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Tom Miller / Forum News Service, Published June 15 2013

UND finishes at the bottom of Big Sky’s all-sports standings after first season

GRAND FORKS – After one trip through the Big Sky Conference, the University of North Dakota athletic department was handed its first report card.

Let’s just say it wasn’t very good.

The Big Sky Conference recently released its 2012-13 all-sports standings, a summarization of a school’s performance based on each team’s league finish.

The UND finished 11th of 11 teams in the all-sports standings. The men were ninth and the women 11th. And in the combined all-sports standings, UND was last by a long shot – more than 31 points behind 10th place Eastern Washington.

UND sports that finished last in the Big Sky: Men’s outdoor track and field, women’s outdoor track and field, softball, women’s tennis, women’s indoor track and field and women’s soccer.

“There were some pleasant surprises and there were some unpleasant surprises,” UND athletic director Brian Faison said.

The challenges facing UND: scholarship levels, coaching salaries, travel, the cold North Dakota weather, newness to full Division I status, the skill level of athletes and the strength of coaching staffs.

One obstacle, though, no longer needs to be addressed.

“The challenge of the first time is that it’s the first time,” Faison said.

UND volleyball coach Ashley Hardee would agree. In the season prior to joining the Big Sky, his team finished with an RPI ranking ahead of every Big Sky program. Yet in the team’s first season in the league, it finished fifth.

“For me, coming from New Mexico State, I had played lots of those schools,” said Hardee, who is entering his fifth season at UND. “For myself, it wasn’t a major shock. But for the team, anytime you go through something for the first time, it’s quite a challenge.”

Not only was there unfamiliarity with the Big Sky, but there was also a decided jump in competition from the Great West Conference, a hodgepodge league made up of programs looking for a more permanent conference home.

“Playing in the Big Sky was an eye-opener as far as being ready to play every game,” UND women’s basketball coach Travis Brewster said. “There’s no automatic win. Some conferences have that. You have to earn it every game. That’s big.”

Funding challenges

On the bright side for UND, the school’s revenue-producing sports mostly aren’t the concern.

Men’s basketball finished third in the conference and took Weber State to the wire in the league tournament semifinals. The football team went 3-5 in league play, including a win over perennial conference power Montana.

UND’s nationally competitive programs – men’s and women’s hockey – don’t figure into UND’s Big Sky ranking. The hockey programs competed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association last winter.

However, the non-revenue sports in the Big Sky were severely lagging.

Part of the issue is funding, particularly scholarships.

“We are in good shape in most of the sports,” Faison said. “In some sports, we have work to do. We have to be cognizant of Title IX as we address this.”

In men’s Big Sky sports, UND is fully funded in basketball (13) and football (63). Men’s tennis has no scholarships with the NCAA maximum set at 4.5. Men’s track and field is scheduled for six scholarships in 2013-14 – 6.6 scholarships short of the NCAA max.

UND had to add men’s tennis last fall with its inclusion to the Big Sky sports menu.

In women’s Big Sky sports, basketball (15), soccer (14) and volleyball (12) are fully funded. Golf is at 4.0 of 6.0, softball is at 8.0 of 12.0 and tennis is at 4.5 of 8.0.

“Scholarship fundraising is so critical,” Faison said. “If I had to identify one need, it’s scholarships. We’d like to have everyone fully funded at some point.”

UND’s total scholarship expense, which includes sponsored sports outside of the Big Sky, has risen from $1.43 million in 2005 to $3.39 million in 2012.

“We need to support these programs at a reasonable level,” Faison said. “It’s our responsibility to give them that opportunity. Ultimately, to win a championship is up to the players and coaches, but (the administration) can put them in a position to be competitive. I believe we need to give those athletes that opportunity.”

UND is also in a unique position in that it sponsors 21 sports, with the Division I minimum being 16.

“Most of the schools in our situation are in the 18 range,” Faison said. “We’re comfortable with what we have, though. We’re not looking at dropping any, but we’re definitely not adding.”

Miller writes for the Grand Forks Herald