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Coaches’ initial reactions mixed at time of MIAA switch

Volleyball made a splash in their first MIAA season with a 16-1 conference record with the lone loss to Truman State. Photo provided by Nate Lilla / Antelope Staff

UNK was a member of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference from 1994 to 2012, accumulating 14 RMAC All-Sports trophies and 64 regular-season conference titles. After announcing their intentions to switch conferences, the Lopers officially transitioned to the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association 10 years ago in the fall of 2012. 

Thoughts swirled through the mind of UNK coaches and volleyball coach Rick Squiers remembers being very conflicted in the 2010 meeting.

“They met with us in one of the classrooms at the end of the hallway and all the coaches were there,” Squiers said. “They kind of laid it out for us. Some of it was exciting and hopeful that maybe some of the travel from the RMAC would be reduced, but at the same time there was concern about going into a league that was better-funded than the RMAC from top to bottom.”

Darrell Morris, who coached Loper football from 2000 to 2014, was worried about the switch. He met with Jon McBride, UNK’s athletic director from 2002 to 2013, and chancellor Doug Kristensen to speak about the concerns and dangers of joining the MIAA.

“I expressed my concerns that I didn’t know if our football program was ready for the MIAA and I knew certainly finance-wise we were not,” Morris said. “I was worried about attrition, not having enough players to last the entire season in the MIAA and I expressed to them that I thought we would lose games late in the year because we would get beat up.”

Morris’ intuition came true, as the football team struggled for years to come, going 3-8 for three straight seasons following the move. The Lopers let Morris go in 2014. He has the third-most wins in UNK football history, posting a 101-63 record in his 15 years as coach.

“It was almost like I was predicting the future,” Morris said. “We were in ball games in the first half and then we would start running out of gas in the second. It was predictable and it did come true. That didn’t mean that we didn’t go to work every week and every day trying our best. Our kids played hard, and we told them all the time that they would have to beat three of their guys just by themself. It was what we thought it was.”

After Morris, it got even worse. The Lopers hired Josh Lamberson. In his two seasons as coach, UNK went 1-21. 

Following the Lamberson debacle, Josh Lynn was hired as the new UNK football coach. Lynn has coached the Lopers since 2017, and the program has been on the upswing ever since.

For former men’s basketball co-head coach Tom Kropp, the biggest challenge was the new playing schedule on Thursday and Saturday. 

“The travel got a lot harder,” Kropp said. “That was really one of the reasons that I retired. We would leave for a road trip on Wednesday morning and then we would get back Sunday morning at 8 a.m. because we’d drive all night. At age 62, it wasn’t like I was 35 or 40. It started to take me two days or even three to recover from being gone four or five days and getting home at 8 a.m. on Sunday and then having to get ready for school.”

Kropp started as a graduate assistant for the men’s team in 1981 and remained until his retirement in 2015. Kropp and current coach, Kevin Lofton, were co-head coaches from 2005 to 2015. Kropp remains at UNK as a professor in the Kinesiology and Sports Sciences Department. 

Not every team struggled in the first MIAA season as two sports still found success.

Volleyball picked up right where they left off, going 35-3 in the 2012-13 season, and have been one of the better teams in the last decade winning six regular season titles.

Even with a longstanding stretch of dominance in the RMAC, the Lopers weren’t taken seriously by other teams when first joining the MIAA.

“We were very much on top in the RMAC,” Squiers said. “I think the general consensus was that those days were over and we were going to have to scrap and claw to be competitive. I had no reason to believe otherwise, either. The thought was that first of all, the RMAC was tickled that we were gone and that we were going to lose a lot more. I wasn’t sure that wasn’t true.”

With a veteran team in the 2012-13 season, the Lopers proved the doubters wrong. UNK played at Washburn for the outright conference championship and snapped the Ichabods’ 56-match home winning streak with an epic 17-15 five-set victory.

Wrestling was also successful right off the bat, finishing the 2012-13 season 12-3 and winning the Division II National Championship for the second straight season. 

While the transition wasn’t always smooth, the Lopers feel right where they belong in the MIAA 10 years later.

“Right now if we were to take our programs out to the RMAC, I think we’d possibly compete at even a higher level,” said UNK athletic director, Marc Bauer, who coached that 2012-13 wrestling team. “It’s hard to say because I think my experience in both the RMAC and the MIAA are very similar. We were still competing for national championships in the RMAC, so both conferences, I would say have been very good to us. That decision was made back in 2012 with the hopes that it would strengthen our programs and I truly believe it has.”

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KEVIN BURD, Sports Edior
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