The road ahead for Augustana athletics

In an email on May 27, President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin delivered a statement that left the Augustana community shocked and confused about the future of the university’s athletic programs.

“Unfortunately, the Summit League has decided not to extend an invitation to Augustana at this time,” she said.

The announcement came as a major speed bump to Vision 2030’s planned jump to Division I athletics, especially after plenty of news articles and talk around the state.

“[I’m] disappointed but not surprised,” Athletic Director Josh Morton said. “All of us across the country in college athletics are dealing with so many things that it didn’t make it entirely surprising.” 

With COVID-19 wiping out fall sports for almost the whole country, universities and conferences lost months of revenue. Athletic teams from many major schools have since been cut in an effort to save the budget. After extending an invite to the University of St. Thomas in the spring, the Summit League extending one to Augustana during this time became improbable. 

“For us, it was, okay, what did you learn from the process,” Morton said. “We learned a lot about ourselves. As we put our own story together, the president and I are adamant that you can’t get knocked down and give up on the plan.” 

Morton emphasized that over this next year the goal needs to be the same as always: keep pursuing excellence in athletics. This means winning games, achieving in the classroom, and growing our budget to repeat the process for a DI invitation next year. 

This fall, the NSIC and DII decided to not hold fall championships and to delay any competition until Dec. 31, a decision DI and some major universities did not make. 

“As DII, the direct athletics impact of COVID-19 is different than a DI school because of the financial ties,” Morton said. “We’re having to be more efficient with our dollars, but I don’t think it’s pushing us back. I think we’re gonna learn a ton from watching others.” 

Morton also noted that the difficult parameters on asymptomatic testing at this time for the state of South Dakota 

will make it hard for athletics to compete. Schools are hoping that testing will become more readily available and cost-effective in time for sports to return. 

With winter sports being delayed, men’s basketball head coach Tom Billeter’s road back to the conference tournament has been put on hold. Billeter was one of three coaches on the Athletics Steering Committee for Viking Bold. 

“The journey to 2030 has always included Augustana competing at the DI level,” Billeter said. “That is still our goal. Due to the Summit League’s decision, I have actually been telling our recruits our president’s vision remains, yet we are definitely a DII program at this time.” 

With DI being a goal but not a certainty in Augustana’s future, incoming recruits choose to join the program without knowing what the process is going to look like. 

“I took a visit to Augie in the fall of 2019,” freshman baseball player Ethan Sannes said. “The visit was spectacular. I was very happy to see that Augie invests in their sports.”

Sannes is a pitcher from Brainerd, Minnesota, who, like other recruits, came in with the likelihood of DI being a strong possibility. 

“Although it was never fully promised,” Sannes said, “I was under the impression that it was more likely the university goes Division I than stays in DII.” 

Now on campus, Sannes said that he wished to be part of a DI program sooner, but he understands the importance of athletics succeeding now so that he still has the chance later in his college career. 

“Being at Augie has already helped me push out of my boundaries and meet new people,” Sannes said. “As a majority of students I meet are athletes, it’s not too hard to find connections with them.” 

Even with athletics uncertain of the road ahead, short term and long term, there’s still plenty of hope from inside the department. 

“I personally feel Augustana is [in] a very good DI situation due to a couple of key factors,” Billeter said. “Not every institution seeking DI has, mainly, an outstanding all-around private university in a DI type metro area like Sioux Falls. Our community, with its resources and facilities, continues to impress all who come here with what we are able to offer and do.” 

With Billeter’s experience at the DI level, he understands what’s necessary to make DI work not only from the top with administration and the president but at ground level with the students and athletes themselves. 

“It won’t be easy, as nothing is,” Billeter said. “But I know as a coach I always push my student athletes to be the best they can be and to reach for uncomfortable heights that, once achieved, will bring great pride and accomplishment. I don’t know how I can constantly seek this for my players if I am not pushing myself to do the same.”

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