Trevecca stakes its claim as team(s) to beat in fledging NCAA D-II conference

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 11:55pm

Full membership into NCAA Division II remains 15 months away.

But Trevecca Nazarene is already setting the standard in its new conference. A charter member of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (G-MAC), Trevecca has raked in the hardware in the league’s inaugural year.

By sweeping the men’s and women’s golf tournament titles last week and winning the baseball regular-season title over the weekend, the Trojans have now captured seven G-MAC championships this school year.

“I definitely think we’re taking a step in the right direction,” junior golfer Stephen Williams said. “It is cool to feel like a dominant school in our conference. I know next year Cedarville [Ohio] is going to be thinking, ‘All right, Trevecca is the team to beat.’ And we’re going to be thinking, ‘All right, Cedarville is the team to beat.’ And we’re going to be going after it trying to battle each other. Iron sharpens iron and I think it is cool.”

Williams led the way last Tuesday when he won medalist honors with a three-day total of 219. Freshman Tyler Phillips was just three strokes behind in second and the men’s golf team captured its first conference championship — ever.  Freshmen Mikayla Dodson and Kaylon King also went 1-2 on the women’s side and the Trojans picked up their sixth conference crown in 11 years under coach Michael Johnson.

“As any coach will tell you, you’re never sure your team is going to play their best,” Johnson said. “I was confident based on what we had seen in the Tennessee State tournament a couple weeks earlier and especially in the preparation in practice. The girls were really zeroed in on it. Everybody contributed. This was a total team win.”

Only three teams participated in each tournament as the G-MAC continues to grow. The league, headquartered in an Indianapolis suburb, currently features eight schools that are either active Division II members or reclassifying like Trevecca, which left the NAIA. Urbana (Ohio) and Virginia-Wise will jump ship for the Mountain East Conference this fall. But four more schools will join the G-MAC for the 2013-14 season — the league’s first as an active Division II conference.

Tournament and regular-season play has varied from as few as three teams to no more than five in the 12 member sports. But Johnson, men’s golf coach Robbie Wilson and athletics director Mark Elliott don’t think the value of coming up first more often than not in the first year can be downplayed.

The success should bolster recruiting efforts and create more name recognition for the university, which sits the farthest south in league that will include schools from Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. Wilson was overwhelmed at the feedback he received from fellow coaches, friends and fans via Facebook and Twitter.

“This is something that can never be taken away from us,” he said. “We’ll always have that title of 2013 G-MAC conference champions. Maybe there were only three teams this year in the conference. But five, 10 years from now nobody will know exactly what we shot. Nobody will know exactly what teams were in it. But they will know we won the conference championship.”

Women’s soccer kicked off the school year in grand fashion back in the fall when it won both the regular-season and tournament championships in a three-team league.

Elliott said those were the only ones that surprised him as the Trojans set a school-record with 16 wins.

Coach Gary Van Atta, the school’s all-time wins leader in women’s basketball, guided Trevecca to a regular-season title and a trip to the tournament final. The softball team also clinched the regular-season crown and hosts the conference tournament this weekend. Fresh off its 11th regular season conference championship and first since 2008, Trevecca hosts the three-team baseball league tournament from May 6-8.

The flurry of winning has sparked a buzz around campus.

“Everybody knows athletics are serious,” Phillips said. “People that don’t play sports are seeing, ‘Wow, these guys are talented. They’re just not here.’ It is really cool walking around and everybody saying congratulations.”

Elliott says the real measuring stick lies ahead. Next year, most sports will have eight men’s teams and nine women’s teams (Ursuline College in Ohio is a women’s college).

“That is a better indication of where we are and what we’re doing next year,” Elliott said. “Being part of an approved Division II conference helps with our NCAA transition, helps with us starting to establish rivalries, which are so, so important I’m finding out. But more importantly it is part of the plan that gets you through and into the NCAA process. Being part of an approved conference that we created on our own is really an important thing for the NCAA purposes.”

In July, Elliott expects the NCAA to approve Trevecca for the third and final stage of the Division II transition — provisional status. He described the upcoming year as a dress rehearsal under close observation from the NCAA. The Trojans will continue to be eligible for G-MAC regular-season and postseason championships, but they won’t be allowed to compete in NCAA postseason tournaments until 2014-15.

Trevecca, however, already has seen its fair share of NCAA competition. The women’s soccer team tied Lipscomb. The softball team played Ohio Valley Conference foes Austin Peay and Tennessee-Martin. The men’s basketball team took on Tennessee State in an exhibition contest.

Just watching the athletic department field competitive teams has been special for everyone at Trevecca, especially proud alums like Johnson.

“I remember what it was like when Trevecca was not highly regarded by some of the other schools we were involved with, at least in terms of athletic prowess,” Johnson said. “So I’ve seen some of the ebbs and flows. It is exhilarating for those of us who have been associated with Trevecca for a while to be a part of this move to the NCAA and to be involved with the G-MAC. I think there are some quality institutions there.

“It is a little like nursing a colt. There is still a little bit of watching those legs get up under us and being able to really run. But right now you would have to say our transition into D-II and the G-MAC, I think we are helping to solidify what looks to be a very promising conference.”