GAC glad to ride Bisons’ tide to title

Although Harding won't be carrying the burden on an entire organization on its shoulders Saturday afternoon, when it takes the field in the NCAA Division II championship football game, it may seem like it to some.

The Great American Conference has experienced a lot of athletic success on a national scale since the league was initially founded in 2011.

For starters, Henderson State's baseball team had a historic run in 2015 when it played its way into the semifinal round of the Division II World Series at Cary, N.C., before losing to eventual champion Tampa. In 2017, the Harding women's basketball team advanced to the final four at Columbus, Ohio, where it lost to a team, Ashland (Ohio) , that ended up winning the title.

However, the opportunities GAC programs have had to play for an actual national title are few and far between.

Harding (14-0) will get a shot to do just that when it faces Colorado School of Mines (14-0) at noon Central on Saturday in McKinney, Texas.

There have been only two other times when a team from the GAC has appeared in the national final. Southwestern Oklahoma State lost 95-85 in double overtime to Lubbock (Texas) Christian in the women's basketball title game in 2019 before Arkansas Tech's men's golf team got the league off the schneid in 2021 when it broke through and brought the national trophy back to Russellville.

Coincidentally, Russellville is where the conference's headquarters are located.

"I think the league has been really good since its inception," GAC Commissioner Will Prewitt said. "But when you live in a neighborhood where there's a mansion on every block and your next door neighbor is the [Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association], and you share a region with the [Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference] ... [and] you've got the [Lone Star Conference] and the [Gulf South Conference] next to you.

"There's just so many good teams in this part of the country that you can get a little bit overshadowed. But I think that we've been as good as almost all those other leagues over the past 10 years or so."

The GAC has indeed held its own whenever it's squared off against powerhouses from other establishments, like the MIAA or the GLIAC. Yet, if Harding is able to beat the Orediggers this weekend, it would put the Bisons in uncharted territory in more ways than one.

Before Harding notched its 55-14 semifinal victory last week over Lenoir-Rhyne (N.C.), there had never been a school from Arkansas or the GAC to reserve a spot in a Division II football final. There have been years, though, where a team from the league has played well enough during the regular season that it bred hope for a deep postseason run only to have those aspirations dashed.

In the 11 years that a GAC institution has been eligible to play in playoffs, only three -- Harding, Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State -- have garnered bids. Each has won at least one game in the postseason, but of the 11 combined victories they've registered, the Bisons have been responsible for nine.

Harding has been included in the season-ending bracket eight times and made the deepest run out of any GAC team prior to this season. That push came in 2017 when the Bisons lost to Texas A&M-Commerce 31-17 in the semifinals. The Lions went on to capture the national title the following week.

But as Prewitt mentioned, the conference has competed well, particularly in football. There have been six times at least two teams from the league have earned playoff berths in the same year (2012, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022), which is tough to do considering how tough the region is. Six of the past 11 titlists have come from the GAC's section, with GLIAC member Ferris (Mich.) State winning back-to-back crowns in 2021 and 2022.

"Several other teams have just been on the precipice of reaching the playoffs," Prewett said. "Southeastern [Oklahoma State] was a game away from the playoffs a few years ago. [Southern Arkansas] could've been in the playoffs this year. So I think we're more than just a couple-of-teams league, but I also think it's one of those 'rising tide helps all boats' kind of thing.

"It makes it that much more tangible and visible that our people can get to that highest level and compete at that highest level of Division II."

Prewitt, who's been the conference's commissioner since it was started, noted how difficult it can be for some teams in the region to sit back and watch the postseason unfold in other areas.

"It's frustrating when you see people in other parts of the country who may get a 7-4 team or an 8-3 team in a first-round game, which is a matchup you feel like you should win," he said. "Over here, there's just no easy games when right off the bat in this region, you've got to play a semifinal- or quarterfinal-type opponent. Your reward for having a great regular season is that you're going to play a Ferris State or a Grand Valley State or a Northwest Missouri.

"But it's always rewarding when you see any of your teams have success. It's really enjoyable in times like this when you see a lot of these kids on a roster like Harding where I've officiated some of their games in high school. I've seen a guy like Braden Jay make big plays for a long time when he was at Cabot."

Jay is one of almost 40 players from the state who are playing for the Bisons. That home-grown feeling, according to Prewitt, is one of the biggest pluses for any program fortunate enough to play for a championship.

"I think that's one of the special things about Division II," he said. "One of our last team sports that made a national championship game was Southwestern Oklahoma's women's basketball. All of those kids, with a few exceptions, were from rural, small-town Oklahoma areas. You see Harding's roster ... it's by and large kids from this part of the country.

"That's one of the cool things about the division. A lot of times, the teams look like the student bodies, and it's really nice to see that success. It's just knowing how much pride that people in all these communities take in the fact that they've got one of their former players playing in the national championship game. They represent their towns well, and they represent the conference well."

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