‘Lopes Up for Division I: GCU Athletes, Coaches Embrace WAC Challenge
By Bob Romantic and Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
Maylinn Smith drew interest from several NCAA Division I schools, including some from the Western Athletic Conference, when she was an All-Arizona girls’ basketball player at Mesquite High School in Gilbert.
One visit to Division II Grand Canyon University changed all that, as she fell in love with the idea of attending a private Christian school and subsequently canceled all of her D-I recruiting trips.
Smith, now a junior, may not have started her college career at a Division I school. But she’ll end it at one after it was announced Tuesday that GCU has been accepted into the WAC beginning in the 2013-14 school year.
“I’m excited because I’ll be able to be part of ushering in Division I sports here,” said Smith, the reigning Pacific West Conference Player of the Year. “I’m not surprised it happened because I knew Grand Canyon had Division I in its sights for a while. But I am surprised it happened this soon.”
As Smith said, regardless of what level of basketball you play, “the ball still gets thrown up and people still play.” And she thinks the Antelopes can be competitive from the get-go.
“The WAC is a mid-major. High-level Division II teams can compete at that level,” Smith said. “It will take some adjustments but we won’t be the worst team in that conference. It will just take a couple years to build.”
GCU coaches and players echoed Smith’s sentiments after hearing the news Tuesday that GCU is stepping into the big leagues of college sports. The transition gives Arizona its first private, Christian D-I university — a category that includes schools such as Santa Clara, Marquette and St. John’s, which balance their rich sports heritages with a strong focus on academics and faith.
In Division II, the Antelopes have developed into a powerhouse, winning the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup last year as the best all-around athletic program in the country at that level.
In Division I, they’re starting over against a higher level of competition and facing a four-year transition period before they become eligible for postseason play.
Bring it on, said Trent May, head coach for women’s basketball at GCU.
“For me, winning is not about a Roman numeral or an enrollment number,” May said. “Every day is a challenge. It was a challenge to get to the top of the PacWest Conference. It was a challenge to stay at the top of the conference (winning five of the last six league titles). This is a new challenge.”
Andy Stankiewicz, GCU’s head baseball coach, oversees the one program at the University that has played at the Division I level, and it came in the WAC. The Antelopes won the Northern Division WAC championship in 1998 with Gil Stafford as coach.
“I feel like I am reaping the benefits of all the coaches and administrators who laid the groundwork for this and have been at the forefront of making this happen,” said Stankiewicz, who is entering his second season at GCU. “This is a great time to be part of the GCU family, with all the new buildings and renovation and everything taking place here. Throw in a Division I athletic program, that is icing on the cake.
“It won’t change our style or our philosophy from a baseball standpoint. From a recruiting standpoint, I think this will open some doors for us to a lot of talented kids who had closed their minds to Division II. … It will be exciting to recruit as a Division I program.”
The transition makes GCU’s men’s soccer program the sole Division I men’s soccer program in Arizona, since each of the three major state schools offer club teams only. Head Coach Petar Draksin helped grow the program from its humble NAIA roots into a seven-time conference champion at the Division II level and now, after a thrilling playoff run, the team will be poised to make the leap into deeper competition.
He added that taking on more competitive schools at that level will help ‘Lopes teams evolve.
“We welcome the competition,” Draksin said. “You shouldn’t be a coach if you don’t want the competition. We always strive to play the best programs. To be the best, you have to play against the best because that’s going to teach you what it takes to get there.”