UTM’s entrance into the OCAA has shaken up the school’s sports landscape and could well create a whole new sports culture on campus for years to come. Though the past few years have seen a rise in participation for campus recreation sports, the physical education department has wanted to develop a higher tier of athletic competition for some time to benefit students who want to avoid the long commute downtown to play for the Varsity Blues.

While these sudden changes may seem surprising to student athletes who never dreamed of competing on a varsity team, the department spent nearly 20 years attempting to join the college athletic association before being accepted in February.

As Ken Duncliffe, the director of physical education at UTM, recalls, it was in the late 1970s that UTM first ventured into the world of varsity. The athletic director at the time made a bid to join the OUA, the division in which the Blues currently play.

“We wanted to have our own varsity program,” says Duncliffe. The OUA turned UTM down, since each institution could only be represented by one varsity team. There could not be a Mississauga and St. George team competing in the same league.

Next, in the early 1990s, UTM attempted to join the OCAA solely for basketball. “We were very competitive in basketball and at that time the athletic director wanted to play highly competitive basketball,” says Duncliffe.

The OCAA bid was unsuccessful as well, so UTM’s athletic director opted for an alternative route. With faith that UTM’s basketball team could play at the highest level, the athletic department contacted the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in the U.S. in hopes of joining their league.

The league was equivalent to Division 3 NCAA, and would place UTM in the Northern loop division with the likes of Rochester, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, all the way down to the lower end of Ohio.

But the results from exhibition games played against the American teams were not as hoped. “They took what was then the most competitive basketball team [UTM] had and played some tournaments down there,” says Duncliffe. “We got annihilated.” UTM couldn’t beat rival universities that hired scouts to recruit top players and provided them with large scholarships.

As varsity program coordinator Jack Krist recalls, the travel was possibly the biggest nightmare of all. “We had one student forget his ID, so we had to leave him at the border while the bus proceeded without him,” says Krist. “It was just horrendous.” UTM was the only Canadian team that would participate in these exhibition games in the U.S. in basketball and, later, soccer.

After a series of failed attempts to get the varsity program off the ground, UTM waited until the time was right to try again. “There was always a desire that we could get our own varsity program here,” says Duncliffe. “Students have been asking for it for many years.”

Fast-forward to 2012, when U of T held a review and student consultation to entertain the possibility of having a Blues team housed at UTM, specifically men’s and women’s lacrosse and rugby. “When the results of the review came out, there was a lot of angst from some of the current athletes on those teams about coming to Mississauga to travel out here,” says Duncliffe. These issues led to the program scrapping the idea, although the UTSC campus now houses varsity baseball and tennis.

Throughout the creation of the RAWC in 2006, the surge in enrolment in the last two decades, and increased participation in sports, Duncliffe continually received requests for a UTM varsity program. After learning that schools like Trent, Lakehead, and Laurier had all approached the OCAA looking for entry, Duncliffe thought it was time UTM joined in.

In December 2013, Duncliffe made the pitch. The request was granted in February, and UTM became the 30th school in the association. “We thought it was the right time to try and play at the most competitive level, which is equivalent to the OUA in the college league,” Duncliffe states. “That is the road to how we got here.”

The OUA currently has 21 teams in its league, while the OCAA has 30, making the OCAA a much more competitive environment for student athletes.

Part of Duncliffe’s pitch to the OCAA was a five-year plan that would see UTM enter a number of sports one at a time. The indoor soccer, badminton, and cross country teams will officially kick off in the fall of 2015, and the new varsity teams at UTM won’t make it onto the courts until September 2017, when UTM enters men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball. “Those will be big spectator sports,” says Duncliffe.

Duncliffe is pleased with the talent brought in to oversee the new programs. “The coach we hired for the badminton team [Lam Trinh] has great credentials,” says Duncliffe. Trinh is a one-time Canadian Athletic Association Coach of the Year and was named All-Ontario Coach of the Year twice when he coached Humber.

Though there is no athletic scholarship available at the moment for joining the Varsity Eagles, Duncliffe and Krist see this as a definite possibility in the near future. “College recruits athletes and turns them into students,” says Duncliffe. “We’re looking for students and hoping they’re athletes.”

Duncliffe envisions a plan that would offer residence to students as well as tutoring if needed, a package the Office of the Registrar already offers to Blues football players who attend UTM.

Krist plans on implementing peer study groups, which would bring together Varsity Eagle players on different teams who share a course, if not a sport. “It makes for a family approach,” says Krist. “We’re trying to mix other athletes so that people can meet and identify and gain a better sense of community, which is what UTM has always been about.”

Once the varsity program is in full swing, athletes will need to meet new criteria in order to play on a team. For example, the department requires students to be full-time registered students at UTM, and will monitor student athletes on a weekly basis to ensure that they have an appropriate course load.

The Varsity Eagles will breathe new life into UTM sports and the participation options for students on campus. There are also hopes to retrofit the existing seating capacity to house a larger audience, for outdoor games especially. Duncliffe imagines that stronger competition will attract more student support.

Meanwhile, as for the south field, the plan is to maintain its condition and hopefully implement an artificial turf with a dome covering the field. This is a hope that Duncliffe and others have had on the table for a number of years, and it now seems more possible than ever.

“If we are able to move some of our field-based sports that we play in the gym [like indoor soccer] to a more appropriate surface year-round, it frees up more time [in the gym],” said Duncliffe. “It’s a win for everybody.”