Finally, A Place To Call Home

Published 4:07 pm Tuesday, January 24, 2012

FARMVILLE – Longwood University President Retired Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan stood in front of over 500 people who gathered in Blackwell Hall to witness what some have called the biggest day in Longwood's Athletics history on Monday afternoon, and posed a question.

“Should we accept?” asked Finnegan. Though there was no actual vote taken, through their rousing applause of both celebration and relief, the ayes had it unanimously. Longwood had accepted the invitation to become the 12th member of the Big South Conference.

Instead of a ceremonial signing of the invitation, Finnegan's acceptance was to attach a “Big South” lapel pin given to him to his suit.

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Longwood was in the Big South.

Something the school had been aiming for since it informed the NCAA of its intent to reclassify from NCAA's Division II to Division I in November of 2002.

Finnegan acknowledged in his acceptance speech that he had some allies in high places working on Longwood's behalf. Radford University President Penelope Kyle, who is also the president of the Big South Conference and Virginia Military Institute Superintendent General J.H. Binford Peay III. Kyle was a classmate of Finnegan's at the University of Virginia School of Law, and was a colleague of General Peay.

But every speaker was quick to point out that it wasn't all about who you know. Longwood has a lot going for it – most notably its academic profile.

“We had no qualms about Longwood's standing in either arenas,” said Kyle referring to Longwood's academics and athletics.

Then, speaking as the CEO of what will be one of Longwood's biggest rival schools, she threw down the gauntlet. “We can't wait to meet you on the field or on the court…in a battle for 460 supremacy.”

For the Big South, it was a “matter of timing”. Longwood does not field football as a varsity sport. The Big South started to sponsor football at the Football Championship Subdivision in 2006, and gained an automatic bid into the Division I FCS Playoffs in 2010. The league must have six football-playing members in order to maintain its automatic playoff bid. That, along with some other factors played against Longwood at first.

“It's an exciting time to have a new member,” said BSC commissioner Kyle Kallander. “Football wasn't a be-all and-end-all issue, but it was important. It really comes down to timing. The Presidents felt it was time to extend an invitation [to Longwood].

“We know Longwood is excited to be in the Big South, and that means a lot. Rivalries are built by geography, and with four league schools in Virginia, this has the potential to develop some excitement in the league.”

Noting the evershifting reports on conference movements in leagues like the Big 12 and SEC, Longwood men's basketball head coach Mike Gillian, was careful not to get his hopes up until everything was official.

“Not until today,” said Gillian, whose eternal optimism about the LU basketball program can make a motivational poster look skeptical. “We knew we were getting closer and closer, and we were going to get in sooner or later, because we were doing everything the right way. We weren't taking short cuts.”

Gillian was relieved that he will no longer have to field the question from recruits on when Longwood was going to find a conference. More importantly, one that had an automatic bid into NCAA Tournaments.

“We'd bring kids here who were really good players, and many times they liked what they saw and wanted to come here, even though we were an Independent,” said Gillian. “Many times, it was parents, other coaches or others around the kids that would talk them into going to another school. Now we don't have to worry about that.

“We've moved up the ladder, and now the other coaches will be trying to sell their league over ours. That's a battle I'll be glad to fight every day.”

Head baseball coach Buddy Bolding built his program from the ground up. He was hired as coach in 1978. Longwood was then a Division III institution, and not far removed from becoming a co-educational institution. He's seen the numerous transitions from D-III, to Division II – where he led teams to two World Series – and to Division I.

“This is number one,” said Bolding. “No question about it. This says that it's okay to have grand visions, and they do meet with fruition. I'm supremely pleased with what President Finnegan has done. His expertise and knowledge helped us get here. It's been a struggle, but we now know that it's been worth it.”

For women's soccer coach Todd Dyer, a 1993 graduate of Longwood, the day is special for him in two ways.

“As an alumnus, I'm feeling nothing but pride,” said Dyer. “And as a coach, I feel a ton of gratitude. This is a tribute to all of the student-athletes that got us here. It's the biggest day in Longwood Athletics history. We've reached this goal. Now, we've got a set of new goals.”

Longwood's soccer programs, as well as its field hockey and lacrosse programs have been in sports-specific leagues. The field hockey program will remain in the NorPac, as it's the only sport Longwood fields that's not sponsored by the Big South.

Dyer's program was fortunate to find a league for a couple of seasons, but this is entirely different.

“This is the big stage,” said Dyer. “We've been working to this for a long time, and now we can play for conference championships with an automatic bid. Everything has changed.”

Lindsey Ottavio, a junior forward on the women's soccer team shares her coach's feelings.

“We're more than excited,” said Ottavio, who cited that the Independent schedule can put a strain on a student-athlete. “We've had to travel a lot, and we've seen a lot of different places, but I'm looking forward to not having to travel as much, with how close the schools are in the Big South.”

Longwood Athletics Director Troy Austin is just happy he doesn't have to answer a question he's been asked almost every day since he arrived at the school six years ago. Though he was in on the negotiations, it didn't sink in until he was in front of the over 500 in attendance.

“I look at it as a collective process over the six years I've been here,” said Austin. “We've been working on this all along. After things really got going recently, but it didn't hit me until I was at the podium today. I always felt it was only a matter of time. My question was how much hair I was going to lose in the process.”

Longwood's teams have represented themselves very well against the Big South since becoming Division I eligible in 2007. The Lancers are an overall 77-73-8 (.513) in competition against current BSC members in its league-sponsored sports. The Lancers are 7-6 in men's basketball, 19-11 in softball and 14-8-3 in women's soccer. In what some believe is the Big South's strongest sport, baseball, the Lancers were 10-12. In women's basketball, LU was 12-13, and men's soccer was 8-9-4. Longwood's men's tennis teams were 4-7, and its women's teams were 3-7.

“This means everything. It is what it's all about,” said Gillian. “We began with the end goal in mind, and we built from the start. We had to be patient to get to today, but we're here. Now, we'll work on going from here.”