Wolves find right fit as member of NAIA

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COLLEGE PLACE -- Walla Walla University's decision last school year to throw in with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) was made with two important priorities in mind.

First and foremost is the university's unwavering commitment to its Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Secondary is WWU's determination to provide its varsity athletic teams with the best opportunity to participate in postseason play.

The NAIA, according to Wolves athletic director Tim Windemuth, fulfills both of those criteria.

"They have assured us that they will work with us," Windemuth said of the NAIA, which actually courted the four-year College Place institution of higher education to become a member of its organization. "They understand our limitations and are willing to work around us."

Walla Walla University's limitations are based on its Adventist faith, which suspends all non-religious activities from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Unfortunately for Adventist athletes, Friday night and Saturday are prime time for postseason competition at both the collegiate and high school levels.

Walla Walla Valley Academy, College Place's Seventh-day Adventist high school, has had to opt out of postseason competition in the past because of these scheduling conflicts.

But there's little doubt that, unlike an earlier era, the Adventist community is interested in athletic competition at the varsity level -- high school as well as college.

"I think the idea is to use athletics as a positive thing," Windemuth explained. "There are values to be taught if (athletics) is put in the right perspective. It's (an avenue to) character development for our students, and it's a public relations tool for our school

"I know our president (John McVay) is very supportive."

Walla Walla University began to get serious about athletic competition at the varsity level when Windemuth arrived on the scene in 1982. Since then, WWU has belonged to several athletic organizations.

The Wolves first joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, switched to the National Christian College organization about a decade later and joined the United States Athletic Association some six years after that.

While the Fellowship of Christian Athletes consisted of mostly club-level competition, the two latter groups offered stiffer varsity competition, an avenue to the postseason and a willingness to work with WWU's sabbath restrictions. But scheduling proved difficult, Windemuth said, because of a scarcity of member schools in the Pacific Northwest.

So when the NAIA came calling, Windemuth was immediately interested. And when NAIA officials were warm to the idea of scheduling around WWU's religious limitations, Windemuth was sold on the idea.

The next step for WWU was to petition the Cascade Conference, a group of 10 NAIA schools right here in the Pacific Northwest, for membership. The schools include Concordia University of Portland, Corban College of Salem, Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Evergreen State College in Olympia, College of Idaho in Caldwell, Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Northwest University in Kirkland, Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, Southern Oregon University in Ashland and Warner Pacific College in Portland.

But with its number already at 10 and not wishing to go to an odd number of schools, the Cascade Conference said it wasn't ready to admit Walla Walla University at this time.

"They said adding a school at this point in time wasn't an option," Windemuth said. "But they also said they would keep us in mind for sometime in the future."

Many of those same schools, however, will play the Wolves in non-league games in the meantime. And since there are no fewer than 37 NAIA affiliates like WWU who compete as independents, they become a conference in themselves called the Association of Independent Institutions (AII).

At the end of each sports season, the NAIA evaluates each of the AII schools in a given sports and invites a select number to participate in a postseason tournament. The winner of that tournament advances to that sport's NAIA championships.

Walla Walla University's women's volleyball team has been extended an invitation to compete in the AII postseason tournament this week in Houston. The Wolves are seeded fifth in a field of six teams, selected from an original field of 13, who will compete for a single berth in the NAIA championship tournament.

Pool play is scheduled for Thursday, according to Windemuth, and the Wolves are matched against Indiana University Northwest in their opening game. Elimination play takes place Friday and the championship on Saturday.

"Our volleyball team will be the first Seventh-day Adventist team to ever compete in NAIA postseason," Windemuth said.

And there is further evidence of Walla Walla University's commitment to varsity athletic competition.

In the recent past, the school has already developed brand new campus facilities for its soccer and softball teams. And plans are in motion for a new gymnasium to house the basketball and volleyball teams.

The new gym would be a boon not only to varsity teams but to the college in general.

"We have an extensive intramural program," Windemuth said. "Because of that, our varsity teams have sometimes struggled to find practice times. And when we have varsity games, we have to cancel intramurals.

"Another facility will provide more free time in our existing gym, and our (varsity) athletes will have their own place to practice and play games."

Funding for the new gym is far from resolved, Windemuth said, which perhaps creates the only drawback in joining an NAIA organization that offers full athletic scholarships.

"We've never offered athletic scholarships," Windemuth said. "I think I see that happening down the road in order to compete at the NAIA level. But if it's a decision between scholarships and the new building, we want the new building first."

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