Former Madison County standouts, like former Madison Central star Tyler Akins, will soon be competing in the NCAA instead of NAIA if Belhaven College gets its way.
Former Madison County standouts, like former Madison Central star Tyler Akins, will soon be competing in the NCAA instead of NAIA if Belhaven College gets its way.
JACKSON - Former Madison Central catcher Austin McCann didn't ever expect to compete in a game sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, better-known as the NCAA. After signing with Belhaven University, he figured to play his college ball at the NAIA level.

But McCann will, indeed, compete against NCAA teams if the Belhaven athletic department has its way.

Belhaven University applied in March for inclusion in NCAA Division III - the largest division in the NCAA with 444 members. The school also applied for membership in the American Southwest Conference. If accepted, they'll be full, competing members in Fall of 2015.

The school has always competed on athletic fields against NAIA competition, but as Belhaven Vice President of Athletics Scott Little explained, its academic standards put it at a disadvantage. After much research, it became clear to Little that Division III, which includes some of the top academic institutions in the nation, is a much better fit for the program.

"We began early last fall looking at a lot of things institutionally and trying to decide where we fit best," Little said, "We noticed we lined up philosophically with NCAA in how we approached athletics with an academic standard."

He admitted that the change would mean a restructuring of recruitment and a change in competition, but Little added the advantages of being a NCAA member institution far outweigh the negatives. He said he saw the NCAA slogan about student athletes "going pro in something other than sports" and thought that lined up with BU's approach to educating student-athletes.

"We certainly hope they can go pro in the sports they play," he added. "But we also want to give them skills they can translate to careers outside athletics."

All of the 15 athletic programs the school sponsors (8 male, 7 female) will have to make some changes to the way they recruit and offer scholarships to potential student-athletes. Most will also see a dip in the level of competition.

Blazer baseball coach Hill Denson said he sees positives and negatives with the move, but does not plan to drastically alter the way he coaches.

"We don't plan for anything to be that different except recruitment," he said. "And we have already changed our recruitment style anticipating the change. (Other than that,) We are gonna do basically the same thing we have been doing."

Denson said that he made a similar adjustments when he left the University of Southern Mississippi in 1997 after 14 seasons at the helm of that program.

The athletes, like McCann - a right-handed pitcher and a junior in the fall - have had a mostly positive reaction.

"Its gonna be great for the school academically," McCann said. "We are leaving probably the best conference in NAIA, but I have heard we are moving into a pretty good conference."

Justin White is another former Jaguar who has been with the Belhaven tennis team for three years. The soon-to-be senior said he understands that the tennis program will take a hit because of scholarship limitations.

"Moving to D-III our scholarships will change and our incoming talent will decrease," White said, adding that the lower level of competition will likely allow Belhaven a chance to compete for championships. The decrease in scholarship money for tennis, he said, can be overcome by tennis coach Levi Patton, who White described as a "good recruiter."

Perhaps the best news is that the move will likely mean more local sports stars will get a chance to compete. Patton said last week he expects to take a more local approach to recruiting, and shift his focus from overseas to right here in the school's backyard.

His team is currently about half foreign-born students and half Americans, but that percentage will likely move closer to 25 percent foreign and 75 percent American with the move to D-III.

"We still plan to be a top 10 or 15 program," he said.

Little, who has spearheaded the public relations part of the move, says that the scholarships situation is less loss of funds and more of a restructuring, adding that some of the students coming in will actually get more financial aid dollars than before.

Kevin Griffin, who took over the Belhaven softball program in 2011 after three years at Clinton High, said he likes what the NCAA branding and credibility will do for the school.

"It puts us on a more similar playing field with schools academically," he explained. "Some of the schools we play now have hardly any academic requirements, but in the NCAA, everyone has academic requirements that are more like our own."

Like Griffin, Little said he's looking forward to seeing what Belhaven's athletes can do on an even playing field and under the NCAA logo.

"Our goal athletically is to be competitive," he said. "We believe that if we are going to participate in athletics, we should be competing for championships."