Jeff Babbitt '96
The Houghton College Athletics Department is anticipating its most significant transition since the college's adoption of intercollegiate athletics in 1967. Starting with the fall 2012 semester, the college will begin participating in the Empire 8 Conference of the NCAA Division III, ending 44 years of membership in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Harold "Skip" Lord '80, executive director of athletics, contends, "The success of this current transition will impact Houghton students, faculty, staff and community members for years to come."
Just a decade ago, Houghton's position in the NAIA was firmly established. In 2001, Houghton joined the American Mideast Conference, one of the largest, and arguably strongest, NAIA conferences, boasting more than 21 institutions. The AMC conference officially dissolved in June 2012.
The status of the AMC led the college to consider a range of options, including joining an NAIA conference outside of its geographic area, becoming an independent NAIA school, or switching athletic affiliations to the NCAA Division II or Division III. After a period of study with input provided from across campus, the decision was made to apply for membership in NCAA Division III.
"Division III is committed to the concept of the student-athlete, developing whole persons and fostering a program where athletics is integrated into the entire educational experience," states Lord, affirming the new direction for the athletics program.
The decision to pursue Division III membership hinged upon finding a conference affiliation that would be a good match for Houghton. The Empire 8 Conference, comprised of small- to mid-sized academically rigorous private institutions, proved the ideal choice. Seven of the eight Empire 8 members reside in New York State, including Alfred, Elmira, Ithaca, Nazareth, Hartwick, Utica and St. John Fisher. This presents a welcome change, since past conference affiliations contained schools outside of Houghton's geographic region, resulting in long road trips to opponents throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio.
To strengthen its application for Division III, Houghton made the strategic decision to add eight sports teams over the course of three years, bringing the total number of sports to 18. (The average Division III school fields 17 teams.) Baseball and softball were added in the spring of 2012; men's and women's lacrosse and golf will begin competing in 2012-13; men's and women's tennis will kick off in 2013-14. The goal, in addition to drawing students to the college who may not otherwise have considered attending, is to offer more students the opportunity to participate in athletics, a key component of the Division III philosophy.
The benefits of the ongoing transitions are many and extend beyond the realm of athletics. Having a conference home in the middle of the college's primary geographic region will provide enhanced visibility in local media and with prospective students and parents. New sports facilities (See athletic facilities article for further details.) have potential to attract thousands of individuals to campus for high school and college sporting events as well as non-athletic events, expanding the college's outreach to local communities. Less travel time to away contests will be a win for students and faculty alike, and increased student participation will offer more students the opportunity to benefit from the transformative experience of college athletics.
Coaches, players and fans of Highlander athletics are adapting to new recruiting rules, gearing up for new conference opponents, cheering on new sports teams and anticipating new athletic facilities. The landscape of Houghton athletics is indeed changing. Throughout this transitional time, the vision for Houghton athletics remains steadfast: "The development of scholar-servants to enter the world to transform it for the sake of the Kingdom." That's a mission worth preserving.