By Jim O'Hara
ROME -- Three years ago, the Shorter University wrestling team had the privilege of becoming the first NAIA collegiate program in Georgia. This year, the Hawks will become the only NCAA wrestling team in the Peach State and do so knowing that Shorter’s new status as a Division II affiliate not only has huge benefits, but also new challenges.
“It definitely puts us on the top level of college wrestling in Georgia again,” head coach Josh Henson said about how the transition to the NCAA puts the Hawks in the state spotlight. “At the same time, competing in the NCAA requires more from us. Still, it’s good for wrestling in the state and in the South, having an NCAA program in the state is a big deal.”
At the same time, however, Henson and the Hawks will be tasked with adjusting to some changes that go along with the being a new Division II team. Although Shorter is now a member of the Gulf South Conference, the GSC does not include wrestling in its list of sports, and that means the Hawks will be a part of and compete as an NCAA Division II East Region program.
“That’s a challenge in itself,” said Henson, noting that the region includes three solid Division II southern teams – Newberry (S.C.), Limestone (S.C.) and King (Tenn.) – in a huge geographic area. “The region goes from Georgia to Massachusetts.”
Then there is the fact that the Hawks will not be eligible for postseason competition until the 2014-15 school year when Shorter’s probationary period as a new NCAA member ends.
“We know we have a tough two-year stretch,” Henson said. “It’ll be a battle. Going to the NCAA is positive in many ways, even though right now we’re not in a conference. But the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
What is positive for the Hawks, who posted a 15th place finish at their final NAIA National Championships, is the knowledge that the majority of wrestlers who have been part of building the program are back to help with the transition. Among the returning Hawks and being red-shirted to gain a year to have a shot at NCAA postseason honors include NAIA All-America sophomores Andrew Ewers and Nate Galloway, and two red-shirt freshmen who were national qualifiers last year, Wally Figaro and Dalton Lane.
“They never wavered about staying here,” Henson said about the commitment the Hawks made to the program. “They realized it will be a tough transition, but they want to stay here and take on the role of helping with the transition.”
Henson knows that during the changeover process the team can ill-afford to let its guard down, and must continue to improve with a challenging schedule.
“The regular season schedule will look almost exactly the same as it has been. Competition plays a huge part in the development of wrestlers,” said Henson. “It’s exciting, but it’s a slow, agonizing process.”
But, the coach believes, it’s a process that will result in future firsts for the Hawks.
“The NCAA is a brand name,” said Henson. “Everyone is familiar with it and wrestlers want to compete with an NCAA team. All of the guys are committed to a plan on how to get through this. We’ve got to keep competing, stay fit and focus on making improvements”