After almost 18 months of planning and preparation, the 2012 NCAA Division II men’s and women’s national championships take place in Columbia County starting Thursday, Nov. 29.
Blanchard Woods Park in Evans, the home of the Peach Belt Conference soccer tournament for the past five years, is the site of two men’s semifinal games at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and two women’s semifinal games at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Thursday. Saturday, the men’s championship game is at noon, and the women’s game begins at 3 p.m.
Randy DuTeau, the executive director of the Columbia County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, released a statement about the CVB’s excitement over the event.
“It’s a great honor to host an NCAA Championship event in our community,” he wrote. “Blanchard Woods Park has proven itself as a championship level facility, allowing Columbia County to host these kinds of elite events.”
The Peach Belt was ready to pull the plug on the conference tournament after 2011 because the field was so bad, according to Ken Gerlinger, the Peach Belt Conference’s assistant commissioner for communications. The county’s recreation department closed the fields at the end of March to work on them in preparation for the Peach Belt and national championships and did not re-open them until September. The changes received high acclaim.
“We’re very pleased,” said John Luton, Columbia County Recreation and Events’ assistant manager. “We’ve put a lot of work into them I understand in the last six months or so and they are beautiful right now.”
Gerlinger went even further.
“They replanted every blade of grass on the thing,” said Gerlinger. “The field looks immaculate today. It’s just unbelievable what they’ve been able to do. Really, the transformation of the place from about a year ago to getting ready to host this thing is remarkable.”
Getting the championships to Blanchard Woods Park was a joint effort between the Peach Belt and Columbia County.
The Peach Belt came up with the idea to hold the tournament at Blanchard Woods about two years ago. The organization met with county officials, put a plan together and submitted a winning bid, beating out San Diego.
“We got the bid like June of 2011 and we’ve been working on it ever since,” Gerlinger said. “A year and a half’s worth of work is coming right down to it.”
The women’s teams enter with championship pedigree. The College of Saint Rose, of Albany, N.Y., is the defending national champion; Grand Valley State University (GVSU), of Allendale, Mich., was national champion in 2009 and 2010. UC San Diego has won seven national titles. West Florida, from Pensacola, makes its third final four appearance in the past five years.
On the men’s side, Lynn University, from Boca Raton, Fla., returns after playing in 2011’s national championship game and Simon Fraser, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, makes NCAA history as the first foreign team to play in the final rounds of an NCAA championship event. Mercyhurst College, of Erie, Penn., returns to its fourth final four, while Saginaw Valley State, from Saginaw, Mich., makes its first final four appearance.