it does, at least for next year, for our women’s sports, give us an easier path to postseason play and that’s why we’re doing it.”
The men’s teams at UMPI will continue their dual affiliation as independent members of the NCAA Division III ranks and the United States Collegiate Athletic Association.
For 2013-2014, the revamped Great South Athletic Conference roster will include eight schools from six states: Georgia (2), North Carolina, California, Michigan, Massachusetts and Maine, along with Washington, D.C.
Conference tournament winners receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championships.
Akin, the athletics director at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., has scrambled during the last nine months to recruit schools to join the GSAC. She was determined not only to keep the league intact, but to retain its NCAA Division III automatic qualifiers, which requires seven members.
Since June, Akin has brought in five schools to join Agnes Scott, Salem College of Winston-Salem, N.C., and Wesleyan College of Macon, Ga.
“I realized I had my back against the wall,” Akin said. “I literally looked up any D-III women’s college that was independent.
“The No. 1 goal for us is to give our student-athletes the best experience we can,” she added.
UMPI will have one conference “neighbor” in Pine Manor College of Chestnut Hill, Mass., which joined the GSAC last September. The two schools play each other in softball this spring.
The rest of the league roster includes Trinity Washington University of Washington, D.C., Mills College (Oakland, Calif.) and Finlandia University (Hancock, Mich.).
Akin explained the NCAA does not require schools in Division III conferences to play each other in regular-season contests to be eligible for league tournaments or the NCAA championships.
“That was the first question I asked when I started looking into this,” Akin said. “As long as you participate in conference championships, even if you can’t play in the regular season, it’s fine.”
All GSAC teams qualify for postseason play and they will be seeded using a computer ranking service, she added.
The chance to compete for an NCAA tournament berth is a huge incentive for UMPI women’s teams, but isn’t the only benefit of the new league affiliation.
“Making the NCAA tournament is a huge deal for our athletes and it can make a huge difference in terms of recruiting and putting your program on the map,” Stone said.
Heidorf said he has received positive feedback from prospective student-athletes and is using it as motivation for his players.
“We’ve used it to build into this offseason saying, ‘Now we’ve got something to play for, what are we going to do with this opportunity,’” he said.
UMPI will continue playing regional regular-season schedules. When the postseason arrives, the Owls will board the bus and head south for the GSAC tournaments.
Next fall, the league volleyball and soccer championships will be held simultaneously at Winston-Salem, N.C. Akin said the conference has mandated that schools sending both teams must travel on the same bus.
The GSAC basketball tourney is scheduled for Washington, D.C., while the softball and tennis championships will be contested in Decatur, Ga.
Stone conceded those will be lengthy bus trips for UMPI teams. The approximate one-way mileages and drive times are: Washington, D.C. (830 miles, 14.5 hours), Winston-Salem (1,148 mi., 20.5 hrs.) and Decatur, Ga. (1,490 mi., 24.5 hrs.).
Yet the Owls have long-distance experience. This year, UMPI has already sent its baseball team to North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia for games. The softball team has six games scheduled in Virginia during its April spring break trip.
Stone is confident the athletic department will be able to absorb the added expenses through other reductions.
“We don’t have the extra money coming in next year, so we have to make this work with what we’re already getting,” Stone said. “We won’t see a significant increase in terms of the cost.”
He explained UMPI will eliminate the 14-hour trip to SUNY Canton for games in men’s and women’s basketball, resulting in a substantial savings.
In Boston, women-centered Pine Manor College has tremendous geographic advantages compared to UMPI. Athletics director John Griffith said there are 23 Division III schools within 40 minutes of Boston.
Yet like UMPI, tiny Pine Manor (enrollment 480) is having trouble finding a conference that includes like-minded institutions of similar size. It also accepted the GSAC’s offer.
“Conceptually, philosophically, those group of institutions are a great fit,” said Griffith, who also conceded it is a short-term fix.
“It’s going to be a challenge. It’s a significant financial commitment,” he added, estimating it cost $10,000 to send the Gators women’s basketball team to Montgomery, Ala., for the GSAC tournament in February.
Stone said UMPI seeks another conference affiliation that will afford both its men’s and women’s programs the opportunity to chase their NCAA postseason dreams a little closer to home.
“It does help us for a year, maybe two years,” he said. “There’s no way it’s a long-term solution. That’s why we’re working hard trying to align ourselves with the people in the Yankee [Small College] Conference. That’s our best opportunity to improve the situation for all our student-athletes.”