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HAMMOND — The Purdue Northwest men’s soccer team had already made history during the 2018 season, and it was trying to make some more.

In their postseason opener, the Pride faced Ashland in the first round of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament. A victory over the Eagles would propel Purdue Northwest to the tournament semifinals in just the team’s second season at the NCAA's Division II level.

But that milestone never came.

The Pride had their four-game winning streak snapped and lost 1-0 to Ashland at Dowling Park, but even in defeat they earned an achievement. Purdue Northwest’s matchup with the Eagles marked the first time in university history that the Pride hosted a GLIAC postseason competition. And even though it didn’t end how coach Ryan Hayes would have liked, he is proud of the progress his squad has made since leaving the NAIA and joining the NCAA.

“I do think we’re close, and I do think it means a lot,” Hayes aid. “It means a lot to us. It means a lot to our (athletics) department. It means a lot to our soccer program and student-athletes. I think we’re getting there and the progression has been fantastic.”

Hayes, who will enter his fifth season at Purdue Northwest in the fall, was named GLIAC Coach of the Year after guiding the Pride to a 9-7-1 record. His team finished third in conference play and notched five more wins than in its inaugural Division II season.

Athletic Director Rick Costello was in attendance — passing out free Domino’s pizza to anyone entering Dowling Park — and he looks at the game as a stepping stone. The Pride are in the final year of a three-year process to transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II, and he believes his department is making all of the proper strides to not only compete but succeed at a higher level.

“The NCAA stands for students first, athletes second,” Costello said. “Our kids are getting great grades, they’re giving back to the community — community engagement is huge with the NCAA Division II — and then it’s high level athletics. They’re getting the best of all worlds, so I think it was a great decision for our university.”  

The change

Purdue Northwest began the transition and finished out its last season in the NAIA in 2016-17. It began competing in the GLIAC during the 2017-18 season and is now waiting on a final visit from the NCAA — scheduled for later this month — to officially move up to NCAA Division II.

“We have sat down, and we have put together a policies and procedures manual, a compliance manual and a student-athlete handbook to make sure we are following all of the NCAA regulations,” Costello said. “Ensuring that our kids, to the best of our ability, are having a great experience.”

He also highlighted that it’s been a tedious process for the entire university, and is forthcoming when it comes to how much this transition has cost. Athletic expenses increased by $91,005, or 2.7 percent, from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, the school's first NCAA season.

The uptick was due to increased travel costs in the GLIAC and additional funds for scholarships.

Furthermore, Purdue Northwest paid $7,000 in consulting fees per year to make the transition and paid $47,000 as part of a one-time NCAA Division II application fee and provisional membership fees. But even with the increases in payment, Costello wants to make one thing clear: the change isn’t costing local tax payers anything and the university’s financial resources have remained the same.

“You pay for an athletics budget from ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, donations and university support,” Costello said. “It’s a combination of those items that go into moving the enterprise forward.”

Since joining the NCAA Division II ranks, it hasn’t taken long for Purdue Northwest to find a measure of success.

The women’s soccer, men’s soccer and softball teams qualified for the GLIAC playoffs within the Pride’s first two seasons in the NCAA; and last season, men’s golf juniors (now seniors) Jacob Plummer and Chase Picken finished tied for seventh and ninth, respectively, at the GLIAC Men’s Golf Championship.

Costello takes a lot of pride in knowing that multiple programs have had success early on, but that is not his main source of satisfaction. He puts a heavy emphasis on Purdue Northwest athletes being model students, and before he brings up anything about the field, court or course he will always mention the work the Pride are doing in the classroom.

“Academically, in the fall 2018 semester, PNW athletics achieved the best overall semester GPA in the history of the program with a 3.29 GPA,” Costello said in an email.  “Additionally, 28 student-athletes recorded a 4.0 GPA and 71 percent of the student-athletes had over a 3.0 GPA. 

"The women's basketball program earned a 3.755 GPA in 2017-18, which was second out of all the respective divisions, including NCAA Div. I, Div. II, Div. III, NAIA and junior/community colleges.”

The challenge

Purdue Northwest doesn’t have a prestigious men's basketball history, and last season the program hit a low point.

The Pride opened its first campaign in the NCAA on a 14-game losing streak and ended the year with a 2-26 record. Purdue Northwest also finished last in the GLIAC and was outscored by an average of 17.9 points per game.

Boomer Roberts was hired as the program's new coach in the offseason and he knew he would be taking over a struggling team, but the challenge of turning the program around was one he couldn’t pass up.

He had done it before at Trinity International University, an NAIA Division II school in Illinois, leading the Trojans from five wins in his first year in 2014 to 30 victories in 2017. And like the players he is trying to recruit, the NCAA brand helped reel him in to continue his career with the Pride.

“It wasn’t the biggest factor, but it definitely played a part,” Roberts said. “I love challenges. For whatever reason I’m drawn to do things that people say can’t be done, and obviously getting a chance to be a Division II head coach at a place that was growing with me, I guess so to speak, is something that is very exciting.”

The Pride are 7-16 on the season, already notching more wins than last year, and Roberts believes the his team is holding its own in one of the best NCAA Division II men’s basketball conferences in the country. Last season, Ferris State, a fellow GLIAC member, took home the national championship. The Bulldogs finished the 2017-18 campaign at 38-1 and will look to win their fifth straight GLIAC Tournament title this year.

Ferris State downed Purdue Northwest 99-77 on Jan. 17, and in that game senior Chandler Spring scored five points off the bench.

When the Pride moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II, Spring said the biggest differences he’s encountered has been on the court.

“The level of play has definitely stepped up tremendously,” Spring said. “The athletes, the structure, the IQ and everything, you can tell what kind of picks up. Sometimes it’s the little things. Other times you can see that these athletes are grown men. They’re strong. They’re fast, and they’re ready to play.”

The commitment

Julie Wiejak described the NAIA as the “Wild West.”

Purdue Northwest’s head volleyball coach, who will begin her fourth season in the fall after coaching Purdue Calumet the previous two years, fully backed the university’s decision to raise its level of competition. But since joining the NCAA Division II ranks last year, she said it has required a lot more focus on her part to make sure she is staying in line with her program’s new standards.

“There’s just not a lot of rules (in the NAIA) that regulate student balance,” Wiejak said. “There’s a bunch of recruiting rules, recruiting calendars and things we have to do to ensure that student-athlete welfare is the No. 1 priority (in the NCAA), whether it’s in the recruiting process or when they get to our campus.”

She added that the NAIA had no hourly restrictions on how much teams can practice, but the NCAA places a 20-hour practice limit on teams when they are in season.

Wiejak, who played volleyball at Loyola of Chicago and led the Ramblers to the 1999 NCAA Tournament, said another adjustment she’s had to help her team with is its schedule. She experienced first-hand what it was like to travel around the country as a player at an NCAA program, and it is drastically different than in the NAIA.

Matches are farther and trips are longer for NCAA Division I and II programs.

When the Pride were in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, which is affiliated with the NAIA, most of their matches were on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they could drive to and from another school in the same day. But since joining the NCAA, Wiejak and her team often compete on Fridays and Saturdays and will sometimes leave campus on a Thursday and not return until Sunday.

“Now we’re staying in hotels,” Wiejak said. “Our travel used to be an hour or an hour and a half to a game. Now we have some places to travel that are 12 hours, so it’s just a giant upgrade. But it’s much more of a college volleyball experience than what were getting in the NAIA.”

The access

When head coach Niki Stansell speaks about her softball team’s shift from NAIA to NCAA Division II, there are two people who come to mind: Costello and Thomas McDermott Jr.

Purdue Northwest’s athletic director and the mayor of Hammond have worked closely together to make sure the Pride can utilize the facilities they need. Stansell mentioned that the university’s decision to lease Dowling Park, which opened in 2015, and the Hammond Sportsplex and Community Center, which opened in 2018, ensures that her team can train year round and made the transition much easier.

“Just from a facilities standpoint and seeing where that need is, they’ve helped fill that gap,” Stansell said. “And it’s only going to pay off as far as the full transition into NCAA because without that we couldn’t compete. Or it’d be harder or more challenging, and they’ve made it easier on us.”

Last season, Purdue Northwest went 26-26 overall, 15-17 in conference play, and earned their first GLIAC Tournament victory with a 7-2 win over Ferris State.

Senior Kyleigh Payne was also named the GLIAC Player of the Year after leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Stansell said that Payne’s emergence as a conference star proved that Purdue Northwest already had the athletes to compete in the NCAA, and by bringing in new recruits the Pride will only continue to grow as a program.

“Getting our feet wet that first year, and showing how much progress they have made in a year, that was awesome,” said Stansell, whose second season at the helm begins Feb. 22. “But it did leave them hungry because they didn’t get completely what they wanted. But I also think it opened their eyes to, ‘Hey, we can do this. We can compete.’”

The athletes

Roberts, Wiejak, and Stansell all shared that since leaving the NAIA and CCAC to join the GLIAC, they have been able to speak to potential recruits they wouldn’t have had the chance to before. Including international athletes.

The NCAA’s blue logo is widely recognizable and a tool they all use to try and bring in the best athletes possible. But for Hayes, a native of Australia, it has been especially useful during recruiting trips overseas.

During the 2016 season, the Pride’s last season in the NAIA, they had eight players on the roster from outside of the United States. The 2018 team also had eight international players representing six countries. Since joining the NCAA, Hayes believes he has an even greater chance of reeling in talent from around the country and world.

“We’re definitely looking to bring in a couple more international players, if we can find the right ones,” Hayes said. “We have players from a number of states around the USA as far away as Florida and some Midwest states as well.”

After being named the 2018 GLIAC Men’s Soccer Coach of the Year, Hayes credits a lot of his success to diverse group of players. One of his international recruits, forward Enrique Serna, who is from Spain, was named to the 2018 All-GLIAC Second Team after notching five goals and one assist during his sophomore season.

And since hosting the Pride’s first postseason competition, Hayes said he and his returning players are eager to set and reach higher goals alongside new recruits. The NCAA brand has helped grab the attention of players who previously wouldn’t have even consider Purdue Northwest, and Hayes thinks the next step is to keep their attention with success on the field.

“We never want to put ourselves in a position where we put our players under too much pressure where they think they can achieve something that is a little bit unreasonable,” Hayes said. “But we are all of the understanding that we want to continue this journey in an upward motion.”

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Sports Reporter

James Boyd is the Lake County prep sports reporter for The Times. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a proud native of Romeoville, Illinois. Before anything else, his main goal in life is to spread love and light.