NIU women join North Star Conference

By Jeff Kirik

After moving NIU out of the Mid-American Conference nearly two years ago, the people running the NIU women’s athletic program decided earlier this year that independence was not the way to go.

NIU officially ended its independence Feb. 18 by joining the North Star Conference. As a result, the women will compete in league play against Notre Dame, Marquette, DePaul, Dayton and Valparaiso beginning in the fall.

“Since we left the Mid-American Conference a year and a half ago, we’ve been looking for alternatives,” said women’s Athletic Director Susie Pembroke-Jones. “We feel very, very positive about the move. We’ll be able to recruit and compete more successfully.

“These schools have very good reputations academically and athletically. They picked us because we have very high standards in both academics and athletics,” she said.

The NSC features league play in basketball, volleyball, tennis, softball and cross country. NIU only will compete in the first four sports because it does not have a cross country team. The Huskies will remain independent in field hockey, gymnastics, swimming, diving and golf because the NSC does not offer competition in those sports.

“I’m ecstatic about the development of our being in a conference,” said women’s basketball coach Jane Albright. “We belong to something now. We could get an automatic bid (to the NCAA tournament by winning the conference championship) this way. Instead of setting a goal to go 22-7, we can go for a conference championship.”

The NSC champion does not receive automatic bids to NCAA tournaments in any sports. However, by adding NIU, it is now eligible to apply for that privilege.

NSC Commissioner Elaine Dreidame said the conference’s top priority is building a strong basketball league, while volleyball receives second priority.

“We have a very strong commitment to women’s basketball, and they want to be known as a basketball conference,” said Albright. “They know we want to be a successful program. We have rivalries now. We have ten games that mean more than the rest. It gives us something to shoot for.”

Volleyball coach Herb Summers agreed league membership is an advantage.

“I think it’s good to be in a conference again. Being in a conference is helpful in setting some goals for the season, and it also helps give our athletes some recognition.” he said.

In softball and tennis, the conference offers a league tournament instead of regular-season play. NIU will schedule in those sports as if it were independent. Softball coach Dee Abrahamson was still optimistic about the move.

“It (the tournament) gives our players something to look forward to. They can set a goal to be conference champions,” she said.

The tennis team competed in the 1986 NSC Women’s Tennis Championship and claimed second place. Coach Patty Fick echoed her fellow coaches’ sentiments about the new conference affiliation.

“I think it’s a very positive thing for us,” she said. “I’m glad we’re going to be in the North Star. A conference is good as far as making goals and an easier process for us to NCAAs (postseason tournament).”

NIU President John LaTourette added that the university and the NSC will make good partners.

“I think it’s a very good marriage between our interests and the conference’s interests. We both wanted quality,” he said. “We have a very high percentage of athletes who graduate. We also have high admission standards. They were looking for those types of things.”