Celebrating 50 years of Division III athletics

50 years of Division III athletics and the impact on the Northland

There is a rich history of collegiate athletics in the Northland and 50 years ago opportunities expanded with Division III athletics in the NCAA.

There is a rich history of collegiate athletics in the Northland. 50 years ago opportunities expanded with the founding of Division III athletics in the NCAA. Now the 2023-2024 school year is celebrating those dedicated to discovering and developing as students, athletes and people.

“My experience as a Division III athlete completely changed my life,” Mike Heffernan said, the head coach of CSS football.

In August 1973 the NCAA held a Special Convention voting to split from two divisions into their current three division system, thus the birth of Division III athletics.

“Completely changed my perspective of what athletics and what academics should be. I am completely indebted to Division III athletics,” Heffernan added.

Jessica Cherry, the College of St. Scholastica’s (CSS) Director of Athletics, shared that, “Division III is really just about, for me, the purity of athletics. Division III is where action really happens. You see everything, you know the kids for who they are.”

Celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this school year, DIII is now the NCAA’s largest division. It’s grown from 240 member schools in their inaugural year to 433 active schools in 2023.

“One thing that I really appreciate is Division III has always maintained its focus on the student-athlete. That holistic experience where it’s not just about athletics, it’s about how do we provide the students opportunities to really become the best versions of themselves,” Nick Bursik said, the Director of Athletics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior (UWS).

Dan Schumacher, the Director of Athletics at Northland College, added, “it still is the most raw, comprehensive amateur sports offerings, which is Division III. Regardless of the NIL, because they’re not underneath the 20-hour-a-week rule that you see at Division I and II. You have to put in those hours and Division III, you get to play your sport, you’ll do your offseason conditioning but also have the luxury of being a regular student. That truly is the spirit of amateur sports.”

“I think the classic time management piece of college sports in DIII, juggling class and practice and games and all that is definitely a huge takeaway,” Jordan Brennan said, a Northland men’s basketball senior from Ashland, Wis.

The three Division III institutions in the Northland, St. Scholastica, UW-Superior and Northland College, were originally members of the still active National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Joining the NCAA in the early 1980s they now offer 53 athletic programs combined.

“We’re not on academic or athletic scholarship. We’re not pursuing huge Name Image Likeness (NIL) deals that you see at the Division I level. It truly is about the love of the sport,” Bursik said.

“I was a Division I scholarship football player and kind of lost my way first time away from home. But I ended up in an intimate Division III college like St. Scholastica and changed my life. Changed my perspective, and that’s why I coach football now,” Heffernan shared.

“Coming through high school, obviously COVID and stuff, recruitment opportunities were very limited,” Ben Hunter said, a CSS junior wide receiver from Superior Wis. “Some of the DIII schools I toured felt very intimate and kind of like a family atmosphere. That’s something that I’ve always loved when it comes to team sports and it’s something I want to be a part of.”

DIII has also helped foster the growth of women’s sports. In 1981 they hosted their first three women’s championship games in field hockey, cross country and volleyball, and now sponsor 28 national championships split evenly between men and women.

“It’s powerful seeing a lot of my athletes grow into strong independent women. It’s just something you always hope for as a coach,” Hope Neargarder said, Northland volleyball’s head coach.

“I guess just that hard work and determination really goes a long way,” Annika Herlevi said, a Northland volleyball senior from Ashland, Wis. “That sounds really cheesy, but it really is true. Just pushing through the hard times and really leaning on other people who are there for you.”

“I love the DIII atmosphere,” Neargarder added. “You get to play the sport you love, but also study what you wanted. I was an athletic training student, so I got to have that hands-on experience while playing a pretty good high level of volleyball where I was part of two conference championships.”

That high competition level is present in every sport, but especially in DIII hockey. Its unique lack of existence at the Division II level creates a larger pool of international talents to recruit from.

“NCAA hockey is thankfully starting to expand a little bit both at the Division I and Division III levels, which is great,” Shane Buckley said, the Northland men’s hockey head coach and Lumberjack alum.

“There’s just so many really quality hockey players out there that that line, or that gap, is maybe not as big between Division I and Division III as it used to be because there just is no Division II. If they’re going to play Division III they want to play at the most competitive level possible which, specifically for us, is not just the WIAC (Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) but also the MIAC (Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) and the NCHA (Northern Collegiate Hockey Association). There’s so many really good programs out here.”

“DIII means a lot, to me anyway, because if it wasn’t for DIII I don’t think I’d be playing college sports right now,” Ben Thompson said, a Northland cross country senior.

“I’ve learned what it means to really, really want something. I went to UW-Madison, so I was done playing sports. I was sitting there, I wasn’t playing any sports, and then I wanted to play but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t really want to play football anymore, I didn’t want to play rugby anymore, just kind of tired of getting beaten up all the time. So I actually came here to play baseball. I did baseball for a year and then I met our cross-country coach Kale (Adams) and I emailed him and asked him if I could just come out to practice a couple of times, and then the rest is history.”

“Just because it’s DIII and it’s smaller doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter,” Herlevi added. “I feel like DIII kind of gets written off just because it is DIII and it’s not DI. I think ignoring that and taking it as seriously as hopefully you want to is really important.”

Thompson shared one final piece of advice; “don’t go where you want to go, go where you are wanted.”

Five decades in, the growth of local DIII opportunities continues. Northland College is adding men’s and women’s wrestling and bidding for a football team, CSS moved up to the MIAC and, along with UWS, are investing in facilities for the future of local Division III athletics.