story by Kim Souza
(Updated with the clarification that the proposed sanctioning of sports at the junior college must still pass full board approval.)
NorthWest Arkansas Community College is moving ahead with plans to offer sanctioned baseball and softball under Division III, perhaps fielding its first team as soon as the fall of 2016.
A committee chosen to evaluate sanctioned sports at the two-year college laid out their plan before a sparse group at Wednesday’s (Aug. 27) committee meeting on the college’s main Bentonville campus.
The sports committee was appointed by Ric Clifford, the NWACC board chairman, and the committee will make a recommendation or report to the full Board of Trustees. Any proposal from the committee must have approval from the Board of Trustees before the program can be fully implemented.
Todd Schwartz, board trustee, said the committee believes the college can field a team with local recruits from the two-county area at a cost of $50,000 per team annually.
“We will be looking to the community to help us raise $150,000 for the first year, which gives us a 50% buffer for contingency costs,” Schwartz said.
He hopes to complete the 5-step plan to get a team fielded within three to four months which will leave time to raise the funds within the community.
The committee voted to begin at Division III which would be at least a two-year commitment, with the option to move up to Division II as interest and support grows for the programs. Choosing a division is the first of the five steps and that was accomplished during Wednesday’s meeting with a unanimous vote. Division III was chosen because it does not require player scholarships. Board trustee Scott Grigsby said the college is not in a position to give athletic scholarships, which makes Division III the only real option for sanctioned sports.
The second step is to nail down the program’s annual budget, which will include identifying venues for practice and games because the school does not own ball fields. There is also $2,500 in annual dues and fees required by the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Step three is to assess community support which is vital given that the college does not have the budget. Gan Nunnally, general manager of Nunnally Chevrolet, spoke on behalf of the community in support for the sanctioned sports program. He believes there is support for baseball and softball in the two-county area.
“It’s also a recruiting and public relations tool for the college. ... There is a very large talent base in this community and it’s about time the college is exploring sanctioned sports,” Nunnally said.
He supports the college building its own venue in time and said that would also offer a revenue stream for NWACC in return as they could host high school play-off games and other college prep games.
Step four is to assess student interest for the sanctioned baseball and softball programs. Schwartz said there is more equal participation among men and women in those two sports within NWACC’s club sports program, which is why the college chose that as a starting place.
Step five is to survey the local high school programs to access their support and the available local talent pool.
Chip Durham, a former college baseball coach at Crowder Junior College, is also on the committee. He said playing Division III baseball would mean the coach will need to draw up his own schedule because there is only one other Division III junior college team in the state — North Arkansas Community College in Harrison.
“Coach Phil Wilson has played Division III for years and never had trouble fielding a team or finding games,” Durham said.
When asked why the college should consider sanctioned sports even it they come with no scholarships, Durham said sanctioning a program gives it instant credibility and cohesiveness that is sometimes hard to achieve with club sports.
Chuck Huebner, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Rogers, also spoke on behalf of community support. His two sons have played club sports at NWACC.
“I know of 12 young men who played club baseball at NWACC and then went on play elsewhere in sanctioned programs,” he said. “I have been supportive of this for at least eight years because it’s good for the community and college.”
The committee expects sanctioned baseball and softball will add between 120 and 150 new full-time students each year. The college enrollment is now 60% part-time. Schwartz is hopeful sanctioned sports will grow the college’s traditional enrollment.