Attend any national championship, and you’ll see the little moments of magic: the goosebump-inducing last-second shots, the unexpected acts of sportsmanship, the underdogs rising to new levels. Bring six national championships together in one weekend festival – which took place in Division II for the eighth time in December – and the impactful moments multiply.
Of course, the in-game action stands out most. But much of what gives a Division II Championships Festival its flair occurs outside of competition over a span of four days in the host city. This year marks 10 years since Division II launched these extended weekends, and along the way staff has learned and implemented improvements ranging from tweaks to overhauls – all designed to make the experience more special for participating student-athletes.
“The Division II Championships Festival is not like any other event in college sports,” said Terri Steeb Gronau, vice president of Division II. “Bringing together multiple championships in one location is a win for the local community, participating schools, the entire division and most importantly our student-athletes. We aim to ensure that every festival is an experience student-athletes will remember for a lifetime.”
It’s been a pillar of Division II and a piece of the festival tradition from the start, but student-athlete community engagement efforts keep growing. December’s festival was the first time every team participating in a team championship event – men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and field hockey – participated in a community event in the hosting city. About 60 cross country runners, who arrived later in the week, also joined the efforts. In all, more than 700 student-athletes interacted with more than 1,700 Louisville kids at elementary schools, YMCAs, hospitals and other venues.
For Champayne Hess, a member of the national champion Millersville University field hockey team, the day of community engagement hit close to home. Hess and her teammates visited the Home of the Innocents, which offers residential and community-based services for local children who have been abused, abandoned or face some other form of trauma. The fifth-year senior, with plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and, now, a national field hockey title under her belt, said she related to many of the kids’ challenges at the home. Champayne grew up in the Milton Hershey School, a cost-free private boarding school in Pennsylvania for children of low-income families. She hoped her words of encouragement to the Louisville group made a difference.
Shulesia Stewart, an administrative supervisor at the Home of the Innocents, is sure it did. Watching as the Millersville team danced and ate pizza with the residents, Stewart said the evening helped give the kids a sense of normalcy. “I think it makes them feel special because someone in the community who’s not getting paid, who is not related to them, is here because they want to be here,” she said. “I think it’s helpful for their growth when they know someone cares about them.”
The division’s community engagement organizer, Jill Willson, remembers discontent among coaches when they were encouraged to participate in a community event during the first festival in 2004. Ten years later, she’d expect disgruntled coaches and participants only if they stopped the community engagement efforts. “We’ve come full circle,” Willson said. “I’ve had the good fortune of being involved with every festival since the first one, and I can honestly say this is the best community engagement activation we’ve ever had.”
With hundreds of students involved in one multi-day event, there was never a doubt festival chatter would continue online. The social buzz came to light at the 2013 Division II Winter Championships Festival in Birmingham, where staff first supplied digital social media boards throughout the venues and student-athlete lounges. It was a trial-and-error approach that involved prominently displaying relevant text-based Twitter posts from participants. The positive response was overwhelming, said Josh Looney, Division II associate director.
Building on that success, staff targeted social interaction as a key piece of the 2014 festival. They employed a strategy to not only display Twitter posts, but also student-athlete commentary, photos and videos from Instagram, Facebook and Vine.
When competition wasn’t brewing on the court, course or field in Louisville, it was building in the student-athlete lounges, located in each of the three team hotels. The lounges were outfitted with TVs, X-box systems, air hockey and Ping Pong tables, board games and a quiet area for study.
As the go-to festival hangout spot, the lounges contribute to the division’s goal of creating an Olympic feel at the festivals, Looney said. There were jumbo Jenga tournaments between teams, prerace Ping Pong matches and plenty of selfies. Over the course of several days, strangers became familiar faces, and by the time closing ceremony rolled around Saturday night, participants were congratulating their new acquaintances.
Also feeding into the Olympic style is the ease with which teams from various sports and schools can attend each other’s events.
Consider the Division II Women’s Cross Country Championship race, in which three Grand Valley State University runners claimed the top three spots, leading to a team national title three-peat. The magic for the Lakers didn’t end with the race, though. Immediately after the finish, a blue sea of supporters engulfed the team, cheering and hugging and proudly waving the Grand Valley State flag. Among the fans: members of the Lakers’ volleyball and soccer teams, in Louisville for their own championship competitions at the festival.
The fan support struck Kendra Foley, the individual champion from Grand Valley State. “We had so many people here cheering for us,” she said minutes later, noting the other student-athletes who came out to watch on the cold, wet day. “I think that made it so much more special.”