By BEN JOHNSON
It’s considered the promise land of Division II athletics. It was even described as “the preeminent athletics conference” when Northeastern State announced its intention to join in 2010.
It shouldn’t have taken you long to figure out that the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association is the topic at hand. It’s revered for its athletic excellence and general awesomeness.
But by who? Well, mostly by those who occupy Kansas and Missouri — who follow Griffons and Gorillas instead of Tigers (the Mizzou ones, of course) and Jayhawks.
It’d be hard to convince those in the Show Me State or the Sunflower State that the MIAA isn’t at the top of the food chain in Division II.
Those of us in Oklahoma and Nebraska perhaps are a bit more skeptical. Maybe we just haven’t been around long enough to know otherwise. Maybe we missed membership enrollment orientation.
Was there a mandate about it being sacrilegious to take the MIAA’s name in vain? Is it grounds for dismissal?
Well, even if it is, I’m not willing to go that far. The MIAA does seem to fit more of the landscape that NSU is looking for. The quality of education and geographic makeup is more identifiable with Pittsburg State, Lindenwood and Central Missouri instead of Tarleton State, Abilene Christian or Texas A&M-Kingsville.
I’ll even defend NSU in its decision to join the MIAA. It makes sense. Mostly because it seems to be more friendly on the athletic budget, and NSU fans can easily make road contests in Pittsburg, Kan., Joplin, Mo., or Bolivar, Mo. — all of which are within 3 1/2-hour drives. Even Emporia State, Missouri Western and Northwest Missouri State aren’t too much to complain about.
But let’s not make the MIAA out to be the end-all, be-all of Division II athletics. It won two national championships during the 2012-2013 calendar year. And even those were won by newcomers, Central Oklahoma (softball) and Nebraska Kearney (wrestling).
So at least the MIAA has the good sense to add schools like Kearney, UCO and NSU — which was the league’s best chance at winning a title in men’s soccer.
But what about football? When NSU joined the MIAA it was promised that it was joining “the SEC of Division II.” The actual SEC has won the last seven FBS national championships. The MIAA has won two of the last 13. So the misguided hyperbole can be toned down just a notch.
In fairness, to the MIAA, though, the new Division II alignment will make it much harder to win national crowns. It’s now paired with the Great American Conference — which will churn out a first-round doormat nearly every year — and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference — which produces annual power Minnesota-Duluth, as well as this year’s national semifinalist, Minnesota State-Mankato.
Northwest Missouri State and Missouri Western — which came up just short of Mankato in the national quarterfinals — put forth valiant efforts in the national playoffs but still came up empty.
Same goes for MIAA schools in men’s and women’s basketball. The MIAA had five teams punch tickets to each respective field of 64 and only one — the Emporia State women — made it out of the first round. And to get there the Hornets had to beat fellow conference member, Washburn.
That’s another obstacle in the way of every Division II conference. During regional play, conference members are often playing against one another instead of teams from afar. The NCAA is footing the bill — and it never seems to be a problem in Division I postseason play — so why can’t we get more variety in DII? But that discussion is for another time.
Rubbing salt in the wound of MIAA’s excellence is the final standings for the Division II Directors Cup — which ranks all DII programs based on their postseason performances in 14 qualifying sports. Grand Canyon brought home the gold for the Pacific West Conference while Grand Valley State and Ashland — both hailing from the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — claimed second and third, respectively. Central Missouri was the MIAA’s best representative in 17th place.
NSU cemented itself at No. 63. The RiverHawks were the seventh best representation of MIAA athletics.
The good news: the MIAA produced a better athletic campaign in 2012-2013 than the Lone Star Conference — NSU’s old stomping grounds. So, kudos on making the move up north.
“I could not be more pleased with the success our programs had during our inaugural year of competition in the MIAA,” said Tony Duckworth, NSU’s director of athletics.
“The conference is everything NSU had hoped for, and we will continue to work hard to build on those successes.”
The RiverHawks will certainly be counted on to improve in all areas. After all, the MIAA is counting on another title from a newcomer next year.