HELENA — The Frontier Conference has seen teams come and go over the past 84 years.
But it seems more recently that more teams have been leaving the conference, rather than joining.
The Lewis-Clark State College athletics department was the latest to announce Monday that after the 2019-20 season it would be headed to the Cascade Collegiate Conference.
The Warriors have been a part of the Frontier Conference for the last 20 years.
“The Frontier Conference is a great group of institutions that we are very fortunate to be a part of,” Lewis-Clark State athletic director Brooke Henze said. “We still want to play them in a pre-conference capacity. There are only so many NAIA schools in the Northwest, so we need to stick with each other.”
It wasn’t long ago that the Frontier featured nine teams.
That all changed when Dickinson State University in North Dakota left the Frontier after the 2013-14 season for the North Star Athletic Association, while Westminster College in Salt Lake City left after the 2014-15 season, when it moved up to NCAA Division II.
Universities such as Southern Oregon and the College of Idaho joined the Frontier Conference over the last decade, but only as associate members in football.
So, what does that mean for the rest of the conference?
The Frontier will feature six Montana teams in Carroll College, Montana Tech, Montana Western, Rocky Mountain, Montana State-Northern and the University of Providence, but commissioner Kent Paulson is confident in the conference’s future.
“We have to face the reality that we are a six-team conference,” Paulson said. “That said, we are a very creative group and we are going to make this thing work.”
Lewis-Clark State’s departure did not come as a surprise to the rest of the conference. The athletic department submitted its application to the Cascade Collegiate Conference some time ago.
“We are sad, because any time a good family member leaves, it’s hard, but this isn’t news we just learned yesterday,” Paulson said.
Lewis-Clark State’s decision to make the move came after the NAIA announced that it would consolidate its two divisions of basketball starting in the 2020-21 season. Cascade schools are Division II, while Frontier schools are Division I.
Henze said the move also makes sense geographically. Trips to the College of Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Walla Walla University average more than 100 miles, while the closest Frontier school from Lewiston, Idaho, is Carroll 331 miles away.
Trips to Washington and Oregon are also easier because of better winter conditions for traveling.
The move also gives Lewis-Clark State an opportunity to recruit athletes more in their vicinity.
Men’s basketball coach Austin Johnson said most of his recruits come out of Idaho, Washington and Oregon because most of the Montana high school players prefer going to the Frontier schools in Montana.
While it will be another year until the conference gets smaller, Paulson is now looking for other teams to join the conference.
One option might be to lure back Dickinson State. It’s athletic department, which also includes a football program, is more than 300 miles from its closest Frontier school, Rocky Mountain. It is also 48 miles further on average than Lewis-Clark State.
“Whether you are at six teams or nine teams, you are always looking to add. Certainly, Dickinson State rises to the very top of that recruitment list,” Paulson said.
Other options the conference has been looking at would be including Salish Kootenai College, which sits just south of Polson and Yellowstone Christian College in Billings.
Both schools are familiar with Frontier basketball programs but finished winless against them last season.
Montana State-Billings is also another option if it would be willing to drop down from the NCAA Division II level. Billings was a member in the Frontier Conference when it was Eastern Montana College from 1935-88.
As for scheduling, Paulson said there has been no discussion that the Frontier schools will play each other more than three times during the regular season in basketball. It will create, however, three more games coaches must schedule.
The Frontier Conference is the smallest of all the NAIA conferences and Paulson said will still look at multiple options in making it the best it can be, but also reminds people of what it has already accomplished.
Just last year the Montana Western women’s basketball team won the Division I National Championship, while two of the seven men’s basketball teams met each other in the Fab Four in Kansas City, Missouri. Carroll defeated Lewis-Clark State for its first trip to the national title game.
“We know we are the smallest, but we know we are the best,” Paulson said. “Nevertheless, we are geographically challenged and it’s hard to build numbers.”