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Wisconsin-Superior officials discuss move to UMAC

Wisconsin-Superior athletic director Steve Nelson speaks during a news conference Thursday announcing the school’s move to the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference. Also pictured are St. Scholastica athletic director Don Olson (far left), UMAC commissioner Corey Borchardt and UWS chancellor Renee Wachter (right). Tom Hansen for the News Tribune

Wisconsin-Superior athletic director Steve Nelson knew the question was coming, and he was prepared with a diplomatic — yet potentially revealing — answer at Thursday’s news conference in Superior announcing the school’s move to the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.

The query arrived as soon as Nelson concluded his opening remarks: Would UWS combine its jump to the UMAC with a grand reintroduction of the school’s long-dormant football program?

Nelson grinned as soon as the words were uttered, and the AD said there are no formal plans to do so, but he certainly didn’t close the door on the prospect. That’s more than he could say with UWS in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

“I could never look at adding any sports offering because of the travel in the WIAC,” Nelson said before dropping a tidy little sound bite. “At least now we can look at it.”

While nothing came of Thursday’s news conference on the football front, this much is certain: UWS is leaving the WIAC, of which it’s been a member for 102 years, in 2015-16. The league, one of the premier NCAA Division III conferences in the country, simply had outgrown the Yellowjackets. After UWS, at about 2,500 students, the next-smallest school in the WIAC is Wisconsin-River Falls with an enrollment of nearly 7,000. Wisconsin-Oshkosh has more than 13,000 students.

That kind of disparity put UWS at a distinct disadvantage, both competitively and financially. The Yellowjackets just didn’t have the resources to keep up with their big-school brethren, and Nelson knew something had to be done. He said he started having informal talks with the UMAC seven or eight years ago.

UWS finally submitted a formal application last fall to join the UMAC, which features seven Minnesota schools, including St. Scholastica, plus Northland College in Ashland.

“It just came to a point where we needed a new home,” Nelson said.

Also attending Thursday’s press conference on the Superior campus were UMAC commissioner Corey Borchardt, UWS chancellor Renee Wachter and St. Scholastica athletic director Don Olson.

All spoke glowingly of the move, which will greatly reduce burdensome travel while at the same time aligning the school with institutions that are similar in size and closer in proximity. Another offshoot, of course, is that it will add some juice to the UWS-St. Scholastica rivalry.

“I hope we can manifest that and make that a happening around here,” Nelson said.

UWS, which will be the third-largest school in its new league behind St. Scholastica and Northwestern, also should bolster the UMAC.

“We’re pleased because, No. 1, we feel that it strengthens our conference,” Olson said.

Nelson admitted the move will take some getting used to. UWS is a charter member of the WIAC, and now only the school’s hockey teams will compete in the league — the UMAC doesn’t offer hockey.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, he said, but it had to be done.

“This is absolutely the right thing to do, and I think it’s exciting to be with like-minded schools,” Yellowjackets women’s basketball coach Don Mulhern said. “Any time you have change, there’s always going to be trepidation by everybody.”

Mulhern was visibly excited when discussing the ramifications of the move and what it will mean for the “bridge battles” between UWS and St. Scholastica. Rather than just bragging rights, those contests now will carry greater weight, including league standings, tournament seeding and possibly even NCAA playoff berths.

Most of the Yellowjackets’ road trips in the UMAC, even the longest ones, would be among their shortest trips in the WIAC. The financial toll of all that travel, combined with the amount of school student-athletes miss, was a big factor in the decision, which was announced Wednesday.

The UMAC’s Council of Presidents voted unanimously to accept UWS on Monday.