Mary Harrison, Campus Carrier sports editor
Viking student athletes will face challenging new conference competition in two years, although the two future members are familiar faces to the rest of the Southern Athletic Association (SAA).
Trinity University and Southwestern University, both located in south-central Texas, are set to join the SAA in Fall 2025, the conference’s President’s Council announced early this month. These are the first two institutions to join the SAA since its formation in 2012, raising the number of members from eight to 10.
According to Steven Briggs, Berry College president and current chair of the SAA President’s Council, Trinity and Southwestern will now begin the two-year process of officially leaving the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC), the conference that all members of the SAA except Berry left to form the SAA.
“You want to compete against and be surrounded by schools that push you, that challenge you, that are highly regarded,” Briggs said. “Trinity and Southwestern add two more.”
Discussions have occurred before because of the close connection between the schools and the SAA, Briggs said, but they began to carry more weight in mid-Fall 2022.
The SCAC decided last year to sponsor football for all schools in its conference, forcing the two institutions to choose between committing to their conference for football or becoming members of the SAA.
Southwestern was already set to join Trinity as an affiliate member for SAA football in the Fall of 2023. Affiliate schools can win conference championships in one or two sports not sponsored by their own conference, which comes with an automatic ticket to post-season National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competition.
Ultimately, Briggs said, Trinity and Southwestern decided they more closely aligned with the institutions in the SAA than with the direction of their current conference.
Changes are common among conferences in the Division III, the largest NCAA division, according to Berry Athletic Director Angel Mason, especially since rising prices have schools trying to minimize travel costs.
“With all the [Division III] schools in the South, we try to have good relationships even if we create some complications by mixing the conferences up occasionally,” Briggs said.
Adding Trinity and Southwestern benefits the SAA because it secures the future for an automatic bid to the NCAA post-season for the conference’s winner. A minimum number of schools within a conference are required to sponsor a sport so that its champion automatically qualifies for the season, Mason said.
Although the NCAA lowered the number in recent years to six for most sports, having only eight member institutions made the conference more vulnerable to unexpected changes, such as the potential closing of Birmingham Southern College in May.
“You just don’t want to get too small,” Mason said. “There’s security in numbers.”
Playing the Trinity Lions and Southwestern Pirates will also increase the strength of schedule within the SAA, which increases the odds that non-conference champions would win an at-large bid for the post-season. Both teams have made multiple post-season appearances across several sports.
“The bar for competitive excellence raises drastically,” Mason said. “We have to be prepared, if our goals are still to be the top two in the conference, to do what needs to be done to compete at that level.”
Indoor volleyball is one of Berry’s programs that will face the most intensified competition. According to Head Coach Caitlyn Moriarty, Trinity is a consistent top-five finisher in volleyball nationwide, an opponent who the Vikings have never beat, and both teams currently have legendary head coaches.
However, Moriarty said her team already prepares to pay the best, both week-to-week and with a challenging schedule, which she said is set to be the hardest nationwide in Fall 2024.
“I don’t think that we’ll suddenly train harder, or game-plan harder,” Moriarty said. “I think we’ve always tried to treat every opponent with the level of respect they deserve and give them our best.”
Raising the visibility of SAA schools in Texas, a state that Mason said is expected to continue growing in the number of high school graduates over the next decade, is also a great benefit to the conference’s recruiting game.
“There are Berry students in Texas, if they actually knew what and where and who Berry was,” Mason said. “Starting to get back out to that area and being able to showcase what we have the offer is appealing.”
For football, who already plays Trinity in Texas every two years, having two conference opponents in the same state is not expected to increase travel costs. Mason said having fewer non-conference games could minimize travel for programs, overall, by ensuring that Texas is the furthest most will have to travel.
Other programs, like volleyball, could face a major change in logistics to accommodate the wider-spread conference, potentially moving from playing each team twice, both home and away, to only once.
However, Briggs said that Trinity and Southwestern joined the SAA because they are likeminded, committed to maximizing class time for athletes, a residential experience and mutual respect.
“Even though we could be pretty hard against some of the other schools, in the end we like our conference, we like the schools in it,” Briggs said. “It’s about trying to do things the right way and with character.”