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ST. GEORGE — With a shout of "Let’s go, Blazers," Diane Lyman took her seat amongst the hundreds assembled Friday afternoon in the Old Gym at Dixie State University after speaking about the importance of higher education and athletics at public universities.
Her husband Dennis had previously had to drop out of school to help support her family, but the couple learned early on the importance of education. Over the years, they’ve fallen in love with Dixie State athletics, notably the team’s powerhouse junior college and the NCAA Division II softball program.
Her remarks, response and generous donation from the family of $1 million to help upgrade the school’s softball complex ushered in a new era for the university.
"Dennis and I have always thought that the key to success in this life is education," Diane Lyman said. "It’s one of the very few things we can take with us forever.
"We are happy and delighted that we are able to build a venue for these fine young women."
Oh, and a move to NCAA Division, with the formal acceptance of an invitation from the Western Athletic Conference in front of over 1,000 students, athletes and alums in the Old Gym on campus, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd and former NBA point guard and Dixie State Junior College star Lionel Hollins.
The school will compete in 14 sports within the WAC, while the university’s football program will move upward as an FCS independent. They Trailblazers will begin a four-year reclassification process in June of 2020, making them eligible for postseason competition with the 2024-25 season.
From start to finish, first contact with former Utah Valley president Matt Holland to Friday’s announcement, the entire deal took about eight months, Dixie State athletic director Jason Boothe said.
"It happened very quickly," Boothe said, noting a feasibility study conducted last November that included several investigations from an earlier NCAA Division II strategic plan that athletic department had conducted before July. "But it really wasn’t until December when we figured we could do this. Then we got an official invitation and began putting an event together.
"It’s come together pretty quick."
Even the league the Trailblazers are departing was mindful of the move, and understanding, as well.
"The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference has been in communication with Dixie State University throughout their membership review," RMAC commissioner Chris Graham said in a statement. "We appreciate their transparency throughout the process and wish them well in their transition. The strength of RMAC membership has produced, and will continue to produce, nationally competitive programs by providing the best student-athlete experience possible."
To begin its Division I football journey, the university immediately announced a three-game series with nearby Southern Utah. The Trailblazers and Thunderbirds will meet Sept. 5, 2020, at Eccles Coliseum — the first day of Division I play, and a “mere 600 days away,” Boothe said — as well as Sept. 3, 2022, in Cedar City, with a return game to St. George played Sept. 7, 2024.
“We’re excited to renew the rivalry with Dixie State, and I’m sure it will be something that excites both communities for a very long time,” SUU coach Demario Warren said in a statement.
Additional arrangements are in negotiations with Montana State and Weber State. Potential scheduling series with other schools, including Utah, Utah State, and BYU, could also materialize because of the move to Division I.
A traveling trophy was even planned between Boothe and UVU athletic director Vince Otuopal, who was in attendance and presented his soon-to-be WAC rival with a Wolverine baseball cap — a gesture that was quickly returned by the red-clad Boothe.
That got another rise out of the crowd — one that the Trailblazers have sometimes struggled to find as they’ve languished as the only Division II team in the state of Utah before Westminster College transitioned from NAIA in 2015.
The community was all-in on a move to the Western Athletic Conference, the league founded by BYU and Utah, grown by Utah State, and now housing a vagabond collection of universities like Utah Valley.
“It was very positive, and that was key. We needed help and buy-in,” Boothe said. “But we knew what the answer would be, and it came back and matched. They wanted to bring in programs that they know.
“We found that as a Division II school, in 13 years, they haven’t engaged and bought in to Division II like it is in other areas of the country. We’ve been all alone in the state until Westminster just came in. The programs in the RMAC and the PacWest are great programs, but they don’t have that name recognition like D-II schools in the middle of Michigan or the East. Our closest competitor is 4.5 hours away, to Cal State San Bernardino or Colorado Mesa.
"We struggled with it. But this now brings instant credibility and instant awareness of who we are playing from our fans. They bought it."
The Trailblazers will become the ninth member of the WAC when they join for the 2020-21 season, contingent on the university formally reclassifying from Division I to Division II — a formality, according to university officials.
Dixie State also fits into the current WAC footprint, sandwiched between current members Utah Valley in Orem and new addition Cal Baptist in Irvine, California and Grand Canyon in Phoenix.
Dixie State is very similar to those former PacWest rivals that have now made the move to the WAC.
“Dixie State falls much in the same pattern, and it’s very similar in a lot of regards,” WAC commissioner Hurd told KSL.com. “Many of the facilities here are already Division I facilities, there is great community support, and there is great leadership and commitment at the top.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much of a role that plays. You have to have leadership and commitment, and that is what is here.”
If the opportunity to move to the WAC had been available even as little as two years ago, the Trailblazers might not have made the conference switch.
But last spring, athletic director Jason Boothe met with many of his counterparts at Utah Valley, and even former UVU president Matt Holland, about the possibility of joining the Wolverines in Division I.
Would it be possible? Sure, but the thought had scarcely crossed Boothe’s mind.
But then, things started falling into place.
“This community is so unique, and so supportive, as we demonstrated in the event today, in how they have supported this school from day one,” Boothe said. “They saved this school way back in the day … and time and again, they stepped up.
“I’m confident that they will step up again.”
Even an early leak within the athletic department — to various social media forums, message boards and confirmed by KSL.com on Wednesday — couldn’t dampen university official’s excitement for Friday.
“A secret is only a secret if it can be kept between two people — and one of those two people is dead,” Dixie State president Richard Williams joked in front of the crowd.
But that same excited, eager community that greeted the move to Division I with laughter, applause and countless standing ovations happened.
And Williams knew his group — from athletic directors to board of trustee members to his own office and councils — had made that right decision.
Any doubt he might have had vanished.
“This decision was not an easy one,” Williams said. “But it helped when we walked in and saw how many people were screaming, wouldn’t sit down ... It was thrilling to see the support that we have.
“It’s almost similar to the experience we had when we unveiled the Trailblazer identity. Our community comes out to support Dixie State and our future's so bright with that support. It’s always been here, and it’s only going to grow.”