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Dowling Park

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In the words of World Wrestling Entertainment legend Duane Johnson, "Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?"

The same can be said at Purdue University Northwest in Hammond, where the most exciting chapter in school history is being written.

"We are on a roll," chancellor Thomas Keon said in July when the university took a step closer to NCAA Division II membership.

Full membership is a three-year process. PNW expects to complete the process at the end of 2018-19 and become a full member in 2019-20.

Think about that for a second.

A boost in enrollment. More exposure for PNW's 240 student-athletes in 13 sports. Tougher competition. TV coverage in basketball. An opportunity to show off its impressive outdoor facilities at Dowling Park.

It's a win-win for the school's 15,000 students.

Make no mistake. That first year of competing in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference this fall will be a rough, bruising road more suited for an all terrain vehicle.

There will be beatings, some bad.

Ashland (Ohio), Davenport (Mich.), Grand Valley State (Mich.), Lake Superior State (Mich.), Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, Northwood (Mich.), Tiffin (Ohio) and Wayne State (Mich.) — say hello to your new GLIAC neighbor.

Director of athletics Rick Costello and assistant athletic director for sports information Rob Huizenga believe The Pride are up for the challenge.

"To me, it's all about the process, and I think we've got great coaches who are recruiting wonderful student-athletes and doing things the right way," Costello said.

"We know we're stepping up a level of competition but over time ... I have no doubt we'll be a very competitive NCAA Division II and GLIAC member."

Division II comprises more than 1,200 institutions serving almost 90,000 student-athletes nationwide, including Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Alaska.

This is like going from hamburger to Filet Mignon.

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Academically, PNW athletes have been hitting it out of the park. Their collective 3.23 GPA last year was the best in school history and the 3.76 of coach Tom Megyesi's women's basketball team was the second best of all college women's programs, nationally.

"It's going to be like anything else you do the first time. You've got to learn, you've got to progress and you've got to stay after it," Costello said. "Eventually, we'll be fine."

The move to Division II was inevitable after years in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

"As a public institution with 15,000 students, we look and feel a lot like our GLIAC members," Costello said. "The CCAC was a great league for us, but it was a bunch of small privates."

I can remember squeezing in to watch basketball games years ago at the National Guard Armory on 173rd St., just east of the campus and no bigger than a walk-in closet.

The PNW facilities today put those at most commuter colleges to shame.

"We've already had that bounce in our recruiting. The NCAA has been really good for Purdue Northwest and we haven't even played a game yet," Costello said. "Kids will look at us now and, wow, see what a great education they can get at a great value while playing in great facilities close to home.

"We're getting a ton of momentum in all sports."

If you have a chance, visit the new Dowling Park Athletic Complex, made possible through the efforts of Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.

PNW has a utilization agreement with the city to use its softball, baseball, soccer — all with field turf — and tennis courts on a priority basis.

On Sept. 9, the university will host its annual fall fest with food, music and its teams competing on all fields. Admission is free.

Forgive me, Rock.

Can you smell what Purdue Northwest is cooking?

One word: Success.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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