By Richard Smith
In many ways, the Spirit of Ottawa University Arizona will start with sports.
A large portion of the 200 to 300 students that make up the university’s first cohort in the fall will be athletes, said university president Kevin Eichner.
Among the university’s first hires were the head coaches for 19 varsity sports that will eventually play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Kevin Steele is on board as Athletic Director after earning the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Athletic Director of the Year award in 2015 at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas — not to mention in 2002 at the University of Redlands in California.
“It has not been hard to find talented people that want to do this right,” Mr. Eichner said.
In 18 sports that start play in 2017-18, they will have to do it quickly, too. The school nickname is the Spirit and a gray wolf is the school mascot.
Mr. Steele, plus some of his family members and MidAmerica Nazarene colleagues that came along, will be tasked with hitting the ground running.
He said President Eichner and Provost Tyner were incredible in their abilities to sell the possibilities of Ottawa Arizona as a Christ-inspired community of grace with immediate enrollment being driven by a broad-based athletics program.
“Though I was incredibly happy in my position at MNU and was surrounded by a phenomenal staff and President, I could sense that God had a different challenge in mind for me and in the end in my life that is the Main reason for making the move. Certainly, the opportunities to start a program from the ground up is exhilarating, but it comes at a temporary cost of having everyone and everything in place that made it possible for us at MNU to finish the winter 3rd in the Learfield Director’s Cup standings,” mr. Steele said.
Women’s soccer coach Skelly Kellar is a returning Arizona native. The former Scottsdale Community College head coach also arrives from Mid American Nazarene.
He was hired a month ago and will put together a roster for this fall in not much more time than that.
“ We’re looking for kids that are still available and still looking to play. Phoenix is a big area,” Coach Kellar said. “You have four Division One (teams in Arizona) and now you have three private schools and they’re all in different areas of the Valley. This creates another opportunity to play at the fouryear level.”
He said the programs will play a first, probationary year in the National Christian College Athletic Association before joining the NAIA.
As Coach Kellar mentioned, Ottawa will be the third NAIA program at a Valley private school, following Arizona Christian University in northeast Phoenix and Benedictine University’s Mesa campus.
Arizona Christian provides a bit more of a template since the 19th sport at Ottawa Arizona, starting in 2018, is football.
In 2014, Arizona Christian began its NAIA program as a small school alternative to the state’s three Division I universities and host of junior college teams. The Firestorm already has two conference titles on its mantle.
Football coach Mike Nesbitt first heard about the opportunity in late November. He started as a graduate assistant for the University of New Mexico before coaching at high schools in the Albuquerque area.
Coach Nesbitt moved on to Texas where has coached in various capacities for the past 17 years. During this time he became familiar with the wealth of junior college talent in Arizona.
“I told him it would be very successful. It was a very underserved area for small college football,” he said.
Timelines are tricky subjects in a start-up, Mr. Steele said, but the school is hopeful that its initial artificial turf field and stadium for football and soccer will be completed before Aug. 1, along with two grass pitch fields for soccer programs to use for practice.
He also said the goal is for the first building for athletics to be completed alongside the stadium. This building will house our facilities for our outdoor sports such as training rooms, weight room, locker rooms for home and visitors, and storage.
The second floor of the building will house all of the offices for coaches and athletics staff. The third floor of this building should be a press box.
“This building is very important to the success of our program in this initial phase. In year two or three we hope to build what we are calling our indoor facility. This facility will offer multiple courts for our indoor sport offerings, recreational areas, more weight rooms, training rooms, locker rooms and offices,” Mr. Steele said.
Ideally, Coach Nesbitt would like to sign 20 or more members of the graduating high school class of 2017 in the next few months. They would start classes and have, in effect, a redshirt year, training and scrimmaging and becoming the leaders of the first team in 2018.
Mr. Nesbitt said scholarships will be offered starting in March.
“You see how many kids from here leave to go to cold weather states. They can’t all want to leave,” Coach Nesbitt said.
In addition to the appeal of allowing kids another option, the athletic department and those it hires have a unique opportunity.
The chance to build, and do so in the Valley, brought the young Kellar family back.
“It’s not often that you get to build something from the ground up. It will have your fingerprint on it,” Coach Kellar said. “Ottawa in Kansas has a great reputation and I’m sure we’re going to be able to build something really special here. My wife, Brittney, is actually the assistant athletic director and we just had a son so we’re blessed to come back and put down roots.”
OTTAWA ARIZONA ATHLETIC TEAMS OFFERED
• Men’s Basketball
• Women’s Basketball
• Co-Ed Cheerleading
• Men’s Cross Country
• Women’s Cross Country
• Men’s Golf
• Women’s Golf
• Men’s Soccer
• Women’s Soccer
• Men’s Tennis
• Women’s Tennis
• Men’s Track & Field
• Women’s Track & Field
• Men’s Volleyball
• Women’s Volleyball