By: Kyle Spencer, Sports Editor, @kyledspencer
When UVU announced last fall that it would join the Western Athletic Conference, a confounding, previously unknown excitement swept across campus. The news echoed throughout the surrounding community and immediately improved the stature of Wolverine athletics amongst its peers in a state replete with collegiate juggernauts. Most importantly, the potential success of UVU is now unlimited.
While competing in the Great West Conference the past four years as a member of Division I, the best the Wolverines could hope for was to impress the decision makers of the NCAA selection committee. WAC membership comes with the benefit of automatic qualification in the NCAA postseason tournaments as a result of winning the conference tournament.
“It sets up new challenges and new opportunities in front of our coaches and student-athletes,” said first year athletic director Vince Otoupal. “With those great challenges comes great reward. We’re going to have the opportunity to win championships and be recognized on a different level and on a different scale for our academics.”
Going unrecognized is an all too familiar feeling for UVU. In 2012 the Wolverine baseball team finished the season with the most wins in the NCAA (47), won 32 straight games (40 out of 41), beat then-No.4 Arizona (who won the national championship) and were crowned regular season and tournament champions of the GWC. The team produced multiple players that signed with MLB organizations. Yet what was arguably the best college baseball team the state of Utah has seen in the past decade went unselected for the NCAA regionals.
The men’s basketball team has experienced similar unsatisfying finishes to successful campaigns. In 2004 the Wolverines won the provisional Division I national championship when it beat March’s most recent Cinderella story Florida Gulf Coast. The UVU team has produced multiple players that have gone on to play professionally, including Ronnie Price of the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite the achievements and accolades, one will always wonder what those talented teams could have done against the nation’s best.
“There’s tremendous excitement,” said men’s basketball coach Dick Hunsaker. “This is a wonderful opportunity to now be in an automatic qualifying conference. It’s a new day at Utah Valley.”
First year and tenured coaches alike know that the opportunity to compete in the NCAA tournament is no longer merely an idealistic conclusion to the season, but an expectation.
“It is going to be my job to come in and put them to work right away and make sure that we continue that success and shoot for the top of the WAC if not a WAC championship,” said new softball coach Nikki Palmer.
The rest of the WAC will be comprised of Cal State Bakersfield, Grand Canyon University, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, New Mexico State University, Seattle University, and former GWC mates Chicago State and University of Texas-Pan American.
New Mexico State won the men’s conference basketball tournament held in Las Vegas in 2013 and UTPA garnered the honor of representing WAC baseball in NCAA regionals. By joining the conference, the Wolverines will square off against experienced coaches that lead athletes superior to those commonly opposed in the GWC. This is a fact that every UVU coach and student-athlete will need to embrace in order to compete for the conference’s coveted postseason berth.