Penn College has taken another step toward becoming an NCAA Division III member with Tuesday's announcement that the college was approved for exploratory membership.
The school announced in January it was pursuing NCAA Division III status.
"This is definitely a major step forward," Penn College director of athletics Scott Kennell said over a phone interview early Tuesday evening. "This is an important step not just at the athletic level, but for the entire institution. We are all excited."
"This is an exciting development for Penn College, Wildcat athletics and - most importantly - our students and student-athletes," chief student affairs officer Elliott Strickland said in an emailed press release. "Our athletics department, led by Scott Kennell, has done an incredible job during this process, and I think we are perfectly positioned for this opportunity."
Penn College will begin its one-year NCAA Division III exploratory status on Sept. 1. After this initial period, the college will consider pursuing a four-year provisional membership into Division III. The NCAA takes a maximum of four schools at the provisional stage per year and Kennell didn't know for sure how many schools at this time were pursuing membership status.
During the exploratory process, Kennell, who came to Penn College in June 2011, said the NCAA will make sure the college is following and familiarizing themselves with NCAA rules and exploring new conference affiliations.
Kennell said he and the Penn College administration have been in talks with a potential new conference but he wasn't ready to divulge any details at this time as the negotiations are ongoing.
Penn College has been a member of the Pennsylvania State University Athletic Conference since 2004 and competes in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association. The athletic programs will remain there for the 2013-14 academic year before possibly moving into a new conference in 2014-15.
Potential new conference landing spots for Penn College could be the North Eastern Athletic Conference or the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference. Both NCAA Division III conferences have Penn State branch campuses as members. Penn State-Abington, Penn State-Berks and Penn State-Harrisburg are in the NEAC, while Penn State-Altoona is a member of the AMCC.
The NEAC receives NCAA automatic qualifiers in five men's sports (baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and tennis) and six women's sports (basketball, soccer, softball, tennis, volleyball and lacrosse). The AMCC receives NCAA tournament qualifiers in men's and women's basketball, men's golf, men's and women's soccer, softball, men's and women's tennis and women's volleyball.
Should Penn College be welcomed into one of these two or another conference, it would not be eligible to qualify for any NCAA tournaments during its provisional four-year period though they could compete for any conference championships.
Penn College currently fields 12 intercollegiate varsity teams.
"One of the tough things right now is not being in the NCAA scares some students off a little bit," said Kennell, who has already met with Penn College coaches to review the NCAA rule book and offer advice on recruiting. "We've been drawing more interests with us having that NCAA tag and we hope a lot of student-athletes will consider us."
Some of Penn College's athletic teams will see facility improvements over the next couple of years including the lengthening of the basketball court inside Bardo Gymnasium this summer by 10 feet to comply with NCAA rules and a two-year strategic plan to give the school a field turf surface.
"It's exciting for the area with Lycoming already here," said Penn College assistant women's basketball coach Darrin Bischof, who expects the college to be able to broaden their recruiting base. "The quality of basketball will go up as will the quality (of play) in all the other sports."