South Dakota State's Clay Carlson at the 2021 Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Since 2000, there have been six colleges with wrestling programs that have successfully transitioned from Division II to Division I. Unfortunately, there have also been three schools that dropped their wrestling programs during the transition between divisions. Currently, four schools are in the process of transitioning: California Baptist, Bellarmine, Lindenwood, and Queens University. With these schools all at different stages in this process, I wanted to look at how different wrestling teams have historically done with the transition. The six schools that have been competing at Division I after a transition from a lower division within the last twenty years are Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Northern Colorado, SIUE, and Long Island University.
SIUE was a dominant DII school at one point, winning multiple titles and consistently placing near the top 10. However, the program was briefly cut but brought back in 2003. They struggled to find the same success but made the move to DI starting in 2009. They competed in the NCWA four times while transitioning and placed in the top 10 three times. Since then, they have had 14 qualifiers and 1 All-American. They are also bringing in an improved recruiting class with two on the Big Board for both 2022 and 2023.
Long Island University is the most recent school to complete the DI transition and is a younger team after being restarted in 2013. In DII, they had seven qualifiers and four All-Americans. Since joining the EIWA in 2020, they are still looking for their first qualifier.
Gardner-Webb began competing in DI in 2001 and became eligible for the postseason in 2003. Since then, they have had 31 NCAA qualifiers and tied for 1st in the Southern Conference in 2016. Before moving to DI, they had achieved four All-Americans at the DII level.
North Dakota State, South Dakota State, and Northern Colorado all made the move to DI at the same time in 2004 and became postseason eligible in 2007. All three teams were contenders at Division II while they were there. North Dakota State had won 4 titles in 1988, 1998, 2000, and 2001, and was almost always in the top 25. South Dakota State and Northern Colorado finished in the top ten more seasons than not in the decade before the transition.
Originally, all three teams were a part of the Western Wrestling Conference which was absorbed by the Big 12 in 2016. During that time, NDSU won the conference for the final two years. They've also had 58 DI qualifiers and 4 All-Americans historically. SDSU has had 41 qualifiers and 6 All-Americans, including a champ in Seth Gross. Northern Colorado has had 38 qualifiers and 1 All-American. While none of these teams has challenged for the Big 12 title yet, they are all bringing in strong recruiting classes with multiple MatScouts Big Boarder's.
California Baptist will be joining the Big 12 next season after completing the four-year reclassification process. Since the program started again in 2009, the school spent time as an NAIA program then reclassified to DII for three years. In that time, they won two NWCA championships. At DII, they placed in the top six the final three years before beginning to again reclassify to DI. While they have not been able to compete in the postseason yet, they have a 5-29 dual record against DI opponents since 2019, including wins over Cal Poly and Drexel.
Now to take a look at where the other three schools that are still early in the process are and what we can expect to see at first. Bellarmine began competing in Division I in the 2021 season, while Lindenwood and Queens University should begin DI competition next year.
Bellarmine only started in 2016, and in four years, improved their dual record from 1-12 their first year to a 16-11 record over their last two years. They had two national qualifiers in that time as well but no All-Americans. Since moving to DI, they are 3-23 in duals with wins over Presbyterian and SIUE. While competing in the Southern Conference, they finished 7th last year. However, they could have been considered as a young team with only one senior. This year, they will likely see a similar schedule with a lot of duals and opens. Currently, Bellarmine is the only Division I school in Kentucky with a wrestling program.
Queens University wrestling is a newer team as well having only started in 2019. In that time, they've gone 13-45 in duals, including two losses to DI teams. They've had 7 national qualifiers and an All-American. The school currently plans on joining the Atlantic Sun Conference, which is the same conference that Bellarmine is in. Since the conference itself doesn't have wrestling, it would make sense to see Queens join the Southern Conference with Bellarmine. Queens will be the seventh school in North Carolina to sponsor wrestling.
Lindenwood University sponsors both men's and women's wrestling teams. As of now, they would be the fourth DI team to have a women's team. Their men's team won five championships while in NAIA, and were two-time runner-ups at the NCWA championships while moving to DII. In eight tournaments at Division II, they have finished in the top 20 five times, including three top 10 finishes. They've had 35 national qualifiers, 18 All-Americans, and 3 National champs. Their women's team has been around since 2009 and has multiple All-Americans including multiple-time World Team member Victoria Francis. The school is moving to the Ohio Valley Conference which doesn't have wrestling. This means Lindenwood could be independent for a while, but I think they would be a great fit in the MAC.
While these three schools are still in the process of moving to DI, there are several schools to look at and see what fans may expect. For some, the transition is smoother and more successful than for others. It will be interesting to see more new competitors in the sport at the Division I level.