COLUMBIA - Stephens College athletics finally have a home.
The Stars begin play in the American Midwest Conference this fall season after four years of operating as an independent team. Stephens becomes the ninth school in the conference, which includes, Columbia College.
The Stephens program started as an NCAA Division III school, but switched to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in April of 2004. According to Stephens Athletic Director Deb Duren, one reason for the switch was geography.
"It probably wasn't a good home for Stephens," she said. "There's not a lot of NCAA Division III schools in the state."
After joining the NAIA, the Stars became an independent team, meaning they didn't belong to a specific conference. Until last season, the NAIA was organized according to regions, meaning an independent team could qualify for postseason play, but it was difficult.
"As an independent we were totally outside the structure," Duren said. "We scheduled independently, and there was no such thing as a conference championship for us. So essentially we would have had to be recognized by other schools for a great record, and have a great record against conference schools before they ever even thought about us for regional play."
The process of joining a conference began shortly after becoming a member of the NAIA.
"We've been working on this for a long time," Duren said. "It's a fairly lengthy process because its not just a matter of an institution choosing to be in a conference, the conference also has to choose you."
Located in central Missouri, Stephens College fit geographically with the AMC.
"Any small college or university can make an application to join, they just have to be part of the NAIA," said AMC Commissioner Lowell Pitzer. "Since they (Stephens) were located in our area, they would join our conference."
Stephens College made an application to the AMC, which was reviewed by the executive committee. The committee includes the presidents from the schools in the conference, who review the application and vote on whether they want another school in the conference.
Pitzer said there aren't many official qualifications for entering the AMC, but a school must have at least six sports teams. Stephens College had only four athletic teams until 2006, when softball and cross country was added. Stephens had a soccer team until 2003 when the program was canceled because of scheduling and venue issues.
On their first application to join the AMC, the Stars didn't receive enough votes from conference presidents to be accepted.
"Stephens didn't get enough votes to be allowed in," Pitzer said. "They appealed the decision to the council presidents, and they came to the decision to let them in."
There are many advantages being in a conference, Duren said, including ease of scheduling. As an independent it was the responsibility of the team to find opponents, and there was no season-ending tournament. In the AMC, match-ups are set between conference opponents, usually scheduling teams equally on the road and at home. There is a conference tournament as well, which offers the possibility of going to the NAIA National Tournament.
Most of the AMC schools are located in Missouri and southern Illinois, which allows Stephens to play away games at conference schools without too much hassle.
"It's important to us that we got associated with schools that are similar to us, that have similar types of ideals and goals, and schools that are close enough to us geographically, that we can travel there and come back in the same day," Duren said.
Another benefit of being part of a conference is the publicity.
"The recognition is there, and that's important," Duren said. "It's not only just important for the athlete, but its very important for the student, and for the institution. Athletics buy lots of press. There's just this certain aura around athletics that doesn't surround anything else. People want to read about it."
Stephens lost its debut AMC volleyball match Tuesday night against Columbia College 3-0. The Stars next volleyball match is 2 p.m. Saturday against visiting Cottey College, while their next conference match is 7 p.m. on Sept. 18 against William Woods University.