FAIRMONT – With the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics rapidly approaching, marking the first time rugby sevens will ever be played as an Olympic event, two of the major difference makers for the squad from the United States are former Division II athletes.
Fairmont State alumnus Perry Baker as well asAshland University alumnus Carlin Isles are both not only competing, but are expected to be major contributors on the team’s quest for gold.
As they take the field in Rio, both athletes are not just making their alma maters proud, but the entire NCAADivision II system as well.
“Having Perry Baker, a former football player from Fairmont State, represent Team USAin the Olympics has created tons of excitement from the local community,” Fairmont StateAthletic Director Tim McNeely said. “Baker’s Olympic qualification is a great example of the talented athletes that we have at this level.”
While much of the NCAA national footprint is dominated by high-level Division I athletics, competition at the Division II level provides many of the same opportunities to athletes.
Al King is the athletic director at Ashland University in Ohio, and he said he believes there’s oftentimes an unfair perception that athletes go Division II because they don’t have the grades to play Division I.
“There’s no getting around that’s part of it,” King said, “but there are also some other things too.”
In describing why some top athletes choose to go Division II, King and McNeely both stressed all the positives D-II athletics offer. These include things like smaller campus and class sizes, proximity to home and less travel for intercollegiate competitions.
They may not get on television as much, but there’s plenty to gain from being a Division II athlete.
“Athletes at the Division II level receive valuable experiences while participating in college athletics,” McNeely said. “Division II athletics also give high school and international athletes additional opportunities to extend their athletic careers.”
King also pointed out that for many athletes, while the ability to compete at, for example, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school may be Division I, these same athletes could go Division II and have the chance to compete for a national title year in and year out.
“I still think that means a lot to a kid, to have the chance to play for a national championship,” King said. “For some it doesn’t. It’s always Division I. But for some it’s a chance to compete nationally.”
With schools like Fairmont State, which has a rich history in many sports including an NAIA national championship in football and, more recently, a men’s basketball team that reached No. 2 in the nation last season, and Ashland, which has a rich recent history in track and field and women’s basketball, the level of competition at these schools is proving that, while it isn’t Division I, it’s top-notch in its own right.
According to King, the quality of athletes in Division II athletics is no secret to those who spend time around D-II campus.
“For us and for Fairmont it’s kind of an eye-opener that really illustrates the kind of athletes you get in Division II,” King said. “I think the people that are around college athletics a lot realize that Division II has a lot of good athletes.
“But to the general fan, I’m not sure they always understand that. I think this kind of serves as a wake-up call for people to see that there’s a lot of talented athletes in Division II.”
With the level of competition being as it is and the quality of athletes, as proven by Baker and Isles, Division II athletics are beginning to gain ground in national exposure.
“One of the biggest differences between Division I and Division II athletics is the national exposure Division I programs receive from national television contracts,” McNeely explained. “Division II athletics currently has a television deal with ESPN3 and American Sports Network for football and men’s and women’s basketball.
“However, programs should look for ways to market their programs at the regional and national levels as well as in their local community.”
According to King, this increase in notoriety is on the way.
“I think that exposure is coming because I think you’re getting more leagues that are doing TV deals and (online) streaming and that sort of thing,” King said. “Thirty years ago, if you weren’t Division I, you were told the (professional leagues) wouldn’t find you. We tell them now that if you’re good, they’ll find you.
“A lot of schools like Ashland, Fairmont and a lot of the PSAC (Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference) schools are good enough that the word gets out.”
As the exposure grows on Division II campuses nationwide, having Olympic representation from athletes like Baker and Isles will only help to further the cause.
“It is going to be exciting for the entire Fairmont State community to get behind Perry Baker during his journey at the Rio Olympic Games as he represents Team USA,” McNeely said.
This story by Sean McNamara of the Times West Virginian appears here with permission. Contact McNamara at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @SMcNamaraTWV.