Iowa Conference landscape changes with addition of Nebraska Wesleyan

IIAC returns to nine teams

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The landscape of the Iowa Conference has changed.

One of the premiere NCAA Division III conferences has expanded beyond the state’s borders.

Along with Friday’s announcements of a plan to bid on upcoming national championships in baseball, volleyball and softball and bring the conference volleyball tournament to the U.S. Cellular Center, IIAC Commissioner Chuck Yrigoyen officially welcomed Nebraska Wesleyan into the conference.

“We had been dancing around this for a few years,” Yrigoyen said. “We just decided for a lot of reasons. The scheduling thing is huge because now our teams don’t have to find games they were going to have to find.

“A lot of them were already playing Nebraska Wesleyan in non-conference games anyway, so now those games are really going to mean something.”

The new relationship is mutually beneficial. The Iowa Conference returns to nine teams, while Nebraska Wesleyan finally found inclusion in an NCAA D-III conference.

The move is reasonable, geographically. The new member matches the academic and athletic philosophy of the current institutions.

“For us, the right time was maybe 20 years ago, as we tried to find a home,” Nebraska Wesleyan Athletics Director Dr. Ira Zeff said. “We’ve always viewed the Iowa schools a great fit for us.

“I think it made the right fit and we’re excited they decided to take us in.”

The IIAC had dropped to eight members with Cornell College’s recent return to the Midwest Conference. If a conference drops below seven members, they no longer qualify for automatic berths to national championships. Nebraska Wesleyan helps pad the IIAC from that threshold.

“That’s a minor part of it,” Yrigoyen said. “I think the major thing is the fit and the fact that we’ve been talking about this for a long time and the increasing difficulty of getting those non-conference schedules … it just all came together.”

Current members consist of Buena Vista, Central, Coe, Dubuque, Loras, Luther, Nebraska Wesleyan, Simpson and Wartburg. Buena Vista has always been the western outlier of schools. The distinction switches to Nebraska Wesleyan, which is located in Lincoln, Neb. It could create a natural rivalry between the two schools and they have already began talks about events and schedules.

“I think it’s going to be good for our wrestling program and good for BV, as a whole,” said new Buena Vista Athletics Director Jack Denholm, who wrestled at Wartburg. “Someone is close to that part of the state.

“We’re looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a good rivalry.”

One-third of the conference resides in Decorah and Dubuque. The road trip from there to Lincoln, Neb., is roughly six hours. Nebraska Wesleyan regularly made those long trips so it won’t be much of a change in their routine or budget.

“Our teams have done that as part of their non-conference schedule,” Zeff said. “They played a lot of the Iowa schools. We’ve gone to Minnesota to play. This is flip-flopping non-conference and conference for us.

“Our student-athletes haven’t had any problem with the travel. Coaches need to take charge and make sure they are studying on the bus and make sure they take care of business in the classroom while they are gone.”

The Prairie Wolves were unique, holding dual membership in both NCAA D-III and NAIA athletics. They will transition into being solely an NCAA D-III school, eliminating some headaches and creating consistency with competition.

“We’ve balanced the two sets of rules and always had to go by the strictest rules with either organization,” Zeff said. “Division III is who we are. It is how we live everyday on our campus and so it will make it much simpler. We’re just looking forward to following one rule book and the rule book we really value.”

According to Yrigoyen, the IIAC went through a strategic planning process. One of the items mentioned is expansion. He said there aren’t many options with many Upper Midwest schools content with their current memberships.

“Never say never, but we’re happy with the nine we have,” Yrigoyen said. “Everybody seems to be committed and has their hands in the fire.”

The glaring oddity — similar to the Big Ten with 14 schools and the Big 12 with 10 — the name no longer fits the league. The Iowa Conference includes a school from a neighboring state. The situation presents questions about something more fitting.

The landscape has changed and the name could change in the future.

“It will be discussed,” Yrigoyen said. “This could be a natural time for a new brand, but it’s far from a done deal. There is a lot of history. There is a lot of attachment and sentimentality to the Iowa Conference name.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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