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UWS ending 102-year affiliation with WIAC

Wisconsin-Superior is about to become a big fish in a small pond after years of the opposite being true.

The Upper Midwest Athletic Conference announced Wednesday that UWS had been accepted into the NCAA Division III league, one with schools closer in size and proximity to Superior than the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The 2014-15 season will be the Yellowjackets’ last in the WIAC with the exception of men’s and women’s hockey; the UMAC doesn’t offer hockey. UWS has been a member of the WIAC since its inception under a different name in 1913, but as the disparity in enrollment has festered, the Yellowjackets have been plagued by a stark competitive and financial disadvantage.

At about 2,500 undergrad and graduate students, UWS is by far the smallest school in the WIAC. Wisconsin-River Falls, with an enrollment of about 6,800, is the next smallest.

“The next smallest school is more than double our size,” UWS athletic director Steve Nelson said in a news release. “That kind of discrepancy puts us at a significant disadvantage in terms of funding and resources and we just couldn’t continue to do business the same way any longer, so we began to explore our options with the UMAC.”

The UMAC’s Council of Presidents voted unanimously Monday to add UWS, which will be the third-largest school in its new league. Sure to get a boost, as well, is the Yellowjackets’ Twin Ports rivalry with UMAC heavyweight St. Scholastica.

Another critical factor in UWS’ move is travel, which will be greatly reduced. Seven of the other eight UMAC schools are in Minnesota, while Northland College is in Ashland. Nelson said the Yellowjackets’ shortest conference road trip currently is more than a two-hour drive.

“To add another member with a similar profile as our current membership and that is geographically located in the footprint of our conference already is a significant step in the continued fulfillment of our strategic plan and growth as a conference,” UMAC commissioner Corey Borchardt said in a statement.

A charter member of the WIAC, UWS has struggled to remain competitive against its conference foes, which have combined to produce one of the strongest Division III leagues in the nation. That, combined with the burdensome travel, forced the Yellowjacket athletic department to reconsider its options, ultimately leading to their application to join the UMAC.

The AD said the decision wasn’t made lightly.

“This really is a bittersweet day for us,” Nelson said. “On the one hand we are excited to see what the future holds in becoming part of a new conference, but on the other hand there is some emotion that comes with leaving the only conference we have been a part of. …

“At the end of the day, we had to do what was best for our department.”

Nelson and Borchardt, when contacted Wednesday, deferred further comment until a news conference scheduled for today.

WIAC commissioner Gary Karner, saying he hates to lose a member, admitted that the move “is clearly in the best interest of UW-Superior and its athletics program.”