With the NCAA’s annual Division I March Madness in full swing across the country, it is easy to overlook the importance of Division III athletics programs, like those at USM.

These fine young scholar-athletes are not preparing for professional sports careers, but their accomplishments on the playing field as well as in the classroom are inspirational.

In terms of wins and losses, USM, to date, has had a very successful year. Our women’s basketball team qualified for the NCAA National Tournament for the 25th time in 27 years of eligibility. This is a team that has won 20 or more games in 30 out of the last 31 seasons.

The wrestling team, to cite another example, recorded its best season ever, finishing 13-7, and USM’s women’s indoor track team won the Little East Conference Championship for the 12th consecutive year.

I am proud of each and every one of our 23 teams and 475 student-athletes. And it is not just because of their athletic accomplishments. These are remarkably well-rounded young men and women because of Division III’s philosophy of athletics as an integral part of the educational experience.

“It’s very important for us to teach self-discipline and a strong work ethic,” said longtime baseball coach Ed Flaherty, “because from those, everything else follows: commitment, leadership, respect and ethical conduct.” Flaherty has guided his teams to the NCAA Division III World Series six times and has won three national titles.

Athletic Director Al Bean, a USM alumnus, inductee to the USM Husky Hall of Fame, and president of the National Association of Division III Athletic Administrators, told me, “We need to remember that our students will not leave here for careers as professional athletes. So, it would be foolish for us not to commit to more than just athletics. We try to help each of our students grow and develop as a person.”

ENGAGED IN COMMUNITY SERVICE

To encourage that development, USM Athletics hosts a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a student-led group that initiates numerous community service programs. These students host an annual Halloween party for Gorham children and established the CARE (Courtesy Attitude Respect Everywhere) initiative that is delivered to local schools.

The Division III athletic administrators association has on several occasions named the USM organization one of the top three such community service programs in the nation. Indeed, USM’s Curtis Coleman of Bangor, a senior member of the men’s cross country and track and field team, was selected to serve as a representative to the national NCAA Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

The Division III focus on academic performance is nowhere stronger than at USM. As a result, our scholar-athletes have higher grade-point averages, retention and graduation rates than the USM student body at large.

Each year, an average of 110 of USM’s student-athletes earn a minimum 3.0 grade-point average over two semesters. As a result, they are honored as William B. Wise Scholar-Athletes. The award is named for Bill Wise of Gorham, a retired university administrator and an especially strong advocate for university athletics.

CELEBRATING SCHOLAR-ATHLETES

This year, five members of the Huskies’ field hockey team were selected to the National Field Hockey Coaches’ Association Division III National Academic Squad. These five students — senior co-captains Bethany Bougie of Sanford, Haley Carter of Saco, senior Kayla Kimball of Winthrop, junior Rachel Trafton of Corinth and sophomore Ariel Kaplan of South Berwick — each earned a cumulative grade-point average of 3.30 or higher.

Wrestlers Billy Cole, a senior from Madbury, N.H., and sophomore Rick Chipman of Harpswell were cited as Scholar All-Americans.

Junior Molly Carl of York was named to the Division III All-Academic Cross Country team. To be eligible for the honor, she had to earn a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 3.30 and place in the top 35 at the NCAA Regional Championship. Carl, a geography-anthropology major with a 3.768 average, finished 11th at the regional and placed 27th overall at the national championship to earn All-America honors.

Each year, I host a reception for our scholar-athletes. I never fail to come away inspired by their dedication and focus. I invite you to find out more about these remarkable student-athletes by visiting our website at www.southernmainehuskies.com. Check out the schedule and attend a USM game. Show your support for the gifted young people in our Division III program. USM wins because of its student athletes’ conduct, not only in their sports but also in class and off the playing field.

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at:

president@usm.maine.edu