WHITEFISH – Matt Stepan knew there were serious discussions coming.
The director of athletics at Montana Tech, Stepan was one of 12 people sitting in the conference room at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake for the annual Frontier Conference athletic directors meeting on June 18. Eight of those seated, Stepan included, were directors of athletics, while two more were assistant ADs.
While each recognized the elephant in the room, Stepan didn’t shy away from bringing it to light.
“We have some challenges ahead of us from a membership standpoint,” Stepan said.
Noticeably absent from the conference room table was a representative from Lewis-Clark State, which announced in May it plans to leave the Frontier for the neighboring Cascade Collegiate Conference following the 2019-20 athletic season.
“For most sports it gets us down to a six-team conference which always puts you on the bubble for the automatic qualifier,” Stepan said, referring to a league’s conference tournament champion earning an automatic trip to the national tournament. “That’s really at the forefront right now, conference membership. Looking at some schools and gauging interest and really trying to identify what we have in the Frontier that makes us appealing so that we can recruit.”
“Losing Lewis-Clark State has become a significant talking point and how we’re going to gain a member, where we’re going to gain a member or two or three, however they decide to go, what it looks like,” said Rocky AD Jeff Malby. “A lot of that’s in the Council of Presidents, but they listen to the athletic directors. I just think that the league’s always looking to improve and that we will get another member sooner or later and it will make us just as strong.”
While the Frontier continues its search for future members, current schools in the league understand the importance of building from within, allowing the conference to remain one of the strongest, both athletically and academically, in the country.
“Right now we have to watch out for our own,” said Christian Oberquell, the director of athletics at MSU-Northern. “We are a small conference, we’re a very powerful conference, but we have to do what we do to support each other and make our conference the best conference, which it already is, even better.”
“It’s something that Montana can be proud of, as was evidenced in Billings in March when Western’s women won the national championship. Not only did it help on the revenue side, but it was exciting,” Malby said.
Western’s women were joined by impressive finishes by the Carroll College men’s hoops team (second), Rocky men’s golf program (seventh) and numerous all-American accolades in track and field, and those were only results from the 2019 calendar year.
Despite boasting extraordinary success with its current core, the Frontier knows it must adapt in order to continue advancing.
“There are no constants, whether it has to do with membership, sport sponsorship, national policies and procedures. You have to be adaptable, you’ve got to be ready to change and stay with the flow,” said Carroll College AD Charlie Gross. “Probably our biggest challenge, though, within the Frontier Conference would be our membership, making sure that we have a group of schools that can create viable schedules that can meet budgetary demands and give our student-athletes enough variety in who they’re competing against.”