November 12, 2022

A Brand New Ballgame

A Brand New Ballgame

A Brand New Ballgame

By Tucker Mitchell  |  November 2022  |  FMU Focus Magazine Fall/Winter 2022

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When Francis Marion’s leaders decided to move the university’s athletic teams to a new conference last year, everyone believed it was a good idea.

One year later, consider those beliefs confirmed.

FMU’s first season as a member of Conference Carolinas exceeded expectations. A reduced travel load meant fewer missed classes for Patriot student athletes, and it saved a few bucks, too. FMU’s new colleagues proved to be a welcoming and collegial group. And the Patriots found the competition challenging but hardly overwhelming.

FMU won one conference title in its first year of Conference Carolinas play (women’s volleyball) and narrowly missed two others (men’s soccer, women’s tennis).

“It was a very good year for us,” says Murray Hartzler, FMU’s director of athletics. “Other than winning a few more here and there, it’s really hard to see how it could have gone much better. Conference Carolinas is a great fit for us. We’re looking forward to a long and fruitful future here.”

In the Works

University officials began pondering a move several years ago. FMU enjoyed many fine seasons, and plenty of success, as a member of the Peach Belt Conference, a league it helped found more than 30 years ago. But, as is the case in so much of intercollegiate athletics, the Peach Belt changed over time.

When the league was founded in 1990, its members were split geographically between Georgia and South Carolina. Over time, however, the league became more and more Georgia-centric, as more members came from that state’s centrally administered state college system. Additionally, some members grew into massive schools whose mission and values diverged from those shared by the PBC’s original core.

FMU President Dr. Fred Carter, says exploring new affiliation just made sense.

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“The world changes over time,” says Carter. “FMU has matured as a university. A conference that fit at one stage in our history isn’t necessarily going to fit at another. We had many good years in the Peach Belt, but as we looked around we saw some attractive options in conferences comprised of schools with more appealing values and attributes. It just made sense.”

FMU found a willing and useful partner early on in its search in fellow Peach Belt member Pembroke State University. PSU is less than an hour’s drive from FMU. The two schools enjoyed a nice athletic rivalry both before, and during the time, they were both Peach Belt members.

Like FMU, Pembroke was feeling a little disenfranchised by the Peach Belt’s westward focus. Joining forces with FMU made sense. The two schools could share information on their exploration and the pairing offered interested conference and enticing possibility.

The strong, existing relationship between FMU President Dr. Fred Carter, and Pembroke Chancellor Dr. Robin Gary Cummings also helped pushed the partnership forward.

Several conferences that met the general criteria were considered, but the exploration quickly focused on Conference Carolinas, a venerable organization that can trace its roots back more than 90 years. Conference Carolinas’ leaders were on board from the start. They were looking to expand and FMU and PSU were good fits both academically and geographically.

Pembroke and FMU immediately became the largest schools in Conference Carolinas, but are generally in the same ballpark as their new peers. Conference Carolinas’ schools share similar visions and missions, too. Almost all the schools offer educational opportunities to communities very much in need of same, and they focus on offering the personal touch. Classes are small, relationships are close.

“It’s more of a feeling than anything,” says Carter. “The schools in this conference feel like us. It’s very welcoming.”

Natural affinities meant that discussions moved quickly. The news was announced in the spring of 2020, in the midst of the COVID pandemic. FMU began making plans for its first season in its new conference in 2021-2022.

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Less Travel, More Class

The most obvious and tangible reason for moving to a new conference involved geography and simply mathematics.

Because the Peach Belt was moving westward, FMU road trips were becoming longer and more taxing for its athletes. Conference Carolinas’ schools are located primarily in North Carolina and South Carolina. It was clear FMU would save time and money playing in the new league.

Hartzler says that while those economies played out as expected. Travel in general was reduced — the average road trip dropped by more than 50 miles per trip — and overnight trips fell even more dramatically.

Every FMU athletic team faced seven all-but-guaranteed overnight trips while playing in the Peach Belt. In its first year in Conference Carolinas, FMU teams needed just two overnight trips to visit every team in the conference, although a few more were occasionally needed depending upon sport, game time and the like.

“It’s been a big boost for our kids,” says Hartzler. “We’ve always taken our athlete’s academics very seriously. Not missing class, and being fresher for all your classes, make a big difference.”

Competition and Collegiality

FMU’s first season of competition in Conference Carolinas was successful. The Patriots won a championship, just missed on a couple more, and were competitive across the board. FMU’s leadership didn’t expect anything different, but Hartzler did find one ember in the league’s overall competitive fire interesting.

“Maybe it’s just one season, but it appeared to me, and some of our coaches, that a number of teams (in Conference Carolinas), and in particular teams that had been near the bottom of the standings in certain sports, really picked up the pace last year,” says Hartzler. “I don’t know this, but I think we had something to do with that. We played a lot of these schools before in non-conference games. Pembroke did, too. I think they knew the kinds of teams would we bring.”

More adjustment and future changes in competitive balance are likely. But Hartzler thinks FMU is well-positioned to handle anything the new conference can throw it.

He’s hopeful that another pleasing aspect of the new league doesn’t change: the collegial relations between members.

“If I had to say anything surprised me that would be it,” says Hartzler. “They’ve been very professional and very welcoming ever since we began discussions. And that really hasn’t changed since we started playing games. It’s really a welcome change.”

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