Keene State College begins 15th year in the Little East Conference

KEENE, N.H. 9/13/12 – To most people the date April 28, 1993, has little meaning. But if you were a player, coach, or athletics administer at Keene State College at that time you will remember exactly where you were that day when you heard the news that the institution was departing NCAA Division II and the New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) and moving to Division III.

The decision, made by then-president Judith A. Sturnick and later reconfirmed by President Stanley J. Yarosewick when he took office in 1994, stipulated that KSC would complete the move to Division III by the fall of 1997. According to a story in the summer 1993 edition of Keene State Today (the college’s alumni magazine), three reasons were given for the move: 1) philosophical compatibility, 2) resource limitations, and 3) competitive balance.

Little did anyone know at the time the success Keene State would achieve as a member of Division III and the Little East Conference (LEC). Fifteen years after the move, Keene State has not only established itself as the top athletic program in the highly competitive LEC, but has also has been one of the top Division III public institutions in the country, in the annual National Athletic Directors of America (NACDA) standings that measure a school’s success at the NCAA championships. 

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Keene State has prospered in the Little East,” said conference commissioner Jonathan Harper. “All you have to do take a look at all the LEC Commissioner’s Cups the Owls have racked up over the past few years. Last year, they took home the Presidents’ Cup as the top-performing academic program as well.” 

“Keene State has become a cornerstone program of our conference,” Harper added. “You talk about a natural fit: KSC is a perfect fit for our conference and solidifies the eight programs we have in New England.”

Not content to fly under the radar, the Owls have put up staggering numbers since the 1997 move. Keene State has captured 65 conference championships and has sent 41 teams and 65 individual athletes to NCAA championships. During this time, KSC has had 17 national champions and 148 All-America winners. 

Keene State’s success didn’t happen instantly. The program had to endure several transitional seasons in Division II and the NECC before becoming a full-fledged member of Division III. Playing against scholarship programs with a dwindling number of scholarship athletes wasn’t easy. 

“It was a difficult transition for the kids,” said KSC softball coach Charlie Beach.   “The players were in many ways sacrificial lambs. We had some scholarship money, but we were going up against teams who were giving many athletic scholarships. As long as we were giving that money out, we were considered to be in DII. But we were getting less and less money and there was big sag in the program as far as the wins were concerned.”  

“I give my players at that time a lot of credit. They were up against it every night and never complained,” recalls KSC women’s basketball coach Keith Boucher. “It was difficult, but rewarding.” 

While it doesn’t measure up to the seismic shift now taking place among Division I teams and conferences, there was a slight rumble involving New England Division II programs at the time. Quinnipiac, Bryant, and Sacred Heart were making overtures that eventually landed them in Division I, while Keene State joined the lead of Springfield College with its move to Division III. Even as the move was widely debated and became a hot-button topic on campus, one fact remained: Keene State suddenly found itself without a conference affiliation. And unless you have the stature of the Notre Dame football program, it’s hard to survive as an independent in today’s athletics landscape.

Before beginning the task of finding a conference home for the Owls, newly appointed athletic director John Ratliff, who arrived two years into the process in 1995, had some fences that needed mending. “There was still some resistance toward the decision on some teams, but we sold them on our goal to make every program successful,” said Ratliff. “We no longer were going to put all our eggs into one or two sports and have a tier system. I think there was a tier mentality when we were DII. There were the haves and the have-nots.”

Ratliff cites several discrepancies among programs, including the distribution of new uniforms and the disparity in transportation. “We had one team that had new uniforms every two or three years and one team hadn’t had new uniforms in eight years when I got here,” he said. “We also had teams going off in coach buses and other teams going off in vans driven by students. A lot of the student athletes were questioning that.”

Working to develop a feeling of equality in his athletics department, Ratliff began the important search for a conference. With the majority of Division III conferences in New England divided between private and public institutions, Ratliff realized Keene State’s options were limited to the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC), which consists of the eight public institutions in the Bay State, and the seven-member Little East Conference.  

“It was an easy decision,” said Ratliff. “When you consider joining a conference, there always has to be a need on both sides. And since the LEC had only seven members, I thought it could work.” 

Fortunately, the feeling was mutual. “I think it was a perfect fit – a public college with similar philosophy and a strong athletic program,” said Al Bean, who served as the LEC’s commissioner from 1995-2000. “Everybody felt Keene State would enhance and make sense for the conference.” 

Ironically, Keene State’s biggest supporter in its move to the Little East was former rival Plymouth State. Keene State’s arrival in the LEC rekindled a rivalry that dates back to the days when both institutions were state normal schools. “Having PSC in our corner was significant,” said Ratliff. “It was key to have its support.” 

A site visit by Bean and the LEC expansion committee sealed the deal.

Initially taken aback by not having a say in the process, the majority of the coaches felt it was the right move for the program. But not everybody was happy about the move, then or now. “Yes, I still believe in DII. I always believed we should be back in DII,” said KSC men’s soccer coach Ron Butcher emphatically. “Back then we were able to get higher level athletes because we had scholarships and had natural rivalries within the state. I’ve made the best of it in Division III, but it’s not the same.”

Success starts at the top and Ratliff got assurances from the KSC administration for equitable funding. “We got a commitment from the administration that every sport would be funded at least at the median level of all their reciprocal programs in the LEC,” said Ratliff. “We told our coaches we’d give them the tools to be successful.” The seven head coaches who went through the transition and are still on Keene State staff were glad finally to be on the same level as their opponents. 

“It was beneficial. We went from having to compete in DII against scholarship teams to facing non-scholarship programs in DIII,” said KSC cross country and track coach Peter Thomas. “For us it was a godsend.”

“It was great for us,” said Owl field hockey coach Amy Watson. “There are many more field hockey teams in Division III than Division II, so it created a lot more opportunities for us. We didn’t have scholarships at Division II. Now we’re on a level playing field with everybody. It’s been great. I love it.”

“It was a natural fit when we joined the LEC because it was apples and apples now,” said KSC men’s basketball coach Rob Colbert. “History shows we were very fortunate to experience a high level of success and become a power in the LEC right off the bat.” 

The change in division and conference affiliation brought dramatic results. The KSC men’s cross country team began a string of nine straight NCAA berths, while the Owl men’s soccer team advanced to the NCAA tournament in nine of its first 11 seasons in Division III. The biggest turnaround was posted by the men’s basketball team, which went from 2-22 in 1996-97 to 21-9 the following year and reached the Elite-8 of the NCAA tournament in the 2003-04 season.  The following year, Keene State was named the ECAC’s Institution of the Year.

Some programs – field hockey, women’s soccer, and softball, for example – began making multiple appearances in the NCAA tournament. Other teams – baseball, women’s volleyball, cross country, and members of the Owl women’s swim team – got to experience the feeling of being on the national stage for the first time. Even the new kids on the block, the Owl men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, have tasted success, making multiple trips to the NCAA tournament. The Keene State athletic program reached its high-water mark in 2006-07, when it finished 19th in the NACDA Cup standings, sending eight teams and three track athletes to NCAA championships.

KSC’s dominance within the conference is no more apparent than in women’s cross country and swimming. The Owl women’s cross country team has raced its way to 12 straight LEC titles, and the women’s swim team has won six consecutive conference crowns.

While the list of standout athletes in the Division III Little East era is long and impressive, none have been more honored than Mary Proulx and Mark Miller, who combined to win nine national championships and 25 All-America titles.

Despite the large stash of national, regional, and conference honors in the Keene State trophy case at Spaulding Gym, the move to Division III brought its own share of concerns, especially for Owl coaches who found themselves not only having to win games on the field, but off it as well when it came to recruiting. “Recruiting was so much easier in Division II,” said Butcher. “You found the five or six players you wanted and focused on them. Recruiting in Division III is nonstop.”

“You have to turn over every rock looking for players,” Boucher added. “Your recruiting is 24-7. It never stops, and you’re constantly looking for that next player who is going to help your team.”

The fact that Keene State has been able to maintain a high level of success in Division III and the Little East can be traced to a number of factors.  No factor is more astounding than the longevity of its coaches, who have a combined 242 years of experience.

“I don’t think we could have written the script any better,” said Ratliff about Keene State’s move to the Little East. “We’re the best program in what I consider one of the two or three top conferences in New England. If you ask somebody what the best program in the LEC is, they’d be hard pressed not to say it’s KSC.”