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Ospreys look to the future after 20 years of NCAA competition

osprey athletics
The buzz is building.

Over the years as the University of North Florida Athletics Program has matured, the low murmur of crowd noise from past years’ sporting events has grown into a sonic roar, reaching a crescendo when the Ospreys step onto center court during the annual rivalry basketball game with Jacksonville University.

Assistant Basketball Coach Nancy Miller has witnessed UNF's athletic progression from two different perspectives, first as a member of the inaugural women’s basketball team in the early ’90s and next as a coach for the past 15 years.

She said UNF’s evolution from from Division II to Division I has led to a significant difference in the resources available to coaches and players, the general level of competition and the sheer number of athletes on campus.

“Twenty years ago, we were a much smaller campus environment, academically and athletically,” Miller said. “Now, the scale is so much larger in every sense of the word. Also, we’re not playing schools most people can’t recognize. We play Florida, Florida State and Miami. In terms of name recognition and competition, we’ve hit another level.”

Nearly every team on campus has progressed tremendously since the jump to DI. In 2013, UNF claimed six A-Sun Conference championships and just missed out on about four other conference championships. For 2012, women’s golf and sand volleyball debuted at North Florida, with sand volleyball claiming the inaugural 2012 A-Sun Sand Volleyball Team Championship by posting a perfect 4-0 record in the two-day team competition. Men’s golf claimed the 2012 Atlantic Sun Conference Championship and went on to finish 12th at the 2012 NCAA Golf Championship. The championship was the second for men’s golf in the last five seasons. The women’s tennis team won the 2012 Atlantic Sun Women's Tennis Regular Season and Tournament Championships. The women’s tennis team also claimed the 2010 A-Sun Tournament Championship, while the men’s tennis team earned the 2011 A-Sun regular season title. The women’s cross country team won the 2010 A-Sun Conference Championship, while both the men’s and women’s basketball teams have advanced to their respective conference championship games. In addition to the on-field/court successes, UNF was able to host the 2012 NCAA East Preliminary Track and Field Championships at its state-of-the-art track at Hodges Stadium.

These team achievements have helped UNF recruit a crop of incredibly skilled student-athletes who have reached unseen levels of individual success. Standout golfer Kevin Phelan recently finished his historic run at the 113th U.S. Open Championship in a tie for 62nd place, finishing with a 72-hole total of 300. He was one of just four amateurs to make the cut in the field, and his final-round score matched the Sunday performances of PGA Tour stars such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Additionally, UNF’s baseball team had three current players drafted in the 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

However, Lee Moon, UNF’s athletics director, said that UNF’s quest to ascend the ladder of Division I NCAA competition is a constant work-in-progress. Moon was hired in 2009 with the understanding that he would help smooth out the University’s transition from Division II to Division I collegiate competition. There have been some tremendous successes since — namely men’s basketball appearing in the championship game of the 2011 Atlantic Sun Tournament. But victories for a burgeoning athletics program are measured incrementally. Progress is tracked in decades, not years. That message is especially clear to Moon this year, because 2013 marks UNF’s 20th anniversary as an NCAA program.

“I believed when I came here, and I still do, that UNF is truly a diamond in the rough when it comes to athletics,” Moon said. “The progress we’ve made compared to the program’s early days is just remarkable, and we have a lot of momentum pushing us forward. Attendance figures are increasing, we’re doing better when it comes to recruiting and, in general, community awareness about our teams is at the highest level it’s ever been. We’re looking good.”

There has also been an increasing level of support from athletic boosters within the student and graduate ranks. Josh Baker, a UNF graduate with a degree in sports management, said he's witnessed a huge boost in excitement levels and attendance for UNF Athletic events on campus in the past couple years. Baker helped create Osprey Nation, the official student support group for UNF Athletics, in 2011 with about 60 student members. That number ballooned to more than 950 members in 2012 and will likely reach more than 2,000 during the 2013-2014 season. He said the group is designed to help rally students around UNF's burgeoning Athletics program. The Osprey Club, a similar group of UNF graduates and athletics boosters, has also seen its numbers swell in the past few years.

"We’re all Ospreys, and Osprey Nation and the Osprey Club are great opportunities for all of us to be united, students and graduates alike, in support of the Blue and Gray" Baker said.

Baker said that UNF is on the cusp of becoming the premier program in the Atlantic Sun Conference, and increased support from the student and alumni population will help push the Ospreys to new heights.

These recent accolades and accomplishments are a far cry from the early days of UNF Athletics. UNF started small, much like the school itself, in the modestly sized National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. But the University’s administration had bigger things in mind. In the mid-’90s, then President Adam Herbert began to lay the groundwork that would begin the transition to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. UNF joined the NCAA ranks in 1994 at the DII level in the Sunshine State and Peach Belt conferences. The Ospreys steadily ascended the ranks of the DII hierarchy, leading to scores of regional and conference championships.

It was during this time that UNF established a standard for excellence on and off the playing field. The University’s corps of dedicated coaches and administrators has never lost sight of one guiding principle — all student-athletes will have access to an exemplary educational environment.

After years of success at the DII level, it was decided that UNF would take the plunge into the DI world. Probationary membership began in 2004 when the UNF Board of Trustees unanimously approved the move, and UNF submitted an official application in December of that year. Official competition would start in 2009, and Moon was hired as the new athletics director that year due to his aptitude for building smaller schools into national competitors. While at the University of Wyoming, Moon was responsible for a $15 million budget and helped secure the largest financial donation — $4.3 million for the naming rights of the student-athletic center — in the history of the institution. He also helped secure a $2 million donation at Marshall University for naming rights to a similar facility. While at Marshall, Moon was responsible for the hiring of basketball coach Billy Donovan, who later went on to win two national championships at the University of Florida, and Dana Altman, who led the Creighton Blue Jays to the NCAA Tournament seven times.

Moon took the helm during a brief transitional period, and the Ospreys began DI competition in July 2009. Moon said that transition was important in building up the program’s operating budget and ensuring campus athletic facilities were up to the DI level.

“My charge was to grow all facets of the program to that of a functioning DI program,” Moon said. “I won’t lie — it was a long road, and there are still areas that we’re addressing now. We were behind the curve on some levels, considering we were accustomed to DII instead of DI. Our amenities and facilities were top-of-our-class for DII, but we were around average for DI. It’s an overall process to change the perception of what we in the athletics program view as acceptable. We don’t want to be content with just good enough — we want to be great.”

Records are improving, attendance is increasing and scholarship offers are attracting more and more elite student-athletes to Northeast Florida. Additionally, Moon said the establishment of a partnership with Nike has been a huge factor in boosting Osprey merchandizing sales. Blue and gray Osprey logos adorn T-shirts, hoodies and hats in a number of local and regional retail establishments, allowing the community to wear their Osprey pride.

Another measure of success that Moon is particularly fond of is the attendance figures from the yearly UNF/Jacksonville University basketball game on campus.

“Since I’ve been here, every crowd for the JU game has beat the previous year’s crowd,” Moon said. “The growth is there for crowd attendance for all sports, but this game is a big one for us. It’s on ESPN and gets us a lot of attention. Seeing that Arena packed to the rafters is a sign that we’re on the right path. The impact of winning at the DI level plays a huge role in the development of a program. And we’re making strides every year. Everyone is going to know about the Ospreys soon.”