It is early May in Shorter’s provisional year, and the countdown to the NCAA’s decision on accepting the university into full membership is on. The final report from Shorter will be filed by June 1. If all goes according to plan, the Hawks will be competing in their first season as an NCAA institution in Fall 2014.
On this day, on a quiet campus with most students already home for the summer, the athletics department is undergoing its preparation for next year – including installing a new basketball court. The hardwood has already been laid, the design is painted on, and the finish is being spread across the court. It is almost complete, and the end is in sight, just like Shorter’s transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II.
While the transition brings about new responsibilities behind the scenes and new opponents on the playing field, the change goes deeper than that.“The big difference is that it’s a complete culture change,” head women's basketball coach Vic Mitchell said.
For Mitchell, whose team won 28 games in its final NAIA season, it’s more than a new court – it’s getting used to new road trips, new hotels and a new standard of competition, which brings about the need for a different recruiting approach.
Mitchell has been at Shorter for 24 years and has won more than 300 games in that time. Being one of the veteran head coaches, a move like Shorter’s into the NCAA can be one that takes him out of out of his comfort zone a bit.
“Even for someone who’s been in as long as I have, your attention to detail may increase a little bit because you’ve never see these teams play before, you’ve never been to these arenas,” Mitchell said. “That plays a part in being successful in terms of planning out your travel where you get places in the right amount of time.”
This past season, the team’s second competing in the Gulf South Conference, things were not quite like they were in the final NAIA years. The Hawks went 6-20 after losing 6-foot-2 forward Lindsey Crawford for the year to a knee injury four days before the season started. They lost a lot of close games, some that Crawford, who had a double-double in a scrimmage against Mississippi State before her injury, could have probably made a difference in. For Mitchell, this was a lesson in needing a deeper roster in the Gulf South than he had needed before.
“We found out that depth is very important in this league,” Mitchell said, “that you can absorb injuries and continue to compete for wins. There is just a fine line in the Gulf South between winning and losing. You don’t have to be very far below that line to all of a sudden look up and you’re not winning.”
Mitchell said he has adjusted his recruiting to start carrying 15 or 16 players on the roster as opposed to 13, in an effort to be able to play on better despite an injury.
Change in culture also comes on the road. There are new cities to travel to, new hotels to stay in, and new schedules to get used to. The Gulf South plays games on Thursday and Saturday, which often made for less preparation time than Mitchell was used to for games. He would have to start preparing his team for the Saturday game before the Thursday game was played. Now that they are two years into the new system, the Hawks seem ready to start building up the number of wins back to what they are used to.
“You have to be able to absorb injuries, you have to deal with the travel, you have to deal with the shorter preparation time,” Mitchell said. “It’s taken a couple years, but I think we’re to the point now where we kind of have that routine down.”
Confidence heading into the Gulf South with the ability to compete in postseason play after the provisional year is not hard to come by in the Shorter athletic department.
Coaches feel the Gulf South is one of the strongest conferences in Division II, so if the team is competitive for a conference title, it is in the discussion for a national title as well.
For Shorter baseball coach Matt Larry, the goal was short and simple. “Two years,” he said. “I feel like we’re going to have a good chance to be in the top tier in two years”
For the cross country and track teams, which have won multiple NCCAA championships throughout the transition, it’s about the students who had been redshirting back into full competition, and continuing to record times that made national leaderboards across all divisions.
And for Mitchell and the women’s basketball team, it’s about getting used to change – one that ultimately was for the better.
“It’s been an overall positive experience,” Mitchell said. “It’s a challenge a times, very much so. The challenges are definitely attainable. We don’t feel like we’re in over our heads, we feel like we are going to be able to compete for championships like we did in the NAIA.”