There may be those out there who are unexcited by the growth being shown by divisions that are not NCAA Division I. I myself and TheOpenMat are not those people. We celebrate and embrace the #GrowTheSport movement at all levels. Whether it be our expanded Division II coverage over the last 18 months, our coverage of Women’s Wrestling, high school, and international news, we are on board for any and all things that can help our sport grow.
I am excited to introduce you to some new members of the fraternity/sorority this coming NCAA wrestling season. There will be three new universities and a college joining the NCAA Division II Men’s Wrestling ranks in 2019-20. In a couple of cases, they will be lead by names that Division I fans should remember.
These programs are helping to lay down roots in the East and the South that are in areas full of talented wrestlers who can now continue their athletic careers at the next level. It will not be for lack of opportunities that a high schooler can choose to wrestle in college and that is how we help to grow the sport. Athletes stay as fans after they graduate and if they have alma mater to cheer for we can see programs attract future donors, sponsors, fans, and legacies. Two new programs break ground in West Virginia while the Carolinas each pick up a new program of their own. Growing the sport in the southeast is so important, there are only a few Division I opportunities in the south and until the addition of Little Rock, none outside of the Carolinas and Chattanooga. That leaves a lot of very talented wrestlers with few choices once they graduate. More often than not, it is moving away from home if they are not ready to hang up the shoes. Embrace these new programs, I know I am.
Davis & Elkins College
Elkins, West Virginia
Head Coach: Jerry Boland
Jimmy Rollins is joining the South Jersey Hall of Fame, which means he will now have two things in common with the new head coach of Davis & Elkins College. Jerry Boland has built himself a legacy at the high school level as an elite coach in New Jersey. He now takes the helm of a small college in West Virginia as its first head coach. The decision to add wrestling as the college’s 24th varsity sport shows just how committed Davis & Elkins is to providing collegiate athletics to student-athletes in their region. Connected to the Appalachian Highlands Trail system in a town of only 7,000, it is the perfect small school setting for those searching for it. A student body of just over 800 means you can greet people by name and that your professors will notice if you are not in class. Director of athletics, Jaimie Joss, understands what adding a varsity sport does for a college’s potential growth.
“We are thrilled to add men’s wrestling to our athletic program and elated to have Coach Boland lead our program,” Joss said. “The addition of wrestling will provide opportunities for wrestlers throughout the region to compete at the collegiate level and an additional pathway for our student-athletes to compete for Mountain East Conference and NCAA Championships.”
Bringing in a coach without a lot of college coaching experience can be a risk, but the hiring of Boland was a good move. They are adding a leader who has won consistently at his previous post and there is the old adage, “winners win.” Davis & Elkins could be the northernmost member of Super Regional II which allows them to start their first season off with a national qualifier or two. If they can build momentum in their community, they could create quite the following. West Virginia is a great location to build a fanbase. It is also an outstanding area to recruit in between Ohio and Pennsylvania with access to the east and the emerging southeast. I would not be surprised to see some growing pains as they build, but if the administration can be patient, the sky is the limit for the Senators.
Fairmont State University
Fairmont, West Virginia
Head Coach: Chris Freije
Every time I hear the words “West Virginia” my mind immediately begins to sing John Denver’s hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The addition of not one, but two programs in that beautiful state shows just how much growth potential exists in the “Mountain State.” 70 miles of wandering highway separates Elkins and Fairmont from each other, but this is an excellent opportunity to build an immediate rivalry. It appears that Fairmont State will be joining Super Regional I and the schools from the PSAC. It will be an interesting first year for the Falcons as their regional features some very tough teams including the clear favorite, Pitt-Johnstown. This is more of rebirth than a whole new program though as the program was successful in the NAIA up until its removal after the 1982-83 season. In fact, there are already four wrestlers in the University’s Hall of Fame including their first-ever national champion, Bruce Hinkle. The Falcons will be joining the Mountain East Conference and be a part of the inaugural conference championship this year. The President of Fairmont State University, Dr. Mirta Martin, shares my excitement about growing the sport of wrestling and had this to say when the announcement was made.
“I am excited to welcome wrestling back home to the Falcon Nation as our 17th sport,” said Dr. Mirta M. Martin, President at Fairmont State University. “This region has an abundance of talented student-athletes who wrestle, and adding wrestling allows Fairmont State to give these hard-working students access to a quality higher education.
“Adding wrestling also gives us one more activity through which we can share with the world how Fairmont State transforms passion and effort into excellence,” Dr. Martin added.
This is such a unique circumstance, programs are rarely reinstated and for it to happen after such a long time, shows again that schools are seeing the value that adding athletics brings. With a student body of more than 3,600 undergraduates, there is an opportunity to build a fanbase. Having alumni who were already part of a winning tradition adds to the excitement.
Greenwood, South Carolina
Head Coach: RC LaHaye
What do you do if you are your state’s second-smallest publicly funded baccalaureate program to build excitement and growth? How about add the world’s oldest sport and then hire a name that any Division II wrestling fan will know to lead it. The Lander University Bearcats hit a home run adding men’s wrestling and hiring RC LaHaye to lead their new team. We all know there are talented athletes in the southeast and that the sport is growing there. Look at the success of Division I programs in North Carolina. The sport is alive and growing below the Mason-Dixon Line and it was a great move by the administration at Lander to jump on the bandwagon. If you are looking for a small school setting with national accreditation, then take a trip to Greenwood, South Carolina. Founded by its namesake in 1872, Lander has grown to a student body of 3,000. Lander now offers a total of 17 varsity sports. 2019-20 will be a big year for the athletics department as it will be the inaugural season for men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s volleyball, and men’s wrestling. In the initial press release, athletic director Brian Reese had this to say about the new program
“This is thrilling news for Lander as we continue to elevate and grow our athletics program,” said athletics director Brian Reese. “Men’s wrestling will bring an added element to our overall student-athlete experience and will give us another opportunity to field a program that can compete at a championship level.”
It appears that Lander University has seen the growth potential in adding Division II athletics and they are all in. The forecast for this program is excellent, they just brought in a top 10 recruiting class in their very first offseason. I expect them to join the other programs in the southeast in Super Regional II where they should immediately compete for a team trophy against UNC Pembroke and Newberry.
University of Mount Olive
Mount Olive, North Carolina
Head Coach: Jake Patacsil
Boiler Up! Purdue alumni and NCAA All-American Jake Patacsil will be the first coach of the brand new University of Mount Olive wrestling team. He has had nearly a full year to recruit and begin building the program which will certainly be to his Trojans advantage. Vice President of Athletics Jeff Eisen mentioned the ready build conference that Mount Olive will be competing in as one of the reasons the sport was added.
“Wrestling is a conference sport with ready-made competition and the ability to compete for a championship. North Carolina ranks in the top 10 nationally in terms of the number of high school participants in wrestling and there is a void in opportunities to compete on the collegiate level in the southeast. We want to help fill that void,” said Eisen.
The Falcon’s will be joining the likes of Coker, Newberry, Belmont Abbey, Emmanuel, King, Queens, and Limestone in the Conference Carolinas. Mount Olive, North Carolina is the self-proclaimed “Pickle Capital” and the town of roughly 5,000 will have a tremendous small-town feeling for student-athletes. When school is in session, over 3,000 undergraduates descend upon the hamlet and it becomes a bona fide “college town.” Mount Olive will join Lander and Davis & Elkins in Super Regional II. That, as well as the full year of recruiting Jake Patacsil, has had should pay big dividends this season. I would not be surprised to see multiple national qualifiers in their first year.