Saturday, October 20, 2012

IT'S OFFICIAL: Idaho Vandal soccer headed to Big Sky in 2014-15

In an announcement that has been expected for a few months, the University of Idaho confirmed Friday that it has officially accepted an invitation from and will join the Big Sky Conference for non-football athletics, beginning with the 2014-15 season.

The University signed the agreement earlier in the week, Oct. 16, at a meeting at the conference headquarters in Park City, UT and announced the change via teleconference Friday afternoon, also noting the school is officially playing as an independent in football and releasing the 2013 football schedule. Idaho would become the 12th member of the conference, also bringing the soccer division to 11 teams (Montana State lone exception).    

“We are pleased to announce the renewal of our partnership with the Big Sky Conference,” said University of Idaho M. Duane Nellis via the school's news statement. “As one of the six charter members, our relationship with the Big Sky is a long and storied one. Our student-athletes won team titles and individual championships, and were honored for their academic successes during our original 32 years in the league. We look forward to the same on-field and in-the-classroom achievement as we rejoin the Big Sky.”

“The Big Sky is a conference rich in its history and successes,” Director of Athletics Rob Spear added in the release. “Returning to the Big Sky allows us to renew regional and historic rivalries. Some of these rivalries date back more than 100 years and are a significant part of our legacy as Vandals."

New NW soccer rivals for UI*
Among the reasons cited in the statement for the conference change from the Western Athletic Conference for non-football sports was less travel, allowing for the student-athletes to spend more time in class as well as a creating a reduction in costs for the program.

The announcement and accompanied rationale came at an ironic moment with the women's soccer team in the midst of a trip to play conference foe Louisiana Tech Sunday after having previously traveled a month ago to Texas to play fellow WAC rivals Texas State and the University of Texas-San Antonio.

The closest programs in the current home of the Vandals are the University of Denver and Seattle University whereas in the Big Sky Conference they will enjoy closer foes in Eastern Washington University, Montana and in-state rival Idaho State with the only conference trips eastward being to the University of North Dakota and the University of Northern Colorado. Northern Arizona would be the furthest conference trip south.

The Vandals are by no means strangers to the Big Sky trio of ISU, EWU and Montana, having played all three this year. It was the sixth time in eight years of playing in the WAC in which they played all three, skipping the match with Montana twice during that time frame. This year the Vandals fell in all three contests, losing 2-0 at Eastern Washington and dropping neutral site contests hosted by Boise State versus ISU, 2-0, and Montana, 3-2 in overtime.  It was the first time the Vandals were swept by the trio since 2006. Since joining the WAC in 2005, Idaho is 9-13-0 against the three nearby rivals.

Peter Showler, U-Idaho
Other Big Sky schools the Vandals have played since joining the WAC are Portland State (3 times), Northern Colorado (2), Weber State (3) and Sacramento State (1) with a record of 5-4-0.

Pete Showler, who has been the head coach of the Vandals since the move to the WAC in 2005, spent two seasons as an assistant coach for the Portland State prior to assuming the post.

Following the match at Eastern Washington earlier this season, Showler would not speculate on the program’s future, but did add his thoughts on the conference, saying “I know the Big Sky well having been at Portland State as an assistant. So I know the coaches and the arena that were in. But until it is signed, sealed and delivered… there’s no decision being made yet.”

EWU head coach George Hageage, on the other hand, was welcoming of the possibility.

Photos: Gerald Barnhart
“I think that’s great. If you look at it now, it would be Montana, ourselves and Idaho… regional rivalries like crazy. And we like those kinds of things - that’s good. They have a good staff and Peter’s done a great job. I think it will just help raise the profile of the Big Sky, especially in the Pacific Northwest.”   

The Vandals were charter members of the Big Sky, which was founded in 1963. When the Vandals rejoin fellow founding members ISU, EWU, Montana, Montana State and Weber State in two years, the only school missing from the original six will be Gonzaga University. The Spokane school does still regularly play Big Sky opponents in soccer, facing nearby EWU annually as well as the Vandals, whom they have a dominant 6-2-0 record against in the past eight years.

Idaho departed the Big Sky Conference in 1996, originally playing in the Big West (non-football) until the move to the WAC in 2005.

History - Idaho vs current Big Sky Members: Idaho State 6-5-3 (H 3-0-2, A 1-3-1, N 1-1-0), Eastern Washington 10-6-0 (6-2-0, 2-4-0, 2-0-0), Montana 5-5-0 (3-1-0, 0-3-0, 1-2-0), Portland State 5-3-0, Northern Colorado 2-1-0, Weber State 4-1-0, Sacramento State 1-3-0, Southern Utah 1-0-0, Northern Arizona 0-0-1

Editorial Note: When news began to break in August that the University of Idaho would be potentially making this move, Inland NW Soccer News also took a look the possibility of other universities joining the Big Sky Conference from the WAC, which is rapidly dissolving due to other schools also leaving the league. There appears to be no news at this time concerning the future of Seattle University and the University of Denver, which would be geographical fits for the Big Sky. Meanwhile, earlier this month the WAC announced the addition of Cal State Bakersfield and Utah Valley University, beginning next season. That would give the conference five members (Seattle, Denver, New Mexico).

* Image is modified version of graphic created by UI Media Relations.