Cleary University to join NAIA for 2018-19 school year

The Cleary University softball team takes on Lourdes University in a doubleheader at Parker Middle School on Monday, The Cougars announced Monday they will be an associate member of the NAIA for the 2017-18 school year. The school hopes to be a full member in 2018-19. (Photo b y Tim Robinson)
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HOWELL — In what school officials term “a great step,” Cleary University on Monday announced it will be a member of the National Association of Interscholastic Athletics (NAIA), beginning with the 2018-19 school year.

“It’s a great step for Cleary University athletics,” Cleary athletic director Ward Mullens said Monday. “It’s a great step for Cleary University. What it means is a bigger stage for our athletes to compete on a national level. It gives us a lot more recruiting power.”

Cleary will be an associate member of the NAIA for the 2017-18 school year and will retain its membership in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) next school year as well.

Cleary University athletic director Ward Mullens.

“We can’t compete in their national championships (as an associate member), and our students can’t be recognized as all-Americans in the NAIA,” Mullens said. “In the short term, we wanted to make sure that was covered, so we’re keeping dual membership in the USCAA until we become full active (NAIA) members.”

Operationally, Cleary teams already compete with NAIA teams across its program.

“It doesn’t change what we do on a day-to-day basis,” baseball coach Karl Kling said. “But it allows us to go into the community, and when we say we can play for a national championship, a lot more people know about the NAIA.”

The NAIA is much larger (246 schools vs. 81) and more of a national association, with teams across the U.S., as well as Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nearly a dozen Michigan small colleges are members of the NAIA, while Cleary is the lone Michigan college in the USCAA, whose schools are located mostly in the Northeast.

Once Cleary is a full NAIA member, Mullens said, school officials will look to join a conference.

The Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) would be a logical partner. It includes Concordia, Madonna and Lawrence Tech, all of which are short drives away.

“We’ve had conversations with the WHAC,” Mullens said. “Right now, they’re full, or as full as they can be.”

Mullens said Cleary might become part of a new conference which is under consideration by schools in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois.

“It’s a matter of finding the right fit for our student-athletes and our program,” he said.

Cleary University assistant softball coach Marty Smith, left, hits grounders between games of a doubleheader on Monday. The opponent, Lourdes University, is one of many NAIA schools already on the Cougars’ schedule. (Photo by Tim Robinson)

Softball coach Tim Bailey says joining a conference would make it easier to set up a schedule each season.

“We’ll play the same teams year after year,” he said. “It will be good to get to know people more. Half of our schedule will be home games, and over the last couple of years we’ve had to travel quite a bit. It will absolutely help in recruiting, too. When we’re talking to seniors, they want to know if the program is going to a (national) tournament. The NAIA is known everywhere, and that will help a bunch.”

Cleary will be at 17 sports in its program, with wrestling, competitive dance and tennis beginning next year. Basketball, volleyball and track are also being considered.

At the same time, university officials are working on finding sponsors and donors for the school’s first on-campus athletic facility, which would be located next to the school’s Wellness Center on Grand Oaks Drive in Genoa Township.

“It comes down to finding sponsorships and donors to help us put up a facility, and it’s a long process, ” Mullins said. “We have the land on our campus. It’s a matter of getting to where we can push dirt and put down (artificial) turf and do the things we want to do. I think you’ll see that stuff happen very soon, (but) a lot of conversations have to occur.”

Kling, who was the athletic director before trading jobs with then-sports information director Mullins in 2015, also is bullish on Cleary’s future.

“If we keep building something strong here, as we think we are, we don’t know what the future holds a decade from now,” he said. “It’s another step in our growth, and we’ll see where it takes us the next couple years. We’re very excited for the future of our university.”