The NAIA’s decision to shift  the onus from member institutions to student-athletes when it comes to proving their eligibility has resulted in the mass exodus from the collegiate governing body, including the University of Maine-Fort Kent, the University of Maine-Machias and the University of Maine-Presque Isle.

That was the explanation given by UMFK athletic director and men’s soccer coach Bill Ashby.

“The last report I saw is that 90 schools were in transition (out of the NAIA),” said Ashby.

The transition has resulted in the dissolution of the Sunrise Conference, which included the three Maine schools, the College of St. Joseph (Vt.), Vermont Technical College, SUNY-Canton and Fisher College (Mass.).

The schools’ athletic directors and presidents voted to leave the NAIA and dissolve the conference.

Fisher College is the only school remaining in the NAIA and will become a member of the American Mideast Conference.

UM-Fort Kent, UM-Presque Isle and SUNY-Canton are going to be independents in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association while the College of St. Joseph, Vermont Technical College and UM-Machias are going to seek membership in the Yankee Conference and the USCAA.

Ashby explained that the NAIA has established an eligibility clearinghouse like the NCAA and that has transformed eligibility into a two-step process.

“We (the institutions) were happy to do it ourselves (in conjunction with the NAIA),” said Ashby. “But now the NAIA has taken control. They want to make sure no professionals play in the NAIA. And they have added a registration fee ranging from $60-$85 that the students have to take care of themselves.”

He also said the student-athletes have to submit their grades to the clearinghouse as well as documentation that they haven’t been paid to play in a game and a detailed resume of their athletic careers.

“It has created a huge stumbling block and would have hurt all of us in our recruiting,” said Ashby.

Ashby said former UMFK player and soccer coach Wulf Koch, the men’s soccer coach at NAIA school Auburn University-Montgomery (Ala.), told him a week ago he had 14 prospective players who hadn’t heard back from the clearinghouse even though they had submitted their paperwork three months ago.

The USCAA does allow its schools to offer athletic scholarships as does the NAIA but Ashby said being an independent is presenting him with a definite scheduling challenge.

“Nobody has to play us any more,” said Ashby. “Our location hurts us for sure and the strength of our programs will hurt us. We’re the victims of our own success.”

The men’s soccer program has gone 93-7-3 in Ashby’s last five seasons and qualified for the NAIA National Tournament the last four years. The women’s soccer team has qualified for the last three NAIA national tournaments. The women’s volleyball team also won the Sunrise Conference title. UMFK offers two other sports, men’s and women’s basketball.

“Scheduling basketball games is a difficult problem right now, especially in the second semester when other schools are in league play,” said Ashby. “We’ll start looking in Canada. Those games count.”

There are several two-year institutions in the USCAA like the community colleges in Maine but Ashby said they won’t schedule two-year schools.

The independents in the USCAA can qualify for the USCAA’s national tournaments in their respective sports but they would have to earn at-large berths because they aren’t in a league, he explained.

There are 92 schools in the USCAA and 290 in the NAIA, according to Ashby.

He said he eventually hopes to land in a conference in the USCAA.

He said he will miss being in the NAIA and the Sunrise Conference but added, “In the final analysis, I think the USCAA is going to be a good fit for us.”

Ashby earns AD award

Ashby was named the Northeast Region’s Athletic Director of the Year among NAIA and other (non-NCAA) schools at the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics’ national convention in Orlando, Fla. this past week.

“It feels great,” said Ashby, who has been at UMFK for six years. “When I got to Fort Kent, it was ripe. Everything was set up just right to really blossom. It has all worked out well so far.”

Maine’s Bilodeau gains honor

University of Maine junior pitcher Keith Bilodeau has been named to the All-Northeast Region second team.

Bilodeau finished with a 10-3 record with a 3.04 ERA. He led the team in innings pitched with 91 2/3 innings and had 83 strikeouts. Opponents batted just .238 against Bilodeau, who led the team with five complete games and tied the school record for victories in a season.

Bilodeau was one of five America East players named to either the All-Northeast Region first or second team. The other four were from Stony Brook.