With NCAA Division II membership approved, Daemen Athletics heightens its competitive level and has a key role in the college’s academic setting while enriching the campus experience for all students.
Following years of college-wide collaboration, a historic day for Daemen College was marked last summer. The much anticipated news was shared that Daemen had succeeded in completing its NCAA Division II membership initiative, an announcement officially made by President Gary A. Olson before a large gathering of the college community at a press conference held July 20 in Lumsden Gymnasium. A four-year process from start to finish, completion of this endeavor was a major accomplishment for Daemen, helping the college continue to make headlines in the region and across the country.
“We are honored to become an active member of NCAA Division II and proud to be the only college in the Buffalo Niagara region to hold this prominent designation,” said Olson. “As a Division II member, we are providing our student-athletes an exceptional opportunity to compete at a higher level while upholding our strong commitment to excellence in the classroom and fostering a culture of academic success. This is truly the beginning of a new era in Daemen athletics.”
At the press conference, the audience heard from several speakers, including Richard Day, a Daemen trustee; Robert Robinson ’92, a graduate of the college; and Natalie Galus, a current student-athlete, all of whom touched on the impact from the college having achieved full membership status in NCAA Division II. To close out the event, the podium was turned over to Director of Athletics Bridget Niland who, after thanking various individuals from across campus who made the announcement that day possible, steered the conversation in a new direction by laying out the vision for the future of Daemen Athletics.
“I am sometimes asked about the value that intercollegiate athletics provides to an institution, and my response is always the same,” said Niland. “Athletics can be the ‘front porch’ for our college and the bridge between the community and the region in which we reside. It can also be the avenue for many people to see all the great things going on at Daemen, not just in athletics but campus-wide. Becoming that ‘front porch’ is our goal, and we’ll have several initiatives in place moving forward to get us there. Gaining membership in NCAA Division II is just the first step.”
Dr. Richanne C. Mankey, former vice president for institutional advancement (now president of Defiance College), noted the move to Division II will strengthen Daemen’s academic vision and contribute to student success.
“Daemen is a unique and special place and attaining NCAA Division II membership makes the college even more exceptional,” said Mankey, who played a vital role in pursuit of this goal. “With this endeavor being realized, Daemen’s entire student body will greatly benefit from Division II’s focus on balancing academic achievement with high-level athletics. It is a win-win for everyone.”
Growing the Brand
Daemen has implemented several new initiatives and continued others to help fulfill the future vision of Daemen Athletics. The primary competitive goal for Daemen’s 16 intercollegiate athletics programs is to develop the teams into contenders at the conference, regional and national levels. With this, many of the new projects address areas outside on-field competition, but they all go hand-in-hand in developing the Daemen Athletics brand.
“Everyone wants to know how we’ll take our teams and make sure they are competitive at this increased level of play, and we’ve done things to make that possible, including the addition of athletic scholarship dollars to our teams,” Niland said. “Certainly, the success of our teams will help steer our entire ship in a lot of ways, but there are also other avenues in which we can develop a well-rounded Division II athletics program.”
There is no question that the Division II label brings about a more recognizable form of collegiate athletics. That label, combined with social media initiatives and the re-branding of the Daemen Athletics Web site to daemenwildcats.com, have put the college in a position to promote itself to a wider variety of prospective student-athletes in an effort to expand its recruiting footprint.
“One of the goals of Daemen as a whole is to attract students from outside our geographic region, and we’ve already seen an influx of these kinds of recruits,” said Niland, adding that Daemen teams have received several commitments for 2016–17 from prospective student-athletes who hail from outside the northeastern United States and also international students.
Community Engagement and Youth Sports
For Daemen Athletics, the division’s role as a bridge from the college to the region includes connecting more with the community through Daemen’s increasing number of student-athletes, which is up nearly 100 percent from 2011 when the NCAA transition began.
In one example, Daemen Athletics has established a partnership with the local chapter of Miracle League, an organization which provides athletic opportunities for children and adults with disabilities. Daemen student-athletes attend Miracle League events and lend a helping hand in providing a great experience for disadvantaged children. Also, Daemen continues to support the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County and its programs, especially those directed at area youths, including the Western New York Girls in Sports Day held in the fall.
“It’s important now more than ever for us to explore as many community engagement and service projects as we can,” said Dan Dolan, head women’s soccer coach, whose team helped conduct the Western New York Girls and Sports Day. “In addition to benefitting the community, these efforts are a vital part of the overall studentathlete experience that we’re providing. The goal is for our studentathletes to be leaders in their respective communities after they graduate, and these types of opportunities help us to prepare them for these roles.”
Along with this, Daemen Athletics expects to expand its camps and clinics for children and older students who may consider attending the college. Daemen’s relatively centralized location in the Buffalo Niagara region and its close proximity to major travel routes make it an ideal hub for camps and clinics in multiple sports. Plus, the college’s athletic facilities are expected to generate additional revenue through rental opportunities to outside groups, including many youth sports organizations.
“New NCAA legislation at the Division I level has affected some of our collegiate neighbors, like the University at Buffalo and Canisius College, in terms of the kind of presence they can have for youth sports,” explained Niland. “Because they are unable to offer programming and rental space as they previously did, we are more than happy to fill that vacuum. This is another way for us to expose people to Daemen, both the children participating in our camps or using our facilities, as well as parents, grandparents, or other family members who bring them to campus.”
Connecting Daemen Athletics with the greater campus community is another keystone of the department’s strategy moving forward. To this end, Daemen Athletics is for the first-time ever overseeing the college’s recreation, intramural and club sports programs, which is a shift from the previous joint venture with the Office of Student Affairs. The opening of the college’s Academic and Wellness Center, which houses a recreation gymnasium and a state-of-the-art fitness center, has afforded Daemen Athletics the opportunity with increased time and space to take on a larger role in this area. An expansion of Daemen’s club sport offerings is also underway.
“We don’t want the engagement of Daemen Athletics to end with our student-athletes,” said Niland. “We want to be inclusive of our entire student body, as well as faculty and staff, and offer them programming and events that they can get behind. We know that it takes a village and support from the campus community to build a successful Division II program, and engaging people more at Daemen will help us with accomplishing this.”
In addition, a focus on the academic achievement of Daemen’s student-athletes remains at the forefront.
“Our student-athletes will benefit from a whole new level of competitive challenges in Division II and experience a campus culture that promotes high academic success,” said Olson. “Division II’s emphasis on maintaining a healthy balance between athletic and academic pursuits is one that speaks to Daemen’s long-standing tradition of academic achievement and supporting our students to reach their fullest potential.”
To further this commitment, a donor has generously supported establishing a new Student-Athlete Study Lounge, which is housed in Duns Scotus.
“Our student-athletes continue to achieve high marks academically, consistently turning in a collective GPA higher than the average of our entire student body, said Niland, who also continues to teach at Daemen as an associate professor of business administration/ sport management. “Because of the academic success they continue to achieve, our student-athletes are retained at a higher rate. The motto of Division II athletics is ‘Life in the Balance,’ and we aim to be the premier choice for student-athletes who seek the proper balance between academic and athletic pursuits.”
Dr. Michael Brogan, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, further emphasized the importance of bolstering student-athlete academic success at Daemen.
“Division II’s emphasis on high academic standards and success aligns well with Daemen’s steadfast dedication to excellence and to providing a first-rate student experience that leads to academic achievement,” said Brogan. “The move to Division II affirms our athletics program matches the quality and rigor of our exceptional educational offerings and contributes to a foundation for future success.”
Mankey pointed out, “Tremendous time, research and analysis led to Daemen’s decision to apply for Division II status. This is truly the right fit for the college and the Buffalo Niagara region.”
Building For the Future
Several projects in the realm of athletics facilities are in the planning stages, and some have already been completed. With the opening of the Academic and Wellness Center, it has allowed for space to be reallocated in Daemen’s existing athletic complex. The old weight room has been converted into a more spacious and more industrious athletic training room, allowing the talented athletic training staff to continue to provide, and, in some ways, enhance the preventative and rehabilitative care they provide to Daemen student-athletes.
Moving the athletic training room opened up space for a new office suite used by the men’s and women’s soccer coaching staff. The former cardio room has been split into separate spaces, which now house an office suite for the volleyball coaching staff and a conference room for department-wide functions.
At the Division II press conference, Niland laid out aggressive plans on a pair of facility initiatives —the construction of a turf field complex for Daemen’s soccer teams and a major renovation that is being explored for the existing athletic complex, including Lumsden Gymnasium.
The turf field complex, a joint effort between Daemen and the Town of Amherst, has been a major priority for Niland since she stepped into her leadership role, and talks have been ongoing for more than a year. Currently, Daemen’s soccer teams compete at Amherst High School’s Dimp Wagner Stadium for home games and practices, but that is seen as a short-term fix, not a long-term solution.
“We’ve been lucky to develop a great partnership with Amherst High School, but in order to build the kind of program we envision, we need our own field,” said Niland. “Having our own venue would allow us to schedule games and practices more easily, and it would also give us another space to use in our expanded offerings and camps, clinics and rentals.”
She added, “The Town of Amherst has been incredibly supportive as we’ve developed this plan together. As we narrow in on a potential location, it’s a matter of generating wider community support, securing funding and pushing it through. We’re looking forward to the continued discussions of making this dream a reality.”
With the construction of a turf field complex, adding lacrosse as a varsity sport for both men and women becomes a stronger possibility, and something that would strengthen Daemen’s ties to the East Coast Conference, which is now one of the leading NCAA Division II leagues for the growing sport. Lacrosse programs would also further grow opportunities for student enrollment for the college and broaden its overall recruiting footprint.
The turf field complex and potential Lumsden Gym renovation will require major outside funding. Plans call for the expansion of the facility out toward Main Street, and to take advantage of unused green space between Lumsden Gymnasium and Duns Scotus. Renditions developed by Flynn Battaglia Architects include expanded locker rooms, new athletics offices, a revamped Hall of Fame display, and additional seating in the gymnasium, among other features.
An improved main athletic facility, specifically the gymnasium, will also be useful for other purposes, such as regional tournaments and as another option for facility rental.
It’s important to note that these major projects and other key initiatives in Daemen Athletics are being pursued with minimal tuition dollars. To aid in the fundraising process for these projects and others, the Wildcat Athletics Association has been established as a way for alums, fans and supporters to make a difference with donations.
“One of the daily struggles we are trying to overcome is that our alumni base for student-athletes is relatively young,” said Niland. “We need to tap into the Rosary Hill and Daemen alums who were here before athletics has embarked on this journey, first to the NAIA and now on to NCAA Division II. The graduates who were students at that time are just as much a part of what we’re trying to build now, and we hope that we can develop an intercollegiate and recreation program that everyone – alums, employees and students – can be proud of at Daemen.”
Olson noted, “Attaining NCAA Division II status all came to fruition because of many in our Daemen community who paved the way for this historic moment in the life of our college. In particular, I extend my deepest thanks to Bridget Niland for her outstanding leadership, determination and expertise, and to Dr. Mankey, for her incredible vision, guidance and unwavering commitment.”
Olson also applauded the support of the Daemen Cabinet and Board of Trustees, and the dedication, hard work and contributions of the Daemen Athletics team.