Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

July 12, 2014

Bluefield State still searching for permanent conference home

— The search continues to find a permanent home for athletics at Bluefield State.

For now, the Blues will remain under independent status for the 2014-15 school year, with some of the school's teams having an opportunity to compete in postseason play in the East Coast Athletic Conference (ECAC).

"Our goal as an institution is to continue to develop and present that strong athletic program that will make us attractive to those conferences that are out there," Bluefield State President Dr. Marsha Krotseng said. "That is our goal, we have said that from day one.

"Our goal is to find a conference home. We have the ECAC at this point in time and we will continue to work towards that new conference."

Bluefield State recently received an invitation from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (CIAA) for an associate membership, but only for baseball and possibly men's tennis.

That invitation was declined for several reasons, but chief among those were the costs — expenditures totaling $32,482 just for one team — along with concerns about travel distances and the fact that Bluefield State wants a home for all 10 of its athletic programs.

"We are looking at the overall financial picture and looking at the overall benefits to the institution as a whole as well to our athletic program," Krotseng said. "Right now we are a full member of the ECAC, we will continue to be a member and compete in the ECAC and beyond that, down the road, absolutely we will continue to pursue opportunities for a full conference membership."

•• •

Finding a conference home has been difficult for Bluefield State, which was part of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WVIAC) from 1955 until it was disbanded in 2013.

Bluefield State was able to attain membership in the ECAC midway through last school year, the largest conference in the nation, with 312 schools currently involved from Maine to North Carolina. It is, however, more of a secondary league, which mostly houses teams that have no where else to call home.

The Lady Blues took advantage of that membership last March, capturing the Division II portion of the ECAC women’s basketball championship.

“Absolutely, we are excited,” said Krotseng, of that title. “They are excited and I think they are ready to go back there and win it again.”

Krotseng added that ECAC has other postseason tournaments, but the schools have to meet certain requirements.

"I did speak with a board member with the ECAC earlier this week and the ECAC does offer opportunities for postseason competition for teams with .500 or above records provided if there are enough teams to compete," Krotseng said. "Potentially, opportunities for baseball, softball and volleyball along with the men's and women's basketball."

"It is configured differently than the primary conferences, but yet it does offer a number of the advantages."

• • •

Bluefield State would prefer a primary home. The Blues were left out when nine schools, all of whom have football — Wheeling Jesuit is reportedly in the process of adding the sport — broke off from the WVIAC and created the Mountain East Conference, which began play in 2013-14 school year.

The remaining schools departed for the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) or the Great Midwest Athletic Conference (G-MAC).

All, that is, except Bluefield State.

With BSC Athletic Director Terry Brown currently out of work with health issues, Roger Owensby has been 'acting' in his place, although that stint ended on July 1.

Owensby said that Bluefield State could also have joined the G-MAC, but the school decided to go in a different direction.

"When the WVIAC disbanded I think we could have gone in with those other schools and they didn't pay anything, I don't think," Owensby said. "Terry thought he could get those other schools together and keep the WVIAC intact.

"That is what he wanted to do, and that didn't work out. Then he went back to join and it was $20,000 (fee). What happened after I am not sure...You need to make a quick decision and it didn't happen. At the time he did that it was too late."

• • •

Bluefield State, which hasn't had football since 1981, had attempted to get into the Mountain East and G-MAC, and eventually added the CIAA to its wish list. None came calling with an offer, until recently.

"The CIAA wouldn't take us as a full member because they wanted football," Owensby said. "We didn't have football so they told us no, and then at a later date they came back with this associate membership."

There was a catch to the offer by the CIAA. Only Bluefield State's baseball program has been invited and only as an associate member, largely at the urging of BSC baseball coach Geoff Hunter, who has actively worked to build relationships with the CIAA.

Elizabeth City State disbanded its baseball program, and the CIAA needed a sixth team to stay eligible for NCAA postseason play. The league had a full allotment of teams in the other sports so they weren’t invited to join.

“They had a very narrow need,” Owensby said.

Owensby added, however, that an associate member didn't count toward the necessary six teams. The CIAA has a waiver with the NCAA to try to lift that ruling, but the NCAA is not known for making swift decisions.

"I really can't comment on the CIAA and their thoughts behind that," Krotseng said. "We very much appreciate their invitation and continue to seek full membership in a conference as we look to the future."

The price of membership alone for baseball, and possibly men's tennis, was $20,545, which is about half of a full membership, which is $41,000. There were also annual dues ($9,437), along with a site visit, and it was for a 2-year initial membership, with no guarantee of full or continuing membership when that period came to an end.

All of which was deemed excessive by school officials, who have been given $33,000 by a private donor for conference affiliation, with only $2,500 of it spent so far to join the ECAC.

Owensby said other options has been researched, including a move to Division III or NAIA, but the school wants to remain NCAA Division II.

“Basically we have got $30,000 set aside to join a conference for all 10 of our teams so we couldn’t see spending all of it on being an associate member,” Owensby said. “The money was a little higher than we expected and the travel was high too.”

There were other issues with the CIAA. Brown had hoped to keep travel distances to under three hours, but several CIAA schools would have been much further, including. Lincoln (Pa.), which is more than seven hours away, but did agree to play Big Blues in baseball next season in Cary, N.C.

Hunter did much to get the invitation, having voiced his concern with the lack of a conference and the difficulty in scheduling, retention, recruiting, opportunities for postseason play and recognition for student-athletes.

"The invitation came in from the CIAA, Geoff had done the ground work, and they gave us an invitation," Owensby said. "I took it to Dr. Krotseng and she wanted to defer to Terry.

"I called Terry and told him what they had offered us and he just said 'absolutely not.' First of all we couldn't afford it and second of all the travel distances. What he is trying to do is get travel distances less than three hours and only one of those met that criteria.”

• • •

In the meantime, Bluefield State will keep looking, hoping the right opportunity presents itself.

Hunter was especially upset with the decision, but Owensby said the asking price did seem excessive for an associate member.

“That is the number one goal to get all the 10 teams in a league and we couldn’t spend all our money for two teams at best,” said Owensby, a Bluefield State graduate and member of the BSC faculty for 38 years. “I would have loved to have done it, I think we all would have loved to have done it if it had been reasonable.

“I was expecting $5,000 as an annual fee, $4,000 or $3,000, somewhere in there.”

Bluefield State athletics has struggled over the last decade, but there have been signs of life, including men’s tennis and golf and the women’s basketball team, which Jim Nelson, the director of institutional and media relations at BSC, hopes will help the Blues find a home in the future.

"One of the biggest points of emphasis is when the old WVIAC looked at Bluefield State years and years ago, one concern was how competitive we were across the board in our sports portfolio," Nelson said. "If you look at our sports and their win-loss records and their competitiveness now versus two or three years ago, almost without exception you have seen a pretty significant improvement in the entire sports portfolio.

"We feel like we are more attractive now than perhaps the competitive piece of it made us be a few years ago."

Still, much like the saga of LeBron James, Bluefield State continues to wait.

"I think the message that I would convey is that is something we want for all of our teams," Krotseng said. "This school will continue as we go along, as we continue to strengthen our athletic program, we will continue to pursue full conference membership."

—bwoodson@bdtonline.com

/ Twitter @bdtwoodson

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