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Getting out of MonDak great for Pioneers
When word came out last weekend that the Miles Community College baseball program was basically being booted out of the MonDak Conference, there was a lot of questions as to why and what’s next for the MCC program.
The one thing that’s obvious is that this is the best thing that could possibly happen for the Pioneers. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, some background and definitions of terms that have been floating around.
According to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), which oversees most of the nation’s junior colleges, the eastern half of Montana is in Region 9 (western Montana is in Region 18, although there are no schools in the NJCAA in the western part of the state). Region 9 also includes Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. But not North Dakota, which is in Region 13 with South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
These regional discrepancies are important when it comes to what happened with the MonDak conference.
Traditionally, the MCC basketball and baseball programs (and volleyball when it was here) competed in the MonDak Conference and then in the postseason, they would play in the Region 9 tournaments.
Up until a few years ago, Region 9 was broken up into four sub-regions for basketball. Back then, MCC would play a few North Sub-Region games during the regular season for seeding purposes in the postseason regional tournament.
When the region switched to the current format of just two sub-regions, the North sub-region went from four schools to nine schools. So MCC had 16 Region 9 games, rather than six. With that, MCC basketball left the MonDak Conference.
Baseball in Region 9 is a different story. There are 20 schools in Region 9 that play basketball (18 in D-I and two in D-II). But in baseball, there are nine schools in the region (six in D-I and three in D-II, including MCC).
So in order to get a full schedule of games, the Pioneer baseball program continued to play a full MonDak Conference schedule and then played in the Region 9 tournament against the other two D-II schools, Dawson and Southeast Nebraska.
But then the MonDak Conference came up with the rule that says that if a school competes in the MonDak Conference, all athletic programs at that school must compete in the MonDak Conference.
Dawson Community College made the decision to appeal to the NJCAA to switch out of Region 9 and into Region 13 and will stay in the MonDak.
For MCC, it makes far more sense to stay in Region 9, mostly for basketball. With the Wyoming colleges all playing basketball, the travel is the same, if not less, than if they switched to Region 13.
But none of the Wyoming schools have baseball. So MCC baseball is in a little bit of limbo. They appealed to the NJCAA to move from D-II to D-I, which adds more scholarship opportunities, and were granted that request.
Starting this fall, MCC baseball will be a part of the Region 9 D-I, joining Lamar (Colo.) Community College, Northeastern (Colo.) Junior College, Trinidad (Colo.) State, Otero (Colo.) Junior College, Western Nebraska and McCook (Neb.) Community College.
There are obvious logistical problems joining what is called the Empire Conference. Western Nebraska, in Scottsbluff, will be the closest team at just over 400 miles away. Lamar, Otero and Trinidad are all over 700 miles from Miles City.
But for MCC baseball, this is what they need to do as a program. The move to D-I has been discussed internally for years, but now the MonDak has given them the shove that they needed to in order to make the move.
The only other option for the Pioneers would be to stay at D-II and hope they could schedule enough games during the regular season in order to compete in the postseason. That wouldn’t be likely as the MonDak Conference teams wouldn’t have open weekends to fit an MCC series in (Dakota County Technical College in Minnesota is joining the MonDak to replace MCC).
So moving to D-I is the only option for the Pioneers, and this weekend proved that it’s in the teams best interest.
On Sunday, playing in the weak MonDak Conference finally affected the Pioneers. Over the years, the Pioneers have gotten away with playing the lackluster conference schedule, mostly because Dawson has been on a decline the last five years or so and the Southeast program wasn’t very good.
But Southeast’s program has improved greatly in the last three years, as was evidenced by yesterday’s wins over the Pioneers.
The biggest problem with the MonDak Conference, as far as the Pioneers were concerned, is that they haven’t seen a quality baseball team in almost two months.
The meat of the Pioneers schedule came in their season-opening trip to Arizona and then playing a good Williston State program in the first week of the MonDak schedule. Since then, the Pioneers were barely tested in series’ against the likes of Bottineau, Lake Region, Bismarck State and Dawson.
With most of the games ending in five or six innings, it’s difficult to develop a bullpen. Starting pitchers need their work, and when the game ends early, the bullpen gets limited work.
Coming into this weekend, MCC’s top relievers, Ty Church and Zakary Horton, had thrown 13.2 and 16 innings, respectively. That’s 30 innings out of 283 that MCC played this season. It’s hard to be prepared for a good team like Southeast when you have that limited amount of time on the mound. And even when those guys saw time on the mound, throwing in a game that’s 12-0 is a little different than a 5-4 game with the season on the line.
The Pioneers had won 18 straight games and 21 of 22 going into this weekend, but that level of competition isn’t exactly getting the Pioneers ready for the postseason. Even if they had beat Southeast yesterday, it’s hard to envision the Pioneers being ready for a team like Des Moines or Iowa Central.
That’s nothing against where the MCC program is at. They’ve proven they can compete at that level, it’s just a shock to the system to go from playing Bottineau to Iowa Central.
With the move to D-I, every weekend will be against a top-level opponent.
And while it’s highly doubtful the Pioneers will win 14 straight Empire Conference titles, they’ll be a better baseball program for it.
I think we can all agree that watching a weekend of great baseball, even if the Pioneers go 2-2, is far better than watching a weekend of 22-1 games.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Josh Samuelson is the Sports Editor for the Miles City Star.