By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Season No. 1 is in the books.
While Concord is preparing to make the transition to the newly-formed Mountain East Conference and Bluefield State will play next in the … well, who really knows (more on that subject in the next few days)…Bluefield College has just completed its first season in the Mid-South Conference.
What did the Rams learn from the experience?
“The biggest difference in the league is the day-in, day-out play,” Bluefield College baseball coach and assistant athletic director Mike White said. “In baseball that was the biggest thing, it was day-in, day-out, if you don’t come to play that night you get beat.”
It wasn’t just baseball.
Name the sport and it was a difficult transition for Bluefield College, which went from the Appalachian Athletic Conference — where teams rarely ever made an impact at the national level — to the Mid-South Conference, which is simply one of the best NAIA conferences in America, and has the national postseason appearances and trophies to prove it.
“You can win one game and do well, but the teams that do very well can do it each week,” Bluefield College athletic director Peter Dryer said. “It can be a long season, we will figure it out, but it is our first year in the conference, we had some great games in every sport.
“We had some real good games, but we have to be more consistent to get deeper.”
Bluefield made the move from the NAIA Division II and the AAC prior to the 2012-13 school year in order to find a home for its football program. The AAC doesn’t have football so the Rams found the MSC and Division I.
The coaches already knew what awaited them.
“It is a challenge, but we are competing at such a higher level now than we ever have,” Dryer said.
Bluefield College was always competitive in the AAC, especially in men’s basketball and baseball, with the women’s basketball program beginning to make an impact after years of losing records.
In fact, the Lady Rams — who were historically bad until recent years — was the only team at Bluefield to finish with a winning record in the 2012-13 season.
The Lady Rams were 16-15, and were one of just four Bluefield College sports teams to qualify for postseason play in the Mid-South Conference, which doesn’t take every team to tournament play. Both soccer teams and the volleyball team also advanced to MSC play, but none picked up a win.
Other records for Lady Rams’ programs last season were 9-10-1 (soccer), 16-22 (volleyball), 7-37 (softball) and 3-11 (tennis). The marks for the men’s teams include 10-17 (men’s basketball), 0-11 (football), 17-27 (baseball), 8-11 (men’s soccer) and 2-12 (men’s tennis).
Lindsey Wilson recently won its second straight President’s Cup as the top overall program in the league. Bluefield was, not surprisingly, last.
How tough is the MSC? Well, it isn’t like some conferences where only the tournament champion advances to the national level, plays one game and comes home. Nope, these teams get invited places, and they stay a while.
A combined 16 men’s teams in football, basketball, baseball, soccer and tennis were invited to NAIA postseason tournaments. Two of those events, baseball and tennis are just starting and include seven MSC teams. Of the other three, Georgetown captured the basketball championship and Belhaven won the soccer crown, beating fellow MSC member Lindsey Wilson in the finals.
The women of the MSC have done their part as well. A combined 15 teams in basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and tennis also played in NAIA tournaments, with Lindsey Wilson also claiming a women’s soccer title. Five of those teams are still alive in softball and tennis.
How different is the Mid-South from the AAC? Just check out the teams who are either ranked or receiving votes in national polls in the sports listed above. Thirty-seven different teams among the men and women’s sports in the MSC were either ranked in the final poll or are currently among the top teams in the nation.
The AAC has had 10 teams in NAIA Division II who are either ranked or were at the end of their seasons.
No wonder Bluefield College — which has the second smallest enrollment in the league — faces such a huge task to compete in the Mid-South. The Rams did have some big wins this season, including both basketball programs beating Georgetown, but doing it consistently on a nightly basis will take some time.
“When you look at it, this is one of the top three baseball leagues in the country, it is the only league in the country with three (teams) in the top 25,” White said. “Soccer, I don’t think there is any doubt it is the top league in the country with Rio (Grande) and Lindsey (Wilson) in there.
“In women’s basketball, they sent six teams to the national tournament, men’s basketball, the national champion came out of it. Football, there were two of the top five teams, women’s volleyball goes the same way, women’s softball is going to be the same way.
“It is in the top 3 in just about every sport that is on.”
Don’t think these NAIA teams can compete with the big boys of the NCAA? In some cases, they certainly can.
Lindsey Wilson, which finished 22-2, losing to fellow MSC foe Belhaven in the NAIA men’s championship game, will be coming to Bluefield in October, and it might be a good idea to check out the Blue Raiders.
They can play.
“They just went up three weeks ago to the Indiana University, Division I national champion Indiana, beat them 3-1 and it wasn’t like they just beat them, I mean they beat them,” said Dryer, who is also Bluefield’s men’s soccer coach. “That is the best team in the country and Lindsey Wilson went there and beat them easily.
“That is who we have to play next year, we have to be ready to compete. I know women’s basketball can say the same, baseball can say the same, we are routinely playing against the best teams and that is fine, that is enjoyable.”
It just isn’t conducive to winning much, at least for now, but don’t give up on the Rams, who must recruit the right kids and then get them to stay.
“It has got to fit, it has got to be a fit in a lot of different ways and in a way that is one of the biggest challenges of it,” White said. “You have got to find kids with the Christian mission system that we have here.
“Academically do we have what they are looking for as students, and athletically, do we have those things, and obviously financially, in today’s world it is tough to afford a college education.”
Among the issues for the Rams is retention, not only in its players, but its coaches. They will have new coaches in women’s soccer, volleyball, cross country and football, a second year coach in softball and third year coach in women’s basketball and tennis, one of the new sports that Bluefield has added in recent seasons.
“We have had a little bit of transition,” Dryer said. “I think we are becoming a little bit more stable now, other than football. I think you can transition and you can transition well and other sports have proved that.”
While there are many issues that Bluefield must face as they look to compete in the Mid-South, none is as important as simply finding the right student-athletes, and getting them to stay for a while.
After all, a coach — and a program — is only as good as their players.
“When it comes back to recruiting, you have to find kids who want to do that,” Dryer said. “Do you want to play against some of the best teams in this region and in this part of the country? If so, come and play.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at email@example.com