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State of UNCP athletics strong

By Nick Phillips
Sports Editor

Braves rip Fayetteville State
Graphic by Nick Phillips
UNCP offers 16 NCAA Division II sports, eight men's and eight women's teams, that compete in the Peach Belt Conference. The PBC is regarded as one of the toughest Division II conferences in the country in multiple sports.

Behind every great team is a leader, and behind every great leader there is a general. From his office inside the English E. Jones Center, UNCP Director of Athletics Dan Kenney has been at the helm of the Braves' 16 sports since 1998, including overseeing the additions of three sports to the program.

Program stats

With the spring sports schedule wrapping up, 2010-2011 has been a great year for UNCP on the courts and fields, with 12 of the 16 teams having .500 records or better, as of April 12.

Seven different teams received regional rankings during the season, with the Braves wrestling team finishing its season ranked 17th in the country while a trio of spring sports are nationally ranked.

The women's golf team is ranked seventh in the nation and the men's golf team currently holds a No. 15 ranking.

The UNCP baseball team is ranked in three different polls, with their highest ranking coming in the Baseball Coaches' Poll in the seventh spot.

"There are certain things you can use to benchmark success. Some of those are subjective and some are objective and I think you should always look at both categories to see if your programs are being successful," Kenney said.

One of those objective categories, Kenney said, is to look at the number of teams that qualify for NCAA postseason play.

The wrestling team saw senior Russell Weakley and redshirt-sophomore Mike Williams each finish fifth in the country in the respective weight classes at the National Championships in early March.

Men's basketball head coach Ben Miller led the Braves to their first-ever appearance in the Big Dance the same weekend Weakley and Williams competed on the national stage.

Miller and the basketball Braves' NCAA appearance came on the heels of their first ever Peach Belt Conference Championship game, winning three tournament games en route to the final.

The Lady Braves soccer team competed in the NCAA tournament for the second time in the past three seasons, advancing to the second round before exiting as they played into mid-November.

The final national championship appearance came the first weekend in December when sophomore Pardon Ndhlovu represented the men's cross country team in the NCAA's biggest race for the second consecutive year.

Another objective category for Kenney is the Peach Belt Conference's Commissioner's Cup, which measures overall athletic excellence within the league.

UNCP has never finished higher than 10th overall, while this season the Braves sit tied for fourth after the fall and winter seasons. "I've always said head coaches make the difference, Kenney said about UNCP's positive athletic results.

In the classroom

The statistics that Kenney may be most proud of may not be tabulated in games or practices.

"We have seven teams out of 16 in the athletic department that their average GPA is a 3.0,' he said.

Kenney credits the coaches for each creating an academic culture that lays out what is acceptable and what's not acceptable while placing emphasis on attending class and getting their education.

On Kenney's watch, UNCP student-athletes have been named to Peach Belt Conference all-conference teams over 100 times, but nearly 900 Braves have earned presidential honor roll honors from the PBC and four student-athletes have taken home PBC Student- Athlete of the Year honors, a clear sign of the coaches academic commitment.

Internal motivation

"The success of each program is attributed to what the head coach is doing," Kenney continued about the coaches.

The coaches feed off each other, Kenney said, and as one coach tastes success, others push that much harder to follow suit.

"They are a competitive lot. If they see someone like Ben (Miller) go to the NCAA's, they are saying 'hey, that's something I want to do too,'" Kenney described.

also each teach six hours per semester to go along with their recruiting, practices and games. "Our coaches have really got to be organized, they've got to work hard and we've got to have the right people. Knock on wood, Dan Kenny has been blessed to be surrounded with a lot of head coaches that are doing that," Kenney said.

The new three

During his time as Director of Athletics, Kenney began the women's soccer program in 2001 and the women's golf team for the 2006-2007 season before bringing football back to campus in the fall of 2007 after 56 years.

Kenney attributes the successes of the three newest programs to the University for providing the resources needed.

Smiling, Kenney also notes that the recent wave of success throughout all of the athletic teams has come since the addition of football.

"There was this big fear that, after you added football, all the other sports would go down and the opposite has taken place," he said.

The quick notoriety for the football program helped put UNCP on the national map, as the Braves have been consistently ranked, while also going down in NCAA history as the fastest team in terms of years played to make the NCAA Division II playoffs after their inclusion in the 2009 field.

Budget crunch

Kenney's easy part of his job is to sit back and watch the success of all the different teams. His duties of balancing everything out, however, are a lot tougher.

That portion of his job becomes even more difficult when you factor in the current economic crunch throughout the country that is trickling down to colleges and universities, who in turn tighten different budgets within their system.

"I have to be realistic, there will be some changes that take place next year and beyond, because of our economic climate, that are probably going to impact the resources that we have or the cost of going to school or doing business.

We are going to have a challenge in the future," Kenney said.

Despite the possible shortcomings, Kenney assured that the casual fan will see nothing different in the coming seasons, saying that coaches will be doing more with less.

He used the example of professors having to teach to larger class sizes or having to teach more classes as teaching jobs are being thinned out.

"We have hired people of high competency and high character that are going to give you their 'A' game despite what's going on," Kenney said about his coaching staffs.

Facilities

Although Kenney said the economic times wouldn't affect the athletic teams themselves, he did, however, discuss several projects at the different facilities that have currently had to be put on the back burner.

"I think we still have some real needs facilitywise if we want to say we are an upper echelon Peach Belt Conference or regional team," Kenney said. "Unfortunately those require resources, and at this moment in time, we have to face reality and see those resources are not available," he added.

Kenney noted three main projects, including adding permanent seating at the Varsity Grounds soccer complex, as well as finding bathroom facilities for the soccer complex and softball field.

There have also been talks about expanding the seating capacity inside Grace P. Johnson Stadium, home to the UNCP football team, as the gridiron Braves have seen all but a handful of games sold out in their existence.

Kenney also discussed a proposal that could throw a major wrench in the athletic program as a whole.

"The University is going under a master plan this semester, and part of that plan will probably look at existing athletic facilities being locations for future academic buildings," he said.

"You know what the next question is. If you're going to take the baseball, tennis and softball and put academic buildings there, then where are you going to put (the teams)? "We don't have the answer.

Obviously we would have to plan for that," he finished.

This idea would be a two-sided sword, as the baseball, softball and tennis teams would have brand new facilities and the University would have new academic areas, but poses the problem of finding the space and money for the plan to work.

Campus connection

Now in his 13th year overseeing athletics, it was easy for Kenney to sum up his feelings for his job.

"I take pride when we hire a coach and see them accomplish what they've done. That is one of the great payoffs for me in this position, that and seeing students grow and achieve. It's what gives me the juice to come to work every day," he said.

Despite all the positives that have happened on his watch, Kenney is quick to defer the spotlight from himself.

Instead, he pointed out several key dates that he feels have helped UNCP athletics.

"In 1996, two years before I got here, the university changed their name. I think that change, over time, has helped our brand because people associate with the University of North Carolina," Kenney said.

"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, in 1999, when the voters passed the higher bond referendum and it allowed UNC Pembroke close to $60 million for new construction so that we were able to transform our physical campus" it was a huge moment, he added.

The aggressive approach to grow enrollment over the last 10 years has also helped the athletic department.

Those three steps "let our coaches go out and sell a better product" to perspective athletes, Kenney said.

The idea of juggling 16 sports, along with all the coaches and staff members in the athletic department, can be a daunting task.

As long as the Braves programs keep having seasons like 2010-2011, Kenney can chalk it up as a win. 

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Updated: Sunday, April 17, 2011
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