Four signs adorned with the unmistakable logo of the NCAA hang in the McDowell Activity Center on the University of Mary campus.
All of them proclaim: “I choose Division II.”
Had the Marauders not made that choice to transition up from the NAIA to the NCAA in 2005, Morgan Dake doubts she would’ve considered leaving Bakersfield, Calif., to play volleyball at the private university in Bismarck.
“No. Not really, no,” said Dake, a sophomore.
Dake is one example of what the jump in levels has done for the University of Mary athletic department and the institution as a whole. The prestige and name recognition the NCAA brings has helped the school expand its recruiting base for student-athletes.
U-Mary became an active member in NCAA Division II five years ago – Sept. 1, 2007. While the transition had its share of bumps and twists, the journey has gone better than most could’ve hoped.
Al Bortke, Sister Thomas Welder and Jerry Fischer never intended to blaze a trail that would shift the athletic landscape of the Dakotas — not at first, anyway.
The Marauders dominated at the NAIA level. From 1993 to 2005, the football team made 10 appearances in the NAIA playoffs. The women’s basketball team made eight trips to the national tournament during that period, including a national championship in 2000.
Whether competing in the North Dakota College Athletic Conference or the DAC 10, U-Mary consistently finished near the top of the league standings in all sports, and the school had natural rivals in Minot State, Dickinson State and Jamestown College.
However, when the NCAA Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference denied membership to Upper Iowa early in the 2000s, Bortke said, the Peacocks started searching for a partner. The Northern Sun featured eight teams, and the other members hesitated to expand to an odd number. Upper Iowa figured it had a much better chance of joining the league if they could find a 10th member.
“They aggressively started looking for another team to move with them when they applied again,” said Bortke, the Marauders’ athletic director at the time.
Gil Cloud, Upper Iowa’s athletic director at the time, approached David Heringer in U-Mary’s admissions department, about the possibility of the Marauders joining the Peacocks in their quest, Bortke said. Heringer then pitched the idea to the rest of the administration.
The NAIA started to get nervous after U-Mary formed a task force to explore the pros and cons of moving to Division II. The Marauders were such a pillar of the NAIA that the president and vice president of the association flew to Bismarck to try to persuade the university to stay put.
“They said Mary was a flagship school,” Bortke said. “We were pretty much dominating the conference and the region.”
Ultimately, though, those pleas were not enough. On April 14, 2005, Sister Thomas held a news conference announcing U-Mary’s intention to apply for membership in the NCAA at the Division II level.
After the leaders made the decision, the real struggle began.
Generally, the NCAA requires four years for a school to complete the transition to full, active membership. During that transition period, the school’s athletics programs are not eligible for NCAA postseason tournaments.
For an athletic program that was accustomed to the glories of postseason play, that limitation was difficult to take. On top of that, the Marauders faced a higher level of competition on and off the field.
“Right away … I was a little nervous,” said Fred Fridley, the Marauders’ women’s basketball coach. “The infrastructure of what we had and where we needed to go to be competitive at that level like we currently were at the NAIA was the first thing we needed to address.”
That meant more funding for scholarships, travel and support staff such as a full-time sports information director and a compliance officer.
The school had to sell the community on the benefits of the move. Marauder fans were used to winning and competing against in-state rivals. The rivalries would be gone. And future success was no guarantee.
It also meant convincing high school seniors to enroll at the university even though they would have no immediate shot at the postseason. In the recruiting game, coaches pounce on any sign of weakness, and other schools used the transition period against the Marauders.
“If I told you it was an easy period, I’d be lying,” Fridley said. “Everybody that recruits against you tells the athletes ‘You’re ineligible for postseason play and you won’t have that opportunity.’ That was the difficult part.”
While the coaches faced those challenges, Bortke and the rest of the administration set out to learn the ins and outs of the NCAA. They soon found that comparing the NCAA rulebook to the NAIA’s is like putting “War and Peace” next to a children’s book.
A representative from U-Mary went to conferences and conventions across the nation to learn about compliance and other vital NCAA issues. The university hired two consultants, both of whom had experience at Division I universities and with the NCAA.
That due diligence proved worthwhile.
In 2007, two years after the Marauders began their Division II journey, the NCAA waived the remaining two years of the transition period. It was among the quicker transition processes in NCAA history, and, most importantly, it meant U-Mary athletic teams were once again eligible for the postseason.
It didn’t take long for the Marauders to find success.
In its first season in the Northern Sun, the track and field and cross country teams featured 18 individual title winners, and the women’s soccer team captured the league title in 2006 and 2007, the latter earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
All of a sudden, coaches were able to expand their recruiting base simply because of the cachet associated with the NCAA brand.
In the NAIA days, Fridley constructed his roster primarily with North Dakota natives. Suddenly, he saw an influx of players from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Texas. The women’s basketball roster now features players from seven different states.
“Everybody knows the NCAA. I don’t think everybody knew the NAIA. It’s another level, and every athlete wants to play at the highest level,” Fridley said. “The brand goes a long ways.”
On the academic side, the move has helped increase enrollment simply because of the name recognition the transition brought.
“We’re in the paper almost every week now in Minnesota, which is a big demographic shift for us. As we watch our freshmen numbers roll in and our transfer number roll in, we’ve seen a considerable increase in Minnesota, in western Wisconsin and eastern South Dakota,” said the Rev. James Shea, U-Mary president. “Those are areas we’ve tried to target for a long time, and they’re critical areas for a place like ours. Even though North Dakota is booming all around, we still have demographic challenges with the 18-year-old. We’re still looking at how we’re going to get 400 freshmen every fall. That’s a big question for us, and it’s been worth the investment in that respect.”
Bortke retired as athletic director in 2008, and, to replace him, the school landed Roger Thomas, former football coach and athletic director at the University of North Dakota and commissioner of the North Central Conference, which was one of the premier NCAA Division II conferences prior to disbanding in 2008.
With his experience at the top level of Division II, Thomas knows what it takes to be consistently competitive, especially in a conference that absorbed four members of the North Central Conference after it folded – Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Mankato State and Augustana.
Those additions immediately bolstered the Northern Sun’s reputation, but they also added pressure to keep up with facilities and other ancillary funding.
“It changed the landscape, and everybody will tell you that,” Thomas said. “You were trying to chase certain schools in the NSIC in certain sports. Then, all of a sudden, these bullies came into town, and they were well-established schools with great facilities and big scholarship amounts in every sport because they had been building for a long time. Pretty soon, you saw a top end of (Division II). You go play Duluth in football, you see where the bar is.”
That type of competition attracts athletes eager for a challenge.
“That’s the biggest reason I came to the University of Mary, the competition,” said Bryan Sandy, a senior tight end on the football team from Harvey, N.D. “Every week the competition is great. That’s why we play.”
Dake, the volleyball player, agrees.
“Every night, you’re going against one of the top teams,” she said. “It’s just being competitive, being out there and playing against those teams. It’s exciting.”
Thomas increased funding by adding things such as game sponsors and other corporate involvement typical at the Division II level.
He said U-Mary is now at the high end of the league for scholarship funding. The Marauders are fully funded for sports such as football and basketball and are constantly making gains in money available for the other sports.
“You’re trying to maintain and stay consistent with the ones that are already successful, yet you’re trying to raise all the boats — get all those other ones up there,” Thomas said. “Philosophically for me, it’s all sports. We’re not just going to throw all our money into men’s basketball or something.”
The approach seems to be working.
In 2011, the men’s basketball team made its first appearance in the NCAA Division II tournament. The women’s hoops squad matched that feat in 2012. Track and field teams remain consistently strong – the women’s team won the indoor and outdoor conference titles last season by large margins.
As for the Marauders’ former NAIA home, the DAC 10, it shriveled to eight teams shortly after U-Mary’s departure. The league no longer exists now that several members, including Minot State, followed the Marauders to Division II. The rest, including Jamestown College, Valley City State and Mayville State, are left to wander the lonely path of NAIA independence.
Whether it was brilliant foresight on the part of the leaders or a stroke of luck – Bortke said it’s probably a little of both – U-Mary’s move proved to be the correct one, regardless of doubts during the early stages of the transition.
“You can’t look back,” Bortke said. “If you look in the rearview mirror, you aren’t looking ahead.”
-Tim Flagstad is a freelance sports writer for the Great Plains Examiner.