The Mercer Bears will have a new opponent to play beginning in Fall 2012, as the Northern Kentucky Norse will make the jump from NCAA Division II to Division I and provisionally enter the Atlantic Sun. The public university is located in Highland Heights, KY with an enrollment of just over 15,000, including 13,000 undergraduates. That is the third highest for the Atlantic Sun. It is seven miles from the major market of Cincinnati, OH. Famous alumni or attendees of North Kentucky include George Clooney and Gary Webb.
The Northern Kentucky Norse have had much success in the Great Lakes Valley Conference. Currently, they are 15-2 in men’s basketball, and ranked in the top 10 of the Division II polls. They have won the GLVC in 1995, 1997, 2003 and 2009 in men’s basketball. In 1996 and 1997, they finished National Runner-Up for Division II, losing by a combined eight points in the two championship games.
This is not to slight the women’s basketball program of the Norse. They have performed well, winning national championships in 2000 and 2008, and they have captured the GLVC title 10 times since 1986. They are 13-4 and also performing well. Nancy Winstel has coached the team since 1983, with an astounding record of 636-238.
The men’s baseball team has done well also. They have captured the GLVC championship five times in the past decade. In this same period, the women’s softball team has grabbed two GLVC titles, along with several postseason appearances. They captured their NCAA regional twice, in 2004 and 2005. They won 55 straight games in the 2005 season.
The soccer program at NKU is going to challenge for Atlantic Sun honors sooner rather than later, much like the basketball teams. The men’s soccer team won the national championship in 2010 for the first time, led by a player who would be drafted by Toronto FC in the MLS Supplemental Draft First Round: Steven Beattie. They have won five GLVC titles, and they would make serious postseason runs several times in the past decade.
The women’s soccer program has not been one to shy away from championships, but they have been unable to win a national title, despite a lengthy list of achievements. With six GLVC titles, five NCAA Regional titles, three Final Fours and a National-Runner Up since 1998, the Norse will compete from the outset.
The cross country teams will be able to compete in the middle of the road of the Atlantic Sun, significantly similar to Mercer’s level of play in these sports. They did make the NCAA Regionals in the past few years, but they have not been an elite squad here by any stretch, with no titles to speak of.
Rounding out the Norse’s sporting achievements, women’s volleyball has won seven GLVC titles since 1985, including two in the previous decade. Even without winning titles, they have received at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, where they have won two Regionals. Men and women’s golf have a combined seven GLVC titles in the past decade. Men and women’s tennis have a combined 11 conference titles, but none for either squad since 2004.
When Mercer’s basketball head to Highland Heights, they will play in The Bank of Kentucky Center. This 9,200 seat arena will be the second largest in the Atlantic Sun for men’s basketball, and the largest for women’s due to Jacksonville using two different gyms. Bill Aker Baseball Complex and NKU Soccer Stadium will be on the smaller side of the conference locales though, with 500 and 1,000 person capacities respectively.
The Norse will play in every sport that the Atlantic Sun offers, except for men’s track and field, sand volleyball (the inaugural season is 2012) and women’s lacrosse. They will keep the conference at 10 teams due to the exodus of Belmont University, who is leaving to the Ohio Valley Conference, where it will be the smallest school in the conference.
NKU’s Athletics Director said, “This is a big step for our university, and we are excited about the invitation to join the Atlantic Sun Conference.” As NKU has grown and prepared for a jump to Division I, they will add a level of competitiveness the Atlantic Sun needs following the departure of Belmont. A-Sun Commissioner Ted Gumbart was ecstatic for what NKU will do for the conference in terms of level of play and exposure for all the programs involved.