In an interview with this reporter on May 15, 2014, Spring Hill College Director of Athletics Jim Hall first discussed the school’s decision to apply for membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The recent announcement of Spring Hill’s full acceptance into the Division II ranks marks the end of an extensive and sometimes frustrating journey.
“The first words out of my mouth were ‘Fantastic! This is wonderful news’,” Hall told Lagniappe of the phone call he received from the NCAA. “Even though we expected the news, there was still an immediate sense of gratitude to have completed the process.”
That day four years ago in the Arthur Outlaw Recreation Center, Hall discussed the timeline that would normally occur to achieve full status in Division II. However, that voyage was forced to clear many more hurdles than was first expected.
In what was scheduled to be a three-year process, the NCAA asked the Badgers to repeat Candidacy Year Two to give new campus personnel with direct compliance responsibilities adequate time get up to speed with NCAA requirements.
In 2016, the Membership Committee ruled SHC had successfully completed the second phase and recommended advancement to Provisional Membership. However, the jump from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) would remain elusive.
Last year, the Division II Membership Committee notified SHC it would not recommend that the Badgers be allowed to advance to full membership. The sole reason cited was Spring Hill’s accreditation status with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). According to a report by the college, SHC at that time was in a 12-month probation by SACS’ Commission on Colleges because of financial instability.
Because it had already repeated one year, NCAA officials were going to remove SHC from the process and force it to wait one year to reapply. Thankfully, an appeal by Spring Hill after the SACS issue was resolved was accepted and the NCAA granted an additional year within the provisional period during the 2017-18 academic year.
“It boiled down to a lack of synchronization between the NCAA accreditation and the staff accreditation,” Hall said. “We had another good year with the review process, and the NCAA said nothing but good things for our athletics and processes. They said they are very happy to welcome us into Division II.”
Throughout the journey, Hall said the school’s administration never wavered in its support.
“Everyone in athletics is grateful to all faculty on campus,” Hall said. “They had to learn a new set of eligibility requirements. Staff members rewrote policies and procedures for compliance. There was a lot of work behind the scenes, and they need to be recognized.
“The leadership by [former SHC president] Dr. [Christopher] Puto was fantastic. He was incredibly supportive and really made sure we had the things we needed to successfully complete the process. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Finding a home
When the Badgers made their decision to leave the NAIA, they had to join a new league. After looking at several options, Spring Hill selected the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC).
Founded in 1913, the SIAC comprised 13 historically black colleges in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee. The Badgers’ new in-state rivals became Miles College, Stillman College and Tuskegee University.
Because Spring Hill was not a full NCAA member, this kept the Badgers’ 16 varsity teams from competing for league championships and postseason action. Hall expects that all to change now.
“On an annual basis, some of our sports haven’t had a real chance in conference play,” Hall said. “As we look forward to competing in the postseason and in the SIAC, we fully expect we’ll have eight to 10 teams that have legitimate chances to win conference championships.
“There is a real sense of excitement to have an opportunity to compete in the postseason. My goal as a department is to win the SIAC all-sports trophy. If we can do that, it means our athletes are excelling.”
The league also welcomes the news.
“The SIAC congratulates Spring Hill College on advancing to full membership in NCAA Division II and the SIAC,” Commissioner Greg Moore said. “We are especially pleased to welcome them given their institution’s historic leadership in promoting inclusion and social justice in the Deep South.”
In 1954, Spring Hill enrolled nine African-American students to the college. For 10 years, SHC states, it was the first and only integrated college in the Deep South.
Already finding success
Even with no hope for conference trophies, Spring Hill shined last season in numerous sports:
Women’s Basketball — The Badgers dominated conference honors. Forward Tiffany Valentine was named as the SIAC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year while guard Jewel Hill (St. Luke’s graduate) earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. Spring Hill had a 15-3 conference record that tied for first place atop the West Division. While going a perfect 12-0 in division play, the Badgers closed the year with a 22-6 overall record that marked their best season since going 23-11 in 1999-2000.
Volleyball — The Badgers finished the season with a 27-5 overall mark and a perfect 18-0 record in the SIAC.
Softball — Spring Hill ended the year with a 23-14 overall record and an 18-1 mark in the SIAC West Division.
Baseball — In their final season of transition, the Badgers secured a 27-17 overall record and an 18-1 mark in the SIAC West Division.
Men’s Tennis — The Badgers were 15-6 overall and 12-0 in SIAC play. Earning all-conference honors were freshmen Cedric Nitz, Chris Mines and Ricardo Pena plus senior Lars Bajohr.
Men’s Golf — Senior Sheldon Statkewicz (McGill-Toolen graduate) earned all-conference honors after recording a 72.70 average over 20 rounds while finishing in the Top 10 of six tournaments with one individual championship. Others on the SIAC list were seniors Kalle Nilsson and Thomas Ruli Jr. plus sophomore John Karcher. Nilsson was also an academic All-American.
Beach Volleyball — The Sandy Badgers finished the season with a 14-8 record, marking the second consecutive winning season in the program’s four-year history.
The Badgers hold affiliate membership in the Gulf South Conference in men’s soccer, women’s soccer and women’s golf.
Men’s Soccer — The Badgers earned 12 wins for the first time in SHC’s 25-year history. Alex Lipinksi set a school record with 10 assists and 38 total points.
Spring Hill’s student-athletes also excel in the classroom. The SIAC placed 123 Badgers on the 2017-18 Commissioner’s All-Academic Team for maintaining at least a 3.0 or better cumulative GPA.
One giant leap
“Once you get to the NCAA postseason, it is an new level of experience,” Hall said. “That is the kind of learning experience we want for our people. This is a lifelong experience that few very college-athletes get to experience.”
Of the 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States, prior to the ruling only Spring Hill and Loyola of New Orleans were not in the NCAA. Hall said becoming a part of the athletic organization would have a major impact on the Badgers.
“It is certainly easier to recruit high-caliber student-athletes when you can provide these opportunities,” Hall said of joining the NCAA. “It eliminates one of the potential objections for a student on whether they want to come here. A potential objection has now turned into a real positive draw.”
The first official on-campus event as a NCAA member is set for Thursday, Aug. 30, when the women’s soccer team hosts Wingate University at 4 p.m.
“For the soccer match, we are going to do something a little bit special,” Hall said. “But we won’t stop there. We will do things throughout the year to recognize our full membership. It took us a lot time to get here and we want to spend an equally long time to celebrate.”