Steven Wright is probably a comedian that most people don’t remember but he had a joke that went, “Change is inevitable…except from vending machines.” Well, the West Region is certainly no vending machine as we’ve seen three new DIII programs added in the last few years and this upcoming season we will get a fourth. (I will not mention the traitorous Patriots from UT-Tyler that decided to leave our wonderful DIII home.) With this on my mind I started thinking what would these programs tell St. Thomas (Houston) about their pending move to Division III? I decided to reach out to the head coaches of these newer programs and see what experiences they encountered and what, if any, advice they may have for the Celts. Without further adieu, let’s meet these coaches.
Coach Justin Dee will lead Belhaven into his 6th season as head coach, which covers their final year playing in the NAIA and all four of the reclassifying years in Division III. He has guided his program through the reclassification difficulties and now can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Coach Alicia Roth will lead JWU (Denver) into her 3rd season as head coach, which also covers their final year playing in the NAIA and their first year of reclassification. She is guiding a program that is firmly entrenched in the reclassification process and is very much looking forward to being where Belhaven is today.
Coach Brittany Salloum is in her 4th season with Louisiana College, which experienced a different path into Division III as their program was started from scratch. They don’t have to worry about reclassification but their path is no less difficult. (When researching this story and after talking to Coach Salloum, I decided to also do a story just on Louisiana College, which you can find here.)
I guess the first thing to cover is what is reclassification and how does a school become a DIII member. The membership process takes 5-years and consists of a 1-year exploratory year and a 4-year reclassification period. During this time the NCAA has educational and operational benchmarks the schools must meet with the goal of introducing the schools to the DIII philosophy and best practices. The reclassifying schools are reviewed annually and if problems are found the schools can repeat a year during this process. At the conclusion of the final year of the reclassification process, the Membership Committee evaluates the school and make a recommendation to the Management and Presidents Councils for full membership into DIII. During the reclassification process the school is not eligible for NCAA championships and typically cannot participate in their conference tournament but that really depends on the conference. The NCAA has a new member FAQ page, which can be found here. They also have a chart (albeit out-of-date) that covers how the NCAA selection criteria is impacted by reclassifying teams, which you can find here. (In summary, schools count in the selection criteria in their 3rd and 4th year of reclassifying only.)
Now that we have a working knowledge of reclassification, it was time for me to ask our panel of coaches some questions. The most obvious question I had was how the existing team took the news. I mean most of these players came to the school with an understanding of what was in front of them and then the rules change. Worst of all, as we learned, there are no conference or NCAA tournaments to end the year for a team reclassifying.
Coach Dee said the team was excited to play on a level playing field. In the case of Belhaven, they never had full scholarships within NAIA but that was certainly not the case with all of the schools. Coach Dee continued, “…We were playing against several teams and players that were only at school for athletics and not for academics. We played against several foreign players that were really really good.”
Coach Roth echoed the “even playing field” argument explaining that JWU didn’t have any players on scholarship while playing other schools that gave out full rides. She continued, “The thought of DIII and a whole division that didn’t receive scholarships was exciting to know that the playing field was more even and we’d have a better chance to compete.”
Something that I hadn’t thought of before this article was the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA). The NCCAA is an association of Christ-centered colleges “whose mission is to use athletic competition as an integral component of education, evangelism, and encouragement.” Coach Dee indicated that this organization gave them the opportunity to compete for something more at the end of the season. (As a side note, the only current DIII West Region NCCAA member schools are Belhaven and McMurry.)
Despite the excitement noted by both coaches, I wondered how recruiting was impacted by reclassification. Was it a tough sell with regards to new recruits?
Coach Dee countered that it has actually had a positive impact and helps with the retention of his student-athletes. The primary reason was that students were no longer coming to Belhaven with volleyball as the primary reason. He explained, “When you only pay a person a scholarship to play volleyball, they tend to come to your school only to play volleyball. When you give them a scholarship based on academics, they come to your school for academics. We are finding athletes that want to come to Belhaven to play volleyball instead [of] coming to play volleyball at Belhaven.” A subtle play on words but a huge difference as finding student-athletes that want to come to Belhaven means less attrition and fewer behavioral issues.
Coach Roth also hasn’t experienced any real issues in this regard. She sells the student-athlete on the building process and how they will become a part of the foundation for future classes. This was also especially true with Coach Solloum since she was starting a program from scratch. She said, “In the beginning, I had to sell the silver lining. I was asking them to do something very difficult, but I was also asking them to be the first.”
Another area I touched on was scheduling and how important it was to be associated with a conference from the start. St. Thomas will be coming into the SCAC just like JWU. Coach Roth believes that having a conference accept JWU from the start was a primary factor in the reclassification for the administration. One thing that became clear from all three coaches was that the school’s location plays a bigger role in scheduling.
For Belhaven, it was much easier to find opponents in NAIA but Coach Dee complained about the level of competition you’d then find. He explained, “In the NAIA the level of play varies from poor to extremely good. Nearly all DIII schools are average or above average in level of play.”
For JWU, the process of scheduling in NAIA and being an independent was very difficult. By joining the SCAC and being so close to Colorado College, they have 2/3rds of their schedule done through conference play and have a leg up on the rest of the scheduling.
For Louisiana College, being part of the ASC means they don’t have to fill a ton of open dates. The hardest part is their location and trying to find opponents that are not ridiculously far away and then not playing the same teams over and over again.
St. Thomas will be the only DIII school in Houston but will have a number of SCAC schools within a reasonable driving distance. Louisiana College will also benefit by having another school in a somewhat easier drive than the rest of their DIII opponents.
Thinking more about Saint Thomas, I asked about what problems these coaches faced that surprised them when moving to DIII.
Coach Roth focused on the time factor, “I think the biggest problem I had was just the lack of time to train…Going DIII this year, I realized just how little time I have with my athletes and they are held accountable to [do] a lot of the work on their own.” She mentioned that having a Strength & Conditioning Coach would be a benefit as currently that is something that is missing at JWU.
Coach Dee focused on the substitution rule as it is different from NAIA to NCAA DIII. NAIA allows unlimited subs which means it’s not as important to find the 6 rotation players, which can be tough to do at the DIII level. He believes if unlimited subs was adopted by the NCAA for DIII that the schools could be more inclusive and teams wouldn’t be eliminating so many DS or smaller setters from consideration.
Coach Roth also mentioned that they really didn’t have an idea of what they were in for during their first season. She went on, “We focused more on process-minded goals and controlling the things we could control. This year was a great year to build our program culture.”
Louisiana College is still continuing to build their program, JWU has a reclassification year under their belt and Belhaven has it all behind them. That’s a lot of experience so I wondered what have they learned that might be useful for Saint Thomas as they start this process?
Coach Dee stressed that the change has been really good for Belhaven as it allows them to find players that fit their culture. With academic scholarships in play they no longer have to turn away student-athletes that want to come to the school. With NAIA, that wasn’t the case as they were dealing with a finite athletic budget. In the end the benefits of changing to DIII has far outweighed any negatives.
Coach Roth agreed about recruiting in that it’s not hard without the promise of a scholarship if you are looking for the right potential student-athlete. She added, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions to other coaches in our conference. Everyone has been extremely welcoming!”
Coach Solloum added, “I could spend hours trying to come up with the exact formula to help us move from point A to point B, but some of it is just process and you have to be comfortable living in and working through the process.”
One final note from Coach Roth was to cultivate relationships on campus with the other coaches, staff and faculty as everyone tends to wear many hats and you want as much help as possible.
A lot of good advice but when it comes down to it St. Thomas is kind of use to change when it comes to athletics. They only started up volleyball back in 2007 and over the last decade they have been adding sports and will continue to do so this season in order to satisfy the 12 sport mandate that DIII requires. St. Thomas is also coming off their best volleyball season in their existence and went 3-1 against DIII teams losing only a 5-setter to UMHB. One problem and again it involves change in that the Celts will lose almost half their team to graduation. Still, the hope is that the school and the remaining players are excited about the change and will help form the basis of another successful DIII West Region team moving forward.