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UALR joins the Sun Belt

The University of Arkansas-Little Rock's board of trustees voted unanimously on Wednesday night to accept an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference beginning next school year. UALR will replace Old Dominion University to maintain the number of Sun Belt members at eight, including the University of South Florida. ODU will join the Colonial Athletic Association at the end of this year.

"The community, the school, the coaches are just as excited as can be," said UALR chancellor James Young following the trustees' 8-0 vote. "The Trans America Athletic Conference was great, but we've worked hard to improve our program and we're thrilled to be part of the Sun Belt Conference."

The Sun Belt general assembly voted unanimously to extend the invitation on Tuesday after discussing UALR's qualifications, said USF athletic director Paul Griffin, a member of the expansion committee that visited UALR last month on a two-day fact-finding mission.

Griffin said UALR fits in "perfectly " with the other Sun Belt schools _ an emerging university in a growing metropolis (about 475,000) whose flagship athletic program is men's basketball.

"They're definitely going to add strength to our prominent sport," Griffin said. "There's no doubting they'll enhance us there."

The UALR Trojans have reached the post-season the past five years (the NCAA Tournament in 1986, 1989 and 1990, and the NIT in 1987-88). No Sun Belt team has qualified for post-season play the last five years.

"Arkansas-Little Rock has had a lot of success in recent years, in their conference, regionally and nationally," USF basketball coach Bobby Paschal said. "There's no question it brings good things to the league."

And not just in basketball. Several of the school's other 12 varsity programs are nationally prominent.

The baseball team finished third in the Trans America Athletic Conference last year, behind Stetson and Georgia Southern. Both those schools advanced to the College World Series.

The men's tennis team has won six conference championships in the past eight years, while the women's team won NAIA national titles in 1984 and 1985 and has finished in the top 10 seven straight years. UALR's six women's teams currently compete at the NAIA level since the Trans America has no championships.

The volleyball team finished fifth in the NAIA national tournament in 1986 and 1987.

The Trojans' water polo team has advanced to the eight-team NCAA Tournament the past two years.

The Sun Belt has championships for both men and women in basketball, cross-country, tennis and golf. It also has soccer and baseball and women's volleyball.

That means UALR lacks three sports _ men's and women's golf and women's basketball, which was dropped after the 1987-88 year. ODU had the premier women's basketball program in the Sun Belt, advancing to the NCAA tournament eight of the nine years it has been played.

"It's not close to being an even trade if you look at women's basketball, but they've made the commitment to restore it in the next couple of years," Sun Belt assistant commissioner John Iamarino said of UALR. "They didn't drop it because they didn't want it; they dropped it because it wasn't cost effective. They had no conference championship and they were a little isolated. They'll bring it back and (although) it won't be like ODU, they bring so many other things to the table. We're very excited about this."