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Sports Victories at Colleges Resonate Long After the Crowd Goes Home

On Nov. 18, a long-lived and very competitive rivalry came to an explosive, high-scoring culmination in an intense grudge match that saw leads change more times than Madonna in concert.

For the competitors in this game, the teams were playing for respect, recognition and the joy of the game.

Did you think I was talking about Ohio State vs. Michigan? Not a chance. But I do think both Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler would have appreciated the fiery competitiveness of the NCAA Division III national volleyball championship, in which Juniata College triumphed over Washington University for our second national championship in three years.

Certainly there was a lot at stake for the Buckeyes and Wolverines at Ohio State's famous "Horseshoe" stadium. In the short term, they were playing for a national championship, probably a Heisman trophy for OSU quarterback Troy Smith and a variety of National Football League contracts for a dozen or so athletes from both teams. That's not counting the other rewards. The national champion in football can expect between $6 and $8 million in merchandising sales, from jerseys to commemorative footballs. There are benefits beyond monetary values as well, because excellence is sports often lifts the image of an entire academic institution.

For the competitors in this game, the teams were playing for respect, recognition and the joy of the game.

At Juniata, our women's volleyball team has been a Division III national power for two decades and has received more honors than Steven Spielberg, such as All-America players, a Hall of Fame coach and an undefeated conference record for 26 years. Our two recent national championships, however, have given the college an extra lift. Here's how winning a national championship, even in a "small" sport, can bring a college into sharper focus.

--The championship gives us fleeting but vital national exposure. At the end of the year CBS Sports produces a sports special honoring all NCAA champions, which helps us not only in recruiting other athletes but also gets our name in front prospective students. Earlier this year, one of our volleyball players, sophomore Amber Thomas, who coincidentally was Most Valuable Player of the championship tournament, was featured in Sports Illustrated, putting Juniata in another national forum.

--A winning athletic program also inspires alumni to give sports-related gifts. In recent years, former athletes and alumni have refurbished our baseball baseball field, provided a new entrance for our football stadium and air-conditioning for our gym.

--Juniata has a national reputation for its science programs, but a rising athletic program also can bring in talented student athletes in other disciplines, which helps raise the reputation of all our programs. One of our former volleyball players was named College Division Academic All-American of the Year as an accounting major. Studies are so important to our college and our coaches that Heather Pavlic, our associate head coach for volleyball, proctored exams for eight players the morning of the semi-finals.

--A winning athletic program can certainly help a small college attract students from beyond its traditional recruiting areas. Our volleyball team has recruited students from California, North Dakota, Hawaii and Michigan. Enrolling athletes from other states spreads the college's reputation into that state, where other students, athletic or not, will hear about our academic programs when students return home.

--Athletic programs in general can also increase ethnic and international diversity on campus. Right now Juniata athletes include Iranian-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Latinos. In the past we've had athletes from Europe and South America compete for us.

--Finally, winning a national championship, particularly if you defeat an institution as well-known as Washington University, raises our college's name recognition with other colleges and universities. Although this is arcane information for almost everybody but college presidents, the more familiar a "name" a college has, the better the college does in such polls as U.S. News and World Report and Washington Monthly. This in turn gives the college more exposure to students beyond Pennsylvania.

So, when Ohio State competes for the national championship (perhaps against Michigan) in the new year, whatever football program comes out on top will provide a metaphorical boost to the rest of the university.

While Juniata might never sell $8 million worth of volleyball jerseys, the reverberations of Juniata's victory in volleyball will echo well beyond the last spiked ball. Indeed, a champion sports team, no matter what the NCAA Division, allows its college or university to gain big yardage in name recognition, recruiting and providing a top education for athletic students. Which lasts a much longer time than an NFL contract.

Thomas Kepple Jr. is president of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa.