Battlefields come in varied forms. For athletes, whether they compete on a court, field, pool, or track, the real contest takes place in the hearts and minds of each team and individual. As they face their opponent, they summon years of mental and physical training, courage, and an inner drive. Christian athletes also face one more challenge—to perform at the highest level with honesty and integrity, honoring God in word and deed while serving as salt and light to the world.
Suiting up to compete on a new playing field where strength of faith matters as much as athletic prowess, APU applied for membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II (NCAA DII). The announcement came July 11, 2011, after nearly two years of research, prayer, study, and dialogue. The membership process, which began September 1, launches a three-year journey that includes candidacy status from 2011–13, provisional status from 2013–14, and finally, active membership in summer 2014 that includes opportunities for postseason playoffs and national championships. As the campus prepares, one common theme drives the prayers and conversations—opportunity. Opportunity to grow athletically, face new challenges, and set higher goals. Opportunity to reach students who might not otherwise have considered APU. And most important, opportunity to show the world the character of Christian athletes. “I’m excited to play secular state and private schools,” said Athletic Director Gary Pine ’84, MBA ’05. “It gives us the opportunity to be the disciples and scholars Christ calls us to be. We plan to impact the culture of collegiate sports and show people that Christian athletes can be competitively tough, ethically sound, fully faithful, and still win.”
Ready to prove that, APU joined the Pacific West (PacWest) Conference, which includes schools from Hawaii, California, Arizona, and Utah. Though proximity and competition level ranked high on the list of pros, one aspect of the PacWest trumped all others—no sports on Sundays. Joining this conference allows APU to maintain its policy of keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day for church, fellowship, family, and rest. “I appreciate the conference’s respect for our desire to keep Sundays sacred,” said President Jon R. Wallace, DBA. “The PacWest presidents and athletic directors also showed a great deal of flexibility in scheduling that eases the burden of travel costs and missed classes. I consider it an honor to enter into alliance with both the PacWest Conference and the NCAA Division II. The timing is right; it represents our shared views on integrity, sportsmanship, and academic and athletic excellence; and it aligns perfectly with the trajectory of our athletics program.” On a similar path, California Baptist University entered the membership process last year, and two other new schools enter the NCAA DII along with APU next year—familiar opponents Point Loma Nazarene University and Fresno Pacific University.
Although the addition of four Southern California colleges strengthens the conference and aids scheduling issues, PacWest schools don’t play football. To keep the beloved tradition that includes 20 winning seasons since 1980 and 7 NAIA playoff appearances since 1998, APU’s football team joined the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) within the NCAA DII, comprised of 10 schools from California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, and British Columbia. This alliance marks the first conference membership in APU football’s 46-year history. “Finally belonging to a league with a shot at competing for a conference championship is an exceptional chance for the APU football program,” said Head Coach Victor Santa Cruz, M.A. ’10. “Our players and staff have always had a vision, a dream to earn a national championship. As an independent team, we had no way to set tangible goals or measure success. But now the Lord, who has been at the center of APU football for almost half a century and drawn players and students to this school despite our independent status, has given us the privilege of representing Him in the NCAA. We plan to honor Him in every way.”
Before they can start, however, APU must prepare for several changes as it transitions into the new association. Known for its rigid and copious set of regulations, the NCAA monitors its members closely to ensure full compliance with rules regarding ethical conduct, athletics personnel, gender equity, recruiting, amateurism, eligibility, playing and practice seasons, and more. “We were fairly well-structured when we began our application process, so we don’t need to make any sweeping changes, but there will be some necessary adjustments including an increase in scholarships and coaching staffs,” said Pine, who must not only adjust to his new role as athletic director from a long tenure as sports information director, but now takes on the additional responsibilities of fundraising, development, and compliance issues.
Coaches, however, may shoulder the bulk of the burden as they begin to learn the new structure. “We’re definitely in for a lifestyle change,” said Carrie Webber, head softball coach. “I’m sure we will go through some growing pains, but all the coaches and players are excited about this development. Scheduling will be much easier and the NCAA DII name opens up a whole new world of recruiting, so we are all very motivated to learn the rules and safeguard our compliance.” Pine plans to support them well with an NCAA education process, including weekly meetings with the coaching staff beginning this fall.
Next fall, the battlefield changes—different opponents, tougher competition, and a new arena in which to live out the Gospel. But the men and women of APU enter that arena eagerly, knowing that beyond the matches, meets, games, and tournaments, there are souls to be won.
Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer and editor living in Walnut, California. firstname.lastname@example.org