EASTERN ENTERS NEW ERA AS NAIA-ONLY SCHOOL

January 15, 2004 12:00 am
NEW CONFERENCE FOE: Eastern Oregon will play the Montana Tech Orediggers twice a year in football as a conference opponent in the NAIA Frontier Conference beginning in 2006. Southern Oregon is also interested in joining the conference for football. (Observer file photo).
NEW CONFERENCE FOE: Eastern Oregon will play the Montana Tech Orediggers twice a year in football as a conference opponent in the NAIA Frontier Conference beginning in 2006. Southern Oregon is also interested in joining the conference for football. (Observer file photo).

By Raenelle Kwock

Observer Staff Writer

Single affiliation strengthens Eastern Oregon athletics, according to school officials. Coaches and administration agree NAIA affiliation is a positive step in the right direction.

We were "breathing a sigh of relief when the decision was made," Eastern men's basketball coach Art Furman said.

The decision was announced in November.

Eastern had been a dual member of the NAIA and NCAA Division III since 1996. The Mountaineers had to follow NCAA rules for all teams, even though they competed in an NAIA conference and for NAIA championships.

Scholarships and recruiting have been affected by Eastern's NAIA affiliation.

Scholarships

The NAIA does allow athletic scholarships, while NCAA Div. III does not.

"It certainly opens the door and under NAIA rules we could offer scholarships if we choose to," Eastern Director of Athletics Rob Cashell said. "It's available to us if and when we choose to go down that road," Cashell said.

Furman said that just the fact that the opportunity for scholarships are available is a plus.

"If that happens, that will be down the road," he said.

Eastern women's basketball and softball coach Anji Weissenfluh said everyone needs to "wait and be patient."

She said it is something to look forward to down the line and for years to come.

Easier recruiting

While the door is open for scholarships, a more tangible and immediate effect of the change will be in the area of recruiting.

Basketball recruits now can be evaluated with other players on campus, rather than just by videotape.

"That's big for coaches," Furman said. "It's big for players. Videotapes don't tell you anything."

Not only do recruits benefit, the team is allowed more games and practice time to develop chemistry.

Basketball can now play 32 games, and engage in 24 playing and practice weeks under NAIA rules, far more than in NCAA Div. III.

"All things big benefit from it now," Furman said.

Weissenfluh felt the same way.

She said seeing how recruits play individually and mesh with the rest of the team allows her to "see what you could get and weed out."

Eastern cross country and track and field coach Ben Welch said it is easier and less confusing to talk to athletes.

He said there is a "tremendous lack of knowledge" with athletes understanding the various affiliations.

Scheduling for his sports will is not affected, Welch said.

One affiliation provides a "common direction and clarity of focus," he said.

Having a home

The Eastern football program will have a new home with the NAIA Frontier Conference. Football has played an independent schedule since 1996.

Cashell said Eastern's Oregon NAIA football-playing brethren, Southern Oregon University, has also made a formal application for membership to the Frontier Conference. No other NAIA schools in Oregon play football.

Eastern's membership gives the Frontier Conference six football teams and an automatic berth in the NAIA 16-team National Championship playoffs.

The Frontier Conference, an NAIA Region I member, is made up of eight schools from Montana, Idaho and Utah.

Only five Montana schools in the Frontier Conference field football teams: Carroll, Montana Tech, MSU-Northern, Rocky Mountain and Montana-Western.

The Mountaineers will not have a schedule within the conference in the fall because of contractual obligations. They will play their games against MSU-Northern, Rocky Mountain and Montana-Western.

Eastern will have probationary membership in 2005 and will play a limited conference schedule.

In 2006, Eastern will have full membership and play a round-robin conference schedule (10 games).