LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For Barry women’s tennis player Akemi Maehama, nothing could top the thrill of helping her team win the national championship in 2011.
But there was also nothing quite like her sport being part of this year’s NCAA Division II National Championships Festival.
“This is so much better than a stand-alone championship event,” said Maehama, whose team fell to eventual champion Armstrong Atlantic State in Friday’s semifinals. “You get to know other people, not just the tennis players, but the softball players and the golfers and lacrosse players.”
More than 1,000 student-athletes (comprised of 76 teams and 20 individual qualifiers) competed for championships in six sports – men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, softball and lacrosse – during this year’s festival, which ran from Monday through Saturday in and around Louisville.
“For our championship to be in the festival is awesome,” said Jackie Sileo, an attacker for C.W. Post’s championship-winning women’s lacrosse team. “There was the fireworks show at the opening ceremonies [at Churchill Downs] and there’s the game room [at the host hotels] and all the teams here to cheer each other on.”
Barry was one of five schools, along with Armstrong Atlantic, Central Oklahoma, Drury and Grand Canyon, that had student-athletes competing in three sports. Along with women’s tennis, Barry’s men’s and women’s golf teams were also here.
“It’s been really cool,” said Grand Canyon women’s golfer Brittany Penny, who finished 15th to help her team place third. “The men’s tennis team came out and watched us, and that’s a big show of support. We tried to go to their match, but it got rained out.”
There wasn’t much rain on Louisville’s parade this year, as the city hosted its second festival. The city also hosted a fall sports championship festival in 2010.
“We like to say it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” said Karl Schmitt, executive director of the Louisville Sports Commission. The commission co-hosted the championships along with Louisville’s Bellermine University. The city was also a host site for a Division I softball regional, held concurrently at the University of Louisville.
“You have an immediate economic impact of $2 million,” Schmitt said. “You have 1,000 student-athletes who have had a great experience in our community and may want to come back here one day to live and work. And we have Bellarmine, which is one of the great assets of this community. They help educate our workforce.
“The festival elevates their profile, not only within the Division II ranks, but with the high school students. It sends a message to those students that if you want to compete at the next level, then Division II is a great option.”
The first Division II National Championships festival was held in May 2004 in the Orlando, Fla., area. A second fall festival was held in 2006 in Pensacola, Fla., with spring and winter festivals being held in Houston in 2008 and 2009 before Louisville’s fall festival the following year.
Currently, Division II is the only NCAA division conducting multi-sport festivals. But that may not always be the case, according to Mark Lewis, the NCAA’s new executive vice president of championships and alliances.
“I’m looking forward to how we can build on this in the future and integrate it into more of our championships,” Lewis said.
The NCAA has already brought together championships from multiple divisions in the same sport, but none more prominent than the NCAA’s plans for Atlanta in 2013.
Next year, Division II and III men’s basketball will hold their championships at Phillips Arena, while next door the 75th anniversary edition of the Men’s Final Four will be held inside the Georgia Dome.
“When you look at our 89 championships, we have a lot of different possibilities and combinations that may exist,” Lewis said. “I think it’s something we want to explore more in the future, because it’s obvious from what’s happening right now that it works.
“Certainly everything is different. Take the College World Series. It’s not leaving Omaha. It’s going to be an event there by itself. But it could maybe work for some other sports at the Division I level, it could work for some sports at the Division II and III levels, and you can cross things by division and by sport.”
Lewis said the enhancement of the student-athletes’ experiences and the benefit of making it easier to partner with host schools and cities make the festival concept desirable.
“You create more excitement for the student-athletes because they’re part of a larger thing,” he said. “It’s no different than the Olympics.
“But also from an execution standpoint, you can get some economies of scale and make it more cost efficient to put things on because you’re not having to replicate things like you would if you had six championships at six different venues. Then when you go to communities and say we’re going to bring in multiple championships instead of one, their willingness to invest in attracting that festival or group of championships goes up.”
Schmitt said Louisville – which will the host Division I men’s and women’s cross country and Division I women’s volleyball championships later this year – is eager to host a championship festival again.
“I wish they did this every year,” Maehama said.