ST. GEORGE — The Thunderbirds are heading to the Western Athletic Conference.
The conference announced on Thursday morning an expansion of five teams: four from Texas and Southern Utah University starting the 2022-23 season. It brings the conference to 13 teams and revives a staple sport in the conference as soon as next season. It also gives the local region an in-conference rivalry in Division I sports for the first time after Dixie State joined the WAC in 2020.
“I think having three WAC teams in the state of Utah will create some fun rivalries and really bring in some terrific crowds,” Southern Utah women’s basketball coach Tracy Sanders said in a release.
Also joining the conference are Abilene Christian University, Lamar University, Sam Houston University and Stephen F. Austin State University.
With Chicago State announcing its departure from the conference in 2022, the expanded conference map still presents friendlier travel for the Thunderbirds. With the exception of Seattle University, WAC schools are contained to the southwest in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Olympic sports will also be played in localized divisions, lowering the need for travel even further.
SUU officials say they believe the introduction of divisions will benefit the school in numerous ways.
“The majority of our teams will be playing in divisions, which will make a positive impact on student-athlete welfare due to decreased travel time,” Southern Utah Director of Athletics Debbie Corum said. “Also, it gives us a chance to win divisional championships, which will help elevate every team competitively.”
SUU will bring all of its sponsored sports with the exception of gymnastics, which will remain in the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference. The five-school expansion enables the WAC to revive sponsorship of football, which it discontinued following the 2012-13 season.
For the time being, seven WAC schools that sponsor football will compete in the Football Championship Subdivision. New Mexico State competes in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Conference commissioner Jeff Hurd said in the introductory press conference that they may be able to compete under the WAC title sooner rather than later and ahead of the schedule of the other 19 conference-sponsored sports.
The four Texas schools have received expedited departures from the Southland conference, he said.
“We have every intention, from the WAC standpoint, to bring them in as members in 21-22,” Hurd said. “We still have some protocols to go through, but that’s a formality. I know you can expect an announcement in the very near future that that’s officially the case.”
SUU will remain in the Big Sky in all sports in its final season, including football.
With the addition of SUU, the Western Athletic Conference now represents three of Utah’s six Division I athletics programs, alongside Utah Valley State and Dixie State. The other three schools are spread across two conferences. The WAC also has more Division I programs in the state of Texas than any other conference.
SUU is transitioning to the Western Athletic Conference after joining the Big Sky Conference in 2012. In its brief history as a member, the school has seven team conference titles and 59 individual. It will play out the remainder of the 2020-21 season and the entire 2021-22 season before completing the switch to the WAC.
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