Park Athletics pleased with first year in new conference


Nathan Dunn

Sophomore outside hitter Malaina Hensley sets up for a spike in the NAIA Opening Round against Indiana University East.

The Park University athletic department entered new territory this year, as it was their first year in the Heart of America Athletic Conference. While COVID-19 has been a major hurdle, leadership in the athletic department said they are still pleased with the first year in the conference.

Park had been in the American Midwest Conference since 2009. In that conference, they played other teams from Missouri and several from Arkansas.

In their debut year in the HAAC, the Pirates were represented by 14 teams, seven mens teams and seven womens teams. Of the eight teams that have already completed the entirety of their regular season and conference tournaments, women’s volleyball was the only team to win the HAAC regular season as well as their conference tournament.

For the spring sports, men’s and women’s golf have their conference tournament on April 26 and 27, men’s and women’s track and field have theirs on May 7 and May 8, baseball’s conference tournament begins on April 30 and softball begins on May 6.

“There are not any what we call bottom-feeders,” said Claude English, Park University director of athletics. “From that standpoint, the competition in this conference has been outstanding.”

According to English, one of the biggest reasons that Park was previously ineligible to join the HAAC was because a football program was required. Once that requirement dropped, English said that joining the conference was a natural fit since the institutions are so much closer than those in the AMC.

English also said that the HAAC offers more opportunities for natural rivalries to form since there are several schools within an hour of Park University.

“There could be a rivalry with MidAmerica, Baker or Benedictine later,” said Kenneth Norman Cooper, head coach of Park’s women’s basketball team. “You’ve got to build that up, and there’s got to be competitive games back and forth every year.”

Cooper said he was also pleased with traveling less in the new conference. He said that in the AMC he had road trips as long as nine hours, and they would have trips where they would leave on Wednesday and not get home until Sunday.

“I think the Heart of America Athletic Conference was a lot better for us money-wise, for the budget, and a lot better trip-wise where kids can stay in class take care of business,” Cooper said.

Next year will be different. Cooper, who said his team went a month without practicing in the middle of the season due to COVID-19 issues, said that he hopes to have a more successful year without COVID-19 interruptions.

English said he was proud of how Park handled this past year and that Park probably had the fewest number of positive cases and quarantine than any of the other schools in the conference.

“We are planning for fans, we are planning for everything like we’re going back to normal,” English said. “That is how we are preparing and hoping that will happen.”