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JBNJBQ
05-26-2005, 04:23 AM
http://www.argusleader.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050526/SPORTS/50526001/1002

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Expansion tops NCC priorities
MICK GARRY
mgarry@argusleader.com

Published: 05/26/05

Talks among North Central Conference officials at the league’s annual spring meeting produced nothing earth-shattering. But they did remove any doubt as to what the seven-school conference wants most.

The two-day conference, which concluded Tuesday in Okoboji, Iowa, resulted in an announcement that the NCC Presidents Council is directing commissioner Roger Thomas to aggressively pursue up to three new schools for its membership.

Officials at the University of South Dakota and Augustana have made no secret of the fact that, since dropping two members, adding a school or schools to the conference was a high priority.

“We’re taking a much more aggressive posture,” Augustana athletic director Bill Gross said. “The best thing about the meeting was how strongly all seven schools felt about staying in this conference and expanding the membership. I don’t think we’ve had this sense of stability in the past.”

Using geography and a well-worn rumor mill as a guide, the institutions most likely considered prospects include Winona State (Minn.), currently the largest school in the Northern Sun Conference (7,569 undergraduate enrollment), as well as St. Paul-Concordia, a smaller Northern Sun school (1,741) with a burgeoning NCAA Division II athletic program.

Also mentioned in the past, among others, have been the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, a private NCAA Division III school with a beefy undergraduate enrollment of 5,236, and Nebraska-Kearney, an NCAA Division II school with a history of NCC-caliber athletic programs.

Instead of saying they’re interested in taking in new members, officials league-wide are now saying they’re really interested.

“It means we’re going to be aggressive (in seeking additional schools) rather than passive, it means sooner rather than later,” USD athletic director Joel Nielsen said.

“I’ve worked in conferences where they were always passively pursing options, knowing there might be additional hurdles for whatever school we would talk with before they would be accepted. But we’re saying we’re willing to go out and pursue schools now.”

No one involved in the meetings was willing to identify the schools the conference would be pursuing, however.

“We have to be real careful with that,” Thomas said. “A school we approach has every right to say ‘no thanks.’ It can be a very sensitive situation for other schools. We’re just trying to be fair to everybody.”

That said, the merits of specific schools as potential members were talked about at some length, Thomas confirmed.

“We talked about many different schools,” Thomas said. “We needed an idea of what the presidents thought, of what any number of people thought. I wanted some ideas and guidance to get a sense of direction for the next step.”

Though no school has publicly stated any interest in joining the conference, Thomas is optimistic about attracting new members.

“The NCC offers a wide variety of desirable things athletically,” Thomas said. “I’m optimistic that the opportunity to get to that level of play would be seen as a real positive thing for a lot of schools.”