SRU working hard behind the scenes to host NCAA Fall Festival


The Men's Atlantic Regional race at the start

The Bob O’Connor Golf Course in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park is the site of the NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Championship, Dec. 1, one of the events hosted by Slippery Rock University as part of the NCAA Division II Fall Festival.

Nov. 26, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Hosting one postseason sporting event is no easy task, with the competitors and the weather not known until a few days before it starts. Imagine the challenge of hosting six championships in one day. So, when SportsPITTSBURGH put in a bid to host the NCAA Division II Fall Championships Festival, officials from the sports division of Allegheny County's tourism promotion agency sought out a capable partner in Slippery Rock University to help win the bid and make the festival a success.

Although all the sporting events will take place 50 miles south of campus in Pittsburgh, SRU is serving as the co-host institution for the festival, which will include six championships, Nov. 29 to Dec. 1.

"We want to increase our exposure in Pittsburgh and this is a great opportunity to do that," said Paul Lueken, SRU's athletic director. "It's also great experience for our staff. It stretches us, but it's a good stretch."

Jacobs headshot


SRU coaches, athletic trainers, students and other staff and administrators are all rallying together to welcome the nation's top Division II teams.

SRU is helping administer the national championships for men's and women's cross country, Dec. 1, at the Bob O'Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park, as well as the semifinals and finals for field hockey, Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 at Duquesne University's Rooney Athletic Field. Festival co-host Clarion University is administering the women's volleyball championship at the A.J. Palumbo Center and the men's and women's soccer championships at Highmark Stadium.

Planning for the event started two years when SportsPITTSBURGH put together its bid to the NCAA. Each year the NCAA combines either the fall, winter or spring season sports championships at one location for its Division II championships.

"Slippery Rock University has a been a great partner from the very beginning of the NCAA bid process," said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director, SportsPITTSBURGH. "The University's previous experience in hosting NCAA events, strong athletic program and enthusiastic students have been a real asset. As we prepare for the start of the Division II National Championships Festival, we expect great success because of great partners like SRU."

"SportsPITTSBURGH has been fantastic to work with and very accommodating," Lueken said. "It's been a great relationship and we're glad they asked us to be a partner."

Pulling off an event of this magnitude requires many people collaborating. SRU head field hockey coach Julie Swiney, who serves on the NCAA's games committee, enlisted her staff and players to assist with the event, and Athletic Department staff like Travis Wunsch coordinated student-worker transportation to Pittsburgh and helped set up the field hockey goals. Jon Holtz, director of athletic communication, and his staff are integral parts of the efforts.

Then there's head cross country John Papa, who, as the race director, designed both the 6-kilometer women's course and 10-kilometer men's course.

"The running of the meet is the simple part, but all the pomp and circumstance takes a lot of planning, thinking what could go wrong and fixing problems before they occur," said Papa, who previously set up courses on SRU's campus and at Cooper's Lake Campground when SRU hosted the national cross country championships in 2001, 2008 and 2011. "With our sport there are so many variables with the course and how tight the turns are. There are so many little things that could go wrong, but we're making sure it's as good as it can be."

There are things Papa can't control, like if it snows, but Papa is marking the course with a painted blue line, instead of the typical white line, and he has about 100 SRU cross country and track and field athletes volunteering as course marshals, ready to clear the path for more than 250 runners.

The volunteers also help set up and tear down tents, banners and 1,500-feet of temporary fencing. The NCAA, the City of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon, Inc., are combining to help with other tasks, like providing parking, shuttles, hospitality tents, athletic trainers, timing services and the awards.

"You've got to be on your feet and ready for any issue and have back-up plans on top of back-up plans," said Tyler Jacobs, a senior sport management major from Vancouver, Washington, who is one of more than 40 students who either work for the Athletic Department, are fulfilling practicum requirements as sport management majors or, like the student-athletes, are volunteering.

Jacobs is helping manage and sell nearly $50,000 in NCAA championship merchandise and apparel available at the events.

"This experience will help me better understand the role the NCAA plays in managing their championship events," said Jacobs, who has accepted a semester-long internship at Texas Christian University in the spring, where he will work with TCU's game management and facility operations staff. "This is my first exposure working with an NCAA Championship event. I want to stay in college athletics and I love the craziness and the 12-hour days."

Like many people who work in athletics, Jacobs is learning that one of the rewards is the satisfaction of hosting a successful event.

"You have to have people who want to work hard and are excited about it and we have those people here at The Rock" Lueken said. "We approach everything from the point of view, that we will do our best to make it a good event for everyone involved."

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |