It was late November in St. Cloud, Minn., and Dwight Neibling was spooked — not necessarily by what was falling out of the sky, but by the magnitude in which it was falling.
The longtime MIAA football referee, brought to town to officiate an NCAA Division II playoff game last season between Wayne State and St. Cloud State, had watched a light dusting at kickoff turn into a full-on blizzard in a matter of hours.
Even for someone from the Midwest — Neibling hails from Overland Park — it was disconcerting.
“It’s an eerie feeling, because it’s snowing so hard you begin to lose your sense of sound and of where things are at,” said Neibling, in his 23rd season as an official. “In my whole career, I’ve probably never experienced anything like that.
“We ended up with an hour-long halftime for them to clear the snow off the field and within minutes of starting to play again it was like the grounds crew hadn’t even touched it. It snowed six inches from the start of the game to the end … that can mess with your head a little bit when you’re out in it.”
Experiences like what happened to Neibling could become the postseason norm for MIAA schools after a shift in the NCAA Division II regions that moves the league’s 15 schools – including Pittsburg State, Emporia State, Washburn and Fort Hays – from the South Central Region with the Texas-based Lone Star Conference to the Central Region, with the newly-formed Great American Conference and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference starting with the 2012-2013 school year.
The Great American, formed in 2011, has 11 members all based in Arkansas and Oklahoma and formed from schools that used be in the Lone Star Conference and Gulf Coast Conference.
The Northern Sun has 16 members – nine in Minnesota, two each in South Dakota and North Dakota and one in Iowa and Nebraska. MIAA members Lindenwood and Nebraska-Kearney are actually associated members of the Northern Sun in women’s swimming and diving.
The NCAA Division II comprises eight regions for postseason play: the Central, South Central, Atlantic, South, East, Southeast, Midwest and West.
“I feel like we benefit because we are right in the middle,” MIAA commissioner Bob Boerigter said. The big, big change is obviously in who you will see in the postseason, but as membership changes nationally the regional assignments are something we have to always reconsider.“
With the NCAA encouraging Division II schools to schedule non-conference games within their region, MIAA fans should get used to visits from – and visiting – places like St. Cloud, Duluth, Minn., Sioux Falls, S.D. (which has two schools in the Northern Sun) and Minot, N.D.
The regional switch also brings together arguably the two most powerful Division II football conferences in the country together – teams from the Northern Sun and MIAA have played in the national championship game nine out of the last 10 times and have won the last four titles, including Pittsburg State in 2011.
“The formation of the Great American forced the shift,” said Pittsburg State athletic director Jim Johnson, who Boerigter succeeded as MIAA commissioner. “In the end, I don’t think our fans are going to notice that big of a difference from playing at Abilene (Texas) Christian to playing at Minnesota-Duluth. They’ll just be happy to still be playing.”