BRIDGEWATER, Va. - Next Week the NCAA will shine the spotlight on its Division III student-athletes as colleges and universities around the nation will celebrate Division III Week.
The week is designed to focus attention on Division III’s unique approach to athletics which equally values academics, athletics and student-athlete involvement in co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
There are a lot of Division III student-athletes doing a myriad of positive things both on and off the playing field. Unfortunately, a lot of people outside the campus community have no idea just how good some of these athletes are.
After I graduated from Bridgewater in 1981, I still made it a point to come back and watch some games. Usually I would catch a few games of both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.
I can remember one year in the md-eighties, calling my dad up and seeing if he wanted to go watch a game in the ODAC men’s basketball tournament.
My dad was a big hoops fan, but he had never been to an ODAC men’s game and he really wasn’t too interested in going. I can remember him saying, “Those guys aren’t going to be that good.”
Well, he did decide to go and we watched a couple of games. I don’t remember too many details but I do recall that Eastern Mennonite was playing because Leonard Dow, one of the Royals’ all-time greats, put on quite a show.
“That guy from Eastern Mennonite is pretty good.” That was my dad’s response after watching his first ODAC men’s game.
A few years later, I was working as a sports writer for the newspaper in Staunton and I wrote a column after watching Coach Leatherman’s team play Emory & Henry.
Again, I am trusting my sketchy memory here, but I believe the column focused on the talents of BC’s Ramsey Yeatts and Emory & Henry’s Leon Hill. I had watched Hill played countless times in high school for Madison County and Yeatts had helped carry the Eagles program into the national spotlight.
The focus of the column was to point out the fact that just because the game was labeled Division III, that didn’t mean the game was devoid of talent. Yeatts, of course, started his career in Division I at nearby JMU before transferring to play for the Eagles. Hill was a tremendous athlete who may have been undersized for D-I, but in Division III he was a big-time talent.
The perception of Division III athletics 30 years ago was that the young men and women playing sports at that level just weren’t good enough to play Division I. The reality was there were some amazing student-athletes playing the game at a very high level.
Sadly, that perception still permeates at some level today. Those who are not exposed to Division III, including parents and high school athletes, often see Division III as a small step up from high school.
It’s a step up for sure, but it’s a much bigger step than many are capable of making.
In the past decade, the ODAC has witnessed some amazing performances by teams and individuals.
Several individuals have gone on to play professionally.
EMU’s Erik Kratz is playing baseball in the Majors for the Philadelphia Phillies. Guilford grad Ben Strong has played hoops overseas and is currently playing in the NBA Developmental League.
Here at Bridgewater, several athletes in the past decade have had a fling with professional sports.
All-American linebacker Jermaine Taylor made his way into a couple of NFL camps and had a very productive season in NFL Europe.
Ricky Easterling has carved out a nice career in the pro basketball leagues in Germany where he has been playing since 2006.
Baseball standout Jono Brooks played professionally for several seasons with the Rockford Riverhawks in the independent leagues.
Tyler Beiler has been in camp with a couple NFL teams and recently signed a contract to play in the Canadian Football League.
Maybe the perception of Division III athletics hasn’t changed a great deal over the past 30 years, but the reality is still the same.
These young men and women are pretty darned good.
Don’t take my word for it. Come out sometime and catch a Division III game and witness it first-hand.