My Division II Story: Ryley Nelson

Ryley Nelson races unattached at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays track meet last April. The sophomore strives to compete for Augustana at a national level but worries what the Division I transition could mean for him as an underclassman. Photo courtesy of Ryley Nelson.

Augustana University was Ryley Nelson’s “hidden gem”: a small student body combined with highly competitive athletics.

Nelson began his college search in the same manner as many of his current Augustana teammates: assuming that Division III was the best fit. Growing up in small-town Ashby, Minnesota, Nelson wanted to attend a small college; he assumed that only Division III housed such schools.

Then, Nelson discovered Augustana: a 2,000-student university with competitive Division II sports.

“On my recruiting visit, Augustana felt different than the other schools I had visited,” Nelson said.

Specifically, Nelson noticed an academics-athletics balance that trumped all other schools he visited. The runners didn’t compromise their grades for fast times, nor did they sacrifice running for a high G.P.A. Instead, Nelson said the athletes were both “great athletes” and “exceptional students.”

“It was clear that Division II universities were different and that they were the place for me,” Nelson said.

Nelson smiles as he and his teammates exit the awards stage after the 2017 Roy Griak cross country invitational. The past two years, the Augustana men’s and women’s teams were crowned Griak team champions and runners up, respectively.

Then, halfway through Nelson’s sophomore year, Augustana announced its plans to pursue Division I athletics.

“Initially, I was excited,” Nelson said. “I was pumped up for the hype it would bring to the school, and the possibility of getting our full track facility.”

Then, Nelson learned what transitioning to Division I would actually require: a four-year period in which athletes cannot participate in post-season competition. Such restrictions would greatly impact Augustana cross country, which consistently qualifies for the NCAA Division II national championships.

“I came to Augie for great academics, but I also came here to run,” Nelson said. “And not just to run for fun, but to run at the national level.”

According to Athletic Director Josh Morton, the university’s goal is to be accepted into a Division I conference by December 2020. However, Augustana could feasibly be accepted before or after that date. After the acceptance, Augustana’s four-year transition period will begin.

“It’s a huge decision that will affect the current student athletes the most out of anyone,” Nelson said. “We came to compete at Augie. Simple as that.”

Nelson, Henry Klitzke and Reed Kurak lead a pack of runners at the 2017 Howard Wood Dakota Relays track and field meet. Photo courtesy of Ryley Nelson.


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