For Sean Heaton, choosing Division II was “a huge leap of faith.”
Though the Minnesota native always thought he would attend a Division III college, Heaton immediately related to the Augustana University runners on his recruiting visit. Upon visiting the Division II school, Heaton noticed that the runners were fully committed to both academics and athletics.
“I wanted to attend a university where I could contend for championship titles, and I also wanted to prepare myself for graduate studies or other future pursuits,” Heaton said.
So Heaton signed to be a Viking, but the decision came with its challenges.
“It was a stretch for me to even have made it to the Division II level,” Heaton said. “When I showed up, it was evident I had a long road ahead of me.”
Despite consistently finishing last for the Vikings in workouts and races, Heaton “never felt like the odd one out.” Rather than being left behind, Heaton acquired 15 older brothers who treated him with unconditional kindness. Not only did Heaton look up to the upperclassmen; he wanted to repay them.
“I knew I needed to step up and perform my very best to show them that what they did for me was worth it,” Heaton said. “Augie is near the top of [Division II] in many sports, including cross country, so I had to work my ass off to give our institution what I thought it deserved.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
In five years, Heaton went from the slowest man on the team to Augustana’s top finisher at nationals, missing All-American honors by only 17 places.
Twelve days after Heaton’s stellar finish, Augustana announced its decision to transition to Division I athletics. The following morning — after most students had traveled home for winter break — President Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin and Board of Trustees chair Tom Davis held an informal meeting to discuss these changes, as well as the other components of Augustana’s 2030 vision.
Despite the timing, Heaton and other Augustana student-athletes attended the meeting. Though Heaton was grateful to have his voice heard, he felt that his “opinion was outweighed by our president’s.”
“While [Herseth-Sandlin] acknowledged that many people on campus do not want to go DI, she let us know we are doing it anyways for the economic benefits it will bring,” Heaton said. “It made me extremely angry and sad to hear that as an institution we are worried more about growth than culture.”
Additionally, Heaton said that the Division I transition would hurt recruiting — both during and after the four-year period in which athletes cannot participate in post-season competition. In Heaton’s eyes, the transition is like “hitting a reset button.”
“Recruits aren’t going to want to commit to a school that is going to be DII for an unclear amount of time only to be taken out of championship competition after the transition to DI begins,” Heaton said. “Right now we are at the top of DII in so many sports, but once the reset happens, it’s unclear where we will be.”
Though Heaton plans to graduate this spring, he felt “overwhelmingly sad” for younger athletes “who will have the struggle of a transition forced upon their college years.” Further, Augustana’s shifting identity concerned Heaton.
“This institution has always stood for culture and not money,” Heaton said. “Things are different now.”