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Daemen launches new athletic era in Division II

Daemen College saw an opportunity to fill a niche in collegiate athletics and increase its profile when it embarked on a path to Division II status three years ago.

The NCAA approval for Daemen’s full Division II status came on Friday, and the college celebrated the achievement at a news conference Monday.

“Whether you’re a sports fan or not, everyone knows that college sports is often called the front porch of the institution,” said Daemen Athletics Director Bridget Niland. “Daemen never really had that front porch. Now I truly feel that what this program will do is provide the front porch so that everyone else can see all the other great things going on across this college campus.”

There are 65 colleges and universities competing in Division III, non-scholarship athletics in New York State. Forty of them are in Upstate New York.

However, there are only 16 Division II institutions in the state, only four of them upstate. Besides Daemen, the others are Roberts Wesleyan in Rochester, LeMoyne in Syracuse and St. Rose in Albany.

Athletes in Western New York who don’t quite make the cut at Division I have a stay-at-home option at the 2,800-student college on Main Street in Snyder.

Daemen has been competing in the Division II East Coast Conference the past two years while it has worked on the NCAA certification process. This year it now will be eligible to compete for conference and NCAA Tournament championships. The ECC includes the likes of Roberts Wesleyan, the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) and Queens College on Long Island.

“I think it gives us legitimacy in the community and in the basketball community,” said Daemen men’s basketball coach Mike MacDonald. “Now we’re also competing for an NCAA Tournament bid. Everyone grows up with March Madness. I coached at Division III for eight years, and going to the NCAA Tournament in Division III was a big deal. Hopefully, we’ll get the feeling of going to the tournament at Division II.”

Daemen competes in 16 sports. It has basketball, indoor and outdoor track and field, cross country, tennis and soccer for both men and women. It also has a men’s golf team, plus bowling, volleyball and triathlon teams for women. During the past four years, it has gone from 110 student-athletes to about 190 and from a full-time athletics department staff of four to about 25.

NCAA Division II operates on a partial-scholarship model. Most athletes receive partial athletics grants-in-aid.

“Daemen generally has a lot of financial aid available to students, so you package that together and you get to what people would call a full scholarship,” said Niland, a University at Buffalo athletics Hall-of-Famer who became Daemen AD a year ago.

Daemen President Dr. Gary A. Olson said the athletics move signaled the college’s desire to raise its profile.

“More and more we’re becoming a college of national distinction in all kinds of ways,” Olson said. “I think the move to NCAA is yet another step in that move to national prominence. ... It enhances the student experience. ... And by strengthening the national reputation of the college, that makes for all around a better college. Better students want to come here, better faculty want to come here, and that’s what we want.”

Daemen’s basketball teams play in 400-seat Lumsden Gymnasium. The college has drawing-board plans to renovate it and increase the capacity to about 1,200, at a cost of $9 million.

“That’s a very ambitious goal, and it will only happen if we raise the funds externally,” Olson said.

Niland said the aim is to find corporate and naming-rights sponsorship to fund it.

“Given the fact it’s going to sit right on Main Street, I think it could be very attractive to corporations or individuals,” she said.

The college is in the final stages of a $5.6 million renovation project of the former Northeast YMCA building across the street from the campus. That will serve as a secondary gym largely used for recreation and intramurals. It also includes a new weight room. It will open Sept. 1.

Niland stressed the focus for all the upgrades is a better student-athlete experience.

“The NCAA, with all of its shortcomings, and there are many, is an organization that directs more than $2 billion in college scholarships each and every year,” she said. “So the NCAA, warts and all, facilitates access to higher education at a rate greater than any other non-profit entity in the world.”