If you build it, they will come
Go behind the scenes at the 2016 NCAA Division II Spring Sports Festival, learn how MSU Denver came to host it and what it means for the Mile High City.
May 10, 2016
Daniel J Vaccaro
The Regency Athletic Complex at MSU Denver is quiet. No noisy fans crowd the concrete walkways and plazas. No cheers rise from tranquil tennis courts. The softball field awaits the sound of batted balls, the crunch of cleats on turf. On this sunny spring afternoon, between the snow-capped mountains and expanding skyline, the only noise is the whir of cars moving quickly along Colfax Avenue.
You’d never know that in one week, this award-winning facility will play host to the 2016 NCAA Division II Spring Sports Festival, the culminating event of the collegiate athletics calendar. You’d never guess that more than 850 student-athletes from 76 teams, their families and friends, plus officials, media and local fans will soon descend on this very place to see six national champions crowned.
And if you haven’t planned an event like this, then you probably don’t know that right now key members of MSU Denver’s Athletics Department are frantically making phone calls, plotting logistics, finding a place to store more than 7,000 game and practice balls, taking last-minute trips to stores for things they never imagined they’d need, and likely thinking that it might make more sense to just sleep at the office.
“It’s a major undertaking,” said Anthony Grant, MSU Denver athletic director and de facto team captain. “But we’re excited to have this opportunity. "Having multiple sports compete for championships in one location is something unique to Division II, and it’s going to be electric.”
Those sports include softball, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s golf. Most of the competition will take place at the Athletic Complex, with the exception of golf and some tennis matches. Grant describes the event as a kind of mini-Olympics festival complete with an opening ceremony held at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and a closing ceremony in Skyline Park.
“We’ve planned big events for single sports before, but this is like planning for six of those,” said Erin Hiltner, assistant athletic director, who noted that they’ve tackled the challenge by assigning one sport to each team member. “But it’s so worth it. This is the first time the festival has been held in the West, and we hope it’s the first of many times at MSU Denver.”
The road to Denver
For the last year, the message was the same at Division II colleges across the country. It was spoken in every early-morning weight room. It was the rallying cry at every extra practice session, mumbled beneath the breath during every extra pushup or sprint.
This is how we become champions. This is the next step on the road to Denver.
But bringing the festival to the Mile High City began long before last year. The groundwork was laid over the better part of a decade, before most of the current Athletics Department team was in place, and before the Athletic Complex was even conceptualized, let alone built.
MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan traces the idea back to 2006, when he got his first taste of a similar sports festival in Florida. He would later become the chair of the Division II President’s Council and have the opportunity to experience two more festivals, both of which took place in the eastern United States.
“I started thinking about what it would take to bring the festival to the West, and Denver in particular,” Jordan recalled.
He shared the idea with then Athletic Director Joan McDermott, who brought the Denver Sports Commission, an affiliate of Visit Denver, into the conversation. At the same time, plans were already in motion to create a state-of-the-art athletic facility on campus.
The team ultimately put in a bid for the event in 2013. Among the materials they sent to the NCAA were documents laying out the many amenities of the Mile High City, letters of support from the governor and mayor, and a conceptual design for the Athletic Complex.
“The story goes that when the NCAA committee came out for its initial site visit all they saw was a pile of dirt,” said Grant. “They had to try and imagine what would be here.”
The group stood on Shoshone Street and envisioned how the festival might take shape. Ideas flowed, one leading to the next with increased excitement.
The selection of the site was made official in December 2013, and the momentum only continued to grow. When McDermott left the University in April 2015, members of the athletics administrative team took up the mantle, planning activities and meeting with NCAA staff. Each team member took on various assignments with Hiltner becoming the point person for the festival. Following Grant's arrival on campus, Hiltner continued in that key role.
Another important contributor was Matthew Payne, executive director of co-sponsor Denver Sports Commission. He wasn’t around for that initial visit either, but has been a part of the planning process for the last year. He sees the festival as an opportunity to showcase the best of what the city has to offer.
“This is a chance to highlight a significant downtown institution and MSU Denver’s incredible facilities, while also showing off the city,” he said. “We’re shining a spotlight on Denver and showing our capacity for hosting major sporting events.”
Denver Sports and Visit Denver have been vital to the overall planning of the event. They’ve assisted with logistics like securing hotel rooms, recruiting volunteers and planning the closing ceremony.
As a result, in one week, the players who’ve worked all year to make it to Denver, will get to compete in one of the best cities in the country, in one of the best venues in Division II sports and at a festival that has been a long time in the making.
What happens when more than 1,000 student-athletes, family members and friends, officials, volunteers and media come to downtown Denver for a week?
“It’s certainly a major benefit to the local business community,” said Jordan. “That’s more people in restaurants, shopping and staying at hotels. The festival will be a boon for the city.”
Beyond economics, the gathering will make a major impact on the community as well. That’s because all of the student-athletes are required to participate in community engagement at local organizations as part of their visit.
“The NCAA has 25 national championship events each year in Division II,” said Jill Willson, NCAA governance contractor. “We’ve made a commitment to include community engagement at all of them.”
At this spring’s festival, softball players will visit eight local elementary schools. Lacrosse players will spend time at two elementary schools and two Boys & Girls Clubs. Tennis players will visit kids at a YMCA. And golfers will split time between a children’s and veterans hospital. Both men’s and women’s golf will also be playing their rounds in honor of 180 fallen soldiers or wounded warriors.
The community engagement, however, does not end with site visits. The children and vets then get invited to attend the games of the teams who visited with them. The students from the Boys & Girls Clubs will even get to play their own game on the field during halftime of the lacrosse competition. A tailgating party will be thrown for veterans and soldiers, and they’ll be involved in the unveiling of a giant American flag that covers most of the lacrosse field.
Between community engagement, great atmosphere and intense competition, Grant feels that the festival will leave a lasting impression on the student-athletes who participate.
“When they look back on their athletic careers, they will remember this time competing in Denver, on our fields, at our university,” he said. “It’s an experience they will never forget.”