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Dustin Monke / dmonke@thedickinsonpress.com, Published October 04 2010

Frontier Conference solicits DAC schools

The Frontier Conference has put ideas for a super-conference on paper and on the table for discussion.

That could be as far as it goes though.

The majority of the athletic directors and administrators at the seven schools approached by the Frontier Conference about submitting membership applications are wavering as to whether or not making the jump to the Montana-based NAIA league is the right move for their respective institutions.

The seven schools received information packets and letters from the Frontier Conference this week after stating they had interest in the league. They have until Oct. 29 to submit an application for conference membership.

Of the four Dakota Athletic Conference schools to receive the letter, only Dickinson State appears to be leaning toward the Frontier.

Jamestown College, Mayville State and Valley City State remain at odds about making the move.

“The distance and the travel continue to be major obstacles,” said Valley City State President Dr. Steve Shirley, who also serves as President of the DAC.

“I haven’t seen a real creative solution that gets us around some of those issues.”

Meanwhile, officials from West Coast schools Azusa (Calif.) Pacific and Southern Oregon said, at most, they will submit applications to be associate members in football only. Those officials believe Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., will do the same.

“For us, it’s a no-brainer,” Southern Oregon athletic director Matt Sayre said.

Eastern DAC schools ponder Frontier

Frontier commissioner Kent Paulson said no schools have been invited to join the league. He said the letters were a way to get the wheels spinning on talks that have been ongoing since the summer.

“Rather than trying to speculate on all kinds of scenarios and all kinds of possibilities, they (Frontier officials) said we’ve reached that point where let’s find out from the people who truly is interested, give them some time to think it over and ask questions,” Paulson said.

That’s exactly what officials from the contacted schools say is happening as they ponder pros and cons of different scenarios, including switching to independent status in all sports but football and applying for associate membership status in the Frontier.

“We’re still doing a little investigation,” Mayville State athletic director Mike Moore said. “We’re looking at all the avenues. We are looking hard at the independent status.”

Mayville State has just six sports: football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball. The Frontier doesn’t offer conference affiliation for either baseball or softball.

Of the seven schools approached by the Frontier, Mayville State would have the longest distance to travel in a potential football super-conference that could stretch all the way to the Los Angeles area.

To Moore, traveling to play the Montana schools doesn’t hold much appeal unless a promising scheduling agreement can be reached.

At 635 miles away, Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., is the closest Frontier school to Mayville State. Montana State-Northern is a 655-mile trek across desolate northern North Dakota and Montana.

“At first blush, going to all those Montana schools, that seems like a long haul,” Moore said. “If you got something (a scheduling agreement) going, maybe you can tolerate that, make the best of a bad situation. It’s maybe not the greatest situation, but it’s the best of what’s available.”

Paulson and DAC commissioner Lavern Jessen have been testing different scheduling scenarios since the late-August meeting between officials from the two conferences that was held in Dickinson.

Shirley said Valley City State is in the same boat as Mayville State, while Jamestown College athletic director Lawrie Paulson confirmed Friday that his school has submitted a membership application to the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

The DAC schools are looking for a new home because four schools in the league are leaving after the 2010-11 season.

Black Hills State, Minot State and South Dakota Mines are all in the process of transitioning to NCAA Division II and Dakota State has chosen to become an NAIA Independent.

Paulson said there may be little chance of the four remaining DAC schools sticking together.

“I think that every school is going to make up its own mind, but certainly what others do is going to have an impact on what they do as well, on their thinking,” Lawrie Paulson said. “I should not speak for the other two institutions (Valley City State and Mayville State) because I don’t have a say in what they’re going to do.

“But I get the impression that they are very serious about independent status and if that ends up being the case, where they don’t jump into an agreement with the Frontier, we would really have to look at what it would mean, travel-wise, to join up with (the Frontier).”

West Coast schools

eye football affiliation

Azusa Pacific, Menlo College and Southern Oregon have all had a place in the NAIA football coaches’ poll this season — and they’ve all done so without playing a conference schedule.

However, without a top 20 ranking in that poll at the end of the regular season, none of the schools stand a chance of making the postseason.

Joining the Frontier Conference would rectify that.

“We’re looking for something it identify with and to get a schedule that would allow us to go to the playoffs – or play our way into them, so to speak – whereas now it’s impossible to do,” Azusa Pacific athletic director Bill Odell said.

Azusa Pacific is 4-1 this year but has only two NAIA opponents on its schedule: Southern Oregon and Webber International, which it lost to 13-10 in Lake Wales, Fla., on Saturday. The rest of the season, the Cougars play either NCAA Division II or III teams from California.

They made a run to the NAIA national championship game in 2004, losing to the Frontier’s Carroll College, but haven’t made the playoffs since 2005.

Sayre, said Southern Oregon’s football team has been hurt by its own success.

The Raiders reached the NAIA playoffs in 2001 and 2002. After that, teams began dropping them from their schedules.

Joining the Frontier Conference, Sayre said, is Southern Oregon’s only chance to maintain a consistent schedule. Sayre is also a fan of splitting a potentially large football conference, with as many as 15 teams, into divisions.

“You can mitigate some of the travel costs by making divisions, which is attractive to everybody, and still have the ability to play crossover games,” said Sayre, who added that Southern Oregon and Menlo College are looking to make a mutual move.

Azusa Pacific, Southern Oregon and Menlo College are members of different NAIA conferences in other sports.

Azusa Pacific, in the Golden State Athletic Conference, has many long-time rivals either exploring a move to NCAA Division II or already in the transition process.

Odell said the school is in the early stages of determining if it will apply for Division II membership next summer. He said the university is at a crossroads.

“We obviously need to have a place for football if we’re going to look on the positive sides of staying in the NAIA,” Odell said.

To stay in NAIA, DSU must move to Frontier

Dickinson State’s administration has been vocal about pledging its allegiance to the NAIA.

With the DAC’s impending dissolution, doing so has given the Blue Hawks only two real options for its athletic programs: join the Frontier or become an NAIA Independent.

If Dickinson State officials have their way, the latter will never happen.

The Frontier also appears ready to welcome Dickinson State with open arms.

“I feel their profile is very closely matched to our Frontier Conference,” said Kent Paulson, the conference’s commissioner. “You have that same feel on their campus as you do in their conference.”

While Dickinson State is saying goodbye to many long-time rivals in an effort to remain an NAIA member, officials believe a union with the Frontier would benefit the school financially, keep its ever-expanding Montanan student-athlete population content and allow the university’s athletic program to remain among the NAIA’s elite.

“Right now, the only option we have to be in a conference is to go to the Frontier,” Dickinson State interim athletic director Tim Daniel said. “We have no other options.”

Eric Peterson of the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co., contributed to this story.