10/11/17 — Community model thriving at Division II Mount Olive

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Community model thriving at Division II Mount Olive

By Justin Hayes
Published in Sports on October 11, 2017 11:06 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- Make it yours. Such was the spirit on the University of Mount Olive campus earlier this week, as representatives from the NCAA met with student-athletes to discuss the many rewards offered by the Division II experience.

The event, billed as a retreat and facilitated through lectures and breakout sessions hosted by Jill Willson and Ryan Jones, focused on one agenda item in particular -- crafting a meaningful individual experience through access to  a robust, evolving community model.

And by every element of measure, the program was a success.

"In general, in Division II, we're not proprietary," Willson said on Tuesday afternoon. "We are one big happy family, and we really do share... where (as) some other divisions within the NCAA maybe don't have that same share philosophy, we really do."

As proof of such, one only needs to consider the program's growth since its inception in 2012.

Starting with basic templates and just seven schools, Willson struck out to inform along a road that was equal parts uneasy and unknown -- but one she would quickly change into the familiar.

"When we very first started, we didn't have some of the same resources we have now," Willson said of the program's outset. "The sports science institute, some of the Title IX and gender-equity resources that we have on .org now... that was a very tough website to navigate at one time... and I think people just got so frustrated years ago, they stayed away from using it."

Cue Ryan Jones.

After being hired as the Associate Director of Division II Goverance in 2016,  Jones set about the task of making clutter into a cinch for his student-athletes, coaches, athletic departments and administrators.

In short order, he augmented the digital face of Division II, making its appearance more functional and less intimidating.

Streamlined, not stupefying.

"College athletics is evolving every single day," Jones said. "Sometimes there are new issues that come to the forefront, sometimes there are new initiatives that come to the forefront... what we've been able to do with this campus retreat program is adapt -- we're able to update them as to what is available from a resource standpoint."

But it's more than updated handbooks per sport and calendars that spell out dates and times for events over the next decade.  Much, much more.

"We promote the entire student-athlete experience in Division II," Jones said. "It's not just athletics, it's not just academics... it's a combination of athletics, academics and community engagement, so they can develop those life lessons and life skills for when they graduate."

In very plain language, the program speaks to student-athletes about their own wellness, as well as how to plan for its development over time.

"We have this funny saying that people on campus can say something, (and) we can say the exact same thing, Willson said with a grin. "But because we're 50 miles away, all of a sudden, we're experts... the value of what Ryan and I get to do for administrators is tell the story of the successes of these programs."

And there was plenty of it to discuss at UMO, where the best traits of the retreat program are on full display across its spectrum of playing fields.

In total, student-athletes in Pickle Town retain at a rate higher than that of their peers, and further, graduate at a more prolific pace as well.

There is also the school's participation rate in official NCAA governance structure, which includes four UMO representatives -- Philip Kerstetter, University President, Jeff Eisen, Vice-President of Athletics, Brenda Cates, Faculty Athletic Representative and Jeff Yasalonis, Student Advisory Committee -- who are currently serving a stint under the NCAA flag.

"That doesn't happen every day," Willson said. "Mount Olive has a place on the map in Division II because their staff, their coaches, their administrators significantly value Division II and give back to the governance structure -- and that's valued."