Cathy Nixon knows about transitions.
While it”s common for NCAA Division II programs to make the jump to Division I, a junior college never had tried to leap from the NJCAA ranks to Division I competition.
So when Utah Valley University women”s basketball coach Cathy Nixon uses words like “amazing” and “remarkable” to describe the school”s journey, they don”t come close to illustrating what she and the program have overcome to reach the highest level of NCAA play.
“I tried to recruit players who wanted to be part of the building process,” Nixon said. “I didn”t want to bring in prima donnas. I wanted to bring in players who would ask what can you for the program, not what can the program do for you.”
Utah Valley (2-1) will continue its maturation as a program at 7 tonight when it visits No. 25 Mississippi State (2-0) at Humphrey Coliseum. Last season, MSU traveled to Orem, Utah, and earned a 71-63 victory.
Utah Valley”s seven-year provisional period began with an exploratory year in 2002-03, its final season in junior college athletics. In 2003-04, the school”s teams began competing with partial Division I schedules. A year later, all of its teams were competing with full Division I schedules. On July 8, 2009, the NCAA Membership Services notified Utah Valley of its unanimous approval to lift the school”s provisional status and accept it as an official Division I member. The move completes the school”s unprecedented move from NJCAA to NCAA athletics.
Utah Valley has had success despite not having a conference — the Great West Conference — to play in until this season.
A year ago, Utah Valley went 17-10 and won the Division I Independent Tournament. The Lady Wolverines lost center Robyn Fairbanks, an honorable mention All-American last season, to graduation. She became the first UV player and the 20th player in NCAA Division I history to amass 2,500 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.
This season, senior forward Julie Smith, the Great West Conference preseason Player of the Year, is trying to fill the void on a 12-player roster that includes three seniors and six freshmen. Smith has led the Wolverines in scoring each game and is averaging 18 points per game. Last year, she averaged 18.3 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.
The Great West Conference is made up of 10 schools that range geographically from New Jersey to Texas to California. The conference, which began as a football-only league, took a step forward expanded to include several additional sports and several new members.
Utah Valley joined the league July 10, 2008, with Houston Baptist University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University of North Dakota, University of South Dakota, and Texas-Pan American.
Chicago State accepted the league”s invitation to join in October 2008. These seven schools joined football only members Cal Poly, UC Davis, and Southern Utah to make up the 10-member league.
Utah Valley was most recently known as Utah Valley State College. On July 1, 2008, the school attained university status and switched its name to UVU.
Nixon, who is in her 15th season, has guided the program through all of the steps. She has tried to fill her schedule with as many established programs as possible in that time, including Utah, New Mexico, Duke, Gonzaga, Boise State, and Hawaii.
Last season, Utah Valley defeated Southern California at the Seasider Challenge in Hawaii.
“On a personal level, it has been extremely rewarding for me because there has not been another school in NCAA history that has transitioned directly from the junior college ranks to the Division I level,” Nixon said. “We took it in one giant leap. I admit it has been trying and very frustrating at times, but overall the process has been remarkably successful much earlier than I would have predicted.”
Last year, Nixon had conversations with representatives from the WNIT and said that they were aware of Utah Valley. She said the officials told her that if Utah Valley earned it they would consider her program and a postseason bid.
Whether that happens in the near future remains to be seen. Nixon describes this season as a “building” year. She said the Lady Wolverines are still working to find roles for players and to see who will emerge as the team leaders.
“We”re not afraid of the building process,” Nixon said. “We signed up for it, we”re familiar with it, and I have found it to be very satisfying and rewarding in the long run.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.