Rogers State’s ever-evolving athletics landscape could be on the verge of the most significant transformation in its history.
From its humble beginnings with a nomadic baseball team through the emergence of a nationally recognized basketball program, Rogers State has taken breath-taking strides in five years.
Now, the Claremore-based university is preparing to take one giant leap.
School officials are putting together an application for membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Ryan Bradley, RSU director of athletics, talked recently about the possibility of moving from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics into the NCAA at the Division II level.
RSU officials have been wading through the application process, he said, for some two years. June 1 is the deadline established by the NCAA membership committee for applications to be filed.
It is not an easy process. Reportedly, the NCAA will grant membership this year to no more than eight schools. As many as 18 schools, including Rogers State, are said to be considering filing applications.
Bradley said the RSU documentation could amount to 500-plus pages, plus video of the school campus and athletics facilities. There is no personal appearance involved on the part of the applicant.
RSU officials are proceeding with caution through the application process, or, as Bradley says, “covering all our bases.”
“I cannot sit here and tell you that we have filed that application until it has been put in the mail and postmarked,” he said.
“Final decision will be made by the president (Dr. Larry Rice) and approved by the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents. We will seek that approval sometime during the month of May.
“If it is granted, we plan to file an application.
“We are not 100 percent committed to the application. We are only 100 percent prepared to make the application,” Bradley said.
“We will analyze it until the final hour and see what everyone else is doing, to a certain extent. If we feel like the timing is right, we will go ahead and put our name in the hat,” he said.
In five short years, the RSU athletics program has enjoyed dizzying success.
Bradley’s father, Ron, has been the RSU baseball coach since its inception as the school’s first sports program. The team played games wherever, whenever it could, against whatever competition could be mustered.
Today, the Hillcats have an on-campus baseball facility, adjoining a softball diamond, making up an enviable complex for the two programs, thanks to a $1.5 million upgrade.
The baseball team recently earned a ranking in the NAIA Top 25.
The men’s basketball team has reached the NAIA national tournament three times in four years.
In 2010, the men took the No. 1 national ranking and the top seed into the tournament. In the last two tournaments, the men have reached the round of eight, in a field of 32.
The RSU women have played in back-to-back national basketball tournaments, reaching the round of eight this year.
RSU also fields men’s and women’s teams in soccer, golf and cross country. Artificial turf was added to the soccer field as part of a $1.8 million improvement package.
Ryan Bradley proudly pointed out the the school has completed in excess of $4 million in athletic facility renovations in 2011-2012.
The number of sports sponsored by RSU is important. To qualify as a member of the NCAA Division II, a school must field a minimum of 10 sports.
“NCAA Division II was never a viable option for us until we grew to a point where we had 10 sports in place,” Bradley said.
Enrollment is a key, as well, in seeking membership in the NCAA. According to Bradley, RSU has an enrollment of 4,700 across its three campuses — in Claremore, Pryor and Bartlesville. Some 3,000 students, he said, are enrolled in Claremore.
The process from application to full membership in NCAA Division II would take three years, Bradley said.
RSU’s decision to seek that membership, he said, is based on competition.
The majority of Oklahoma’s state regional institutions — schools such as Northeastern State, Southeastern State, Southwestern State, East Central, Panhandle State — are members of NCAA Division II.
Those schools represent potential opponents for RSU athletic programs.
“For us, it seems like a natural progression,” Bradley said.
“Schools entering NAIA are mostly small schools, with enrollments of 1,000 and sports sponsorship of four or six teams.
“The median NCAA Division II school, it’s a school with an enrollment of around 4,000 or 5,000 and a sports sponsorship of between 10 and 16,” he said.
“That’s where Rogers State is. As we continue to grow, we believe we will have a lot more in common with the vast majority of the membership of NCAA Division II.”
The NCAA has limitations on the number of NAIA schools its members can schedule. Rogers State officials want to compete athletically with schools such as Northeastern State, Southeastern State.
“These are hard games to get on schedule as an NAIA institution,” Bradley said.
“We feel like (state NCAA Division II neighbors) those are schools that we have a chance to develop long-term rivalries with.
“The best chance that we have to do that is to be under the same NCAA umbrella that they are under,” he said.
As an NAIA member school, Rogers State is part of the Sooner Athletic Conference, a league that includes schools such as Saint Gregory’s University and Oklahoma Christian in Oklahoma, John Brown University in Arkansas, and Lubbock Christian and Wayland Baptist in Texas.
Should Rogers State be accepted for NCAA Division II membership, it has been invited to join the Texas-based Heartland Conference, with members in Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
“We feel we are a school that is well-equipped to make that transition (from NAIA to NCAA Division II),” Bradley said.
He cited the number of sponsored sports, facilities that include artificial turf for its soccer pitch and softball-baseball complex, a compliance system in place that would satisfy NCAA requirements, and a conference alignment.
“We feel we have taken all the necessary steps to put ourselves in position to be a very attractive candidate,” he said. “But ultimately, you’re leaving your fate in someone else’s hands.”
If Rogers State follows through on its application, Bradley would expect to receive an answer from the NCAA by the middle of July.