Orange County’s Vanguard University Bound for NCAA Division II

By Dan Wood
Dan Wood
Dan Wood
Dan Wood is a community sports reporter based in Orange County, California. He has covered sports professionally for some 43 years, spending nearly three decades in the newspaper industry and 14 years in radio. He is an avid music fan, with a strong lean toward country and classic rock.
July 19, 2023Updated: July 19, 2023

Word that Vanguard University has received approval to begin the process of becoming a National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division II member has created a good deal of excitement on the school’s Costa Mesa, California, campus.

Long a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) member, Vanguard has enjoyed plenty of athletic success, particularly in recent years. The move to NCAA Division II is expected to be complete come the 2026–27 academic year.

“I am certain this upward transition to NCAA D-II will benefit our student-athletes and entire community,” university President Michael J. Beals said in making the July 13 announcement. “NCAA D-II allows students to participate in highly competitive athletics with a strong commitment to balancing athletics, academics, and community engagement—all while allowing [Vanguard University] to remain true to our enduring Christ-centered mission and values.”

The way the NCAA’s provisional process works, Vanguard will remain a member of both the NAIA and the Golden State Athletic Conference during the upcoming school year. In 2024–25 and 2025–26, the Lions will compete in the D-II Pacific West Conference but be ineligible to participate in post-season play.

The following year, assuming that Vanguard has met all of the NCAA membership committee’s stringent requirements, the school will become a full D-II and Pacific West member and be post-season eligible.

Epoch Times Photo
An artist’s rendering of the Freed Center, which is under construction at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Courtesy of Vanguard University)

“This is a chance for Vanguard to really elevate ourselves to the next level in who we are and bring brand awareness to our university,” Athletic Director Jeff Bussell told The Epoch Times. “A lot of people say Vanguard has been a little secret here in Costa Mesa, known as the school across from the [Orange County] fairgrounds. Our goal is to be known as ‘Hey, the fairgrounds are across from Vanguard University.’”

Once in the Pacific West, Vanguard would rejoin four former Golden State Conference members, nearby Concordia of Irvine, Azusa Pacific, Biola, and Point Loma, all of which have already made the jump to NCAA Division II. Westmont, located in Santa Barbara, is one year into the three-year provisional process, while Jessup, in Rocklin near Sacramento, and Menlo, in the Bay Area community of Atherton, have received the same provisional acceptance as Vanguard.

“We had lost some of those natural rivalries that we had built over the years,” Vanguard Assistant Athletic Director Mike Villamor told The Epoch Times. “Those are schools that are kind of consistent with our mission and our values. It just kind of makes sense to compete alongside them. I think it also helps with community engagement, getting people more excited.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the move for student-athletes will come on the fields and courts where they compete. Schools in Division II and the Pacific West almost universally boast better facilities, as well as upgraded locker rooms, compared to their NAIA and Golden State counterparts.

Vanguard’s move also coincides with the construction of the 60,000-square-foot Freed Center, a new on-campus arena expected to open sometime next year. The facility will house the university’s kinesiology department, feature classrooms and a weightroom, and be home to the men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, and wrestling teams.

Epoch Times Photo
An artist’s rendering of the Freed Center, which is under construction at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Courtesy of Vanguard University)

The combination of offering Division II sports and the upgraded facilities figures to pay off in another significant way.

“We think it opens up our recruiting pool,” Mr. Bussell, the athletic director, said. “This opens a door for us to get into other high schools and area schools that we couldn’t really get into because there is a difference between the NCAA brand and the NAIA brand.”

Of course, NCAA competition will also be stiffer as Vanguard looks to build on its NAIA resume, which includes 20 conference regular-season championships, 60 national championship appearances, four team national championships and four individual national championships in the past 10 years. The school offers 19 sports, including 11 for women, with eight of the programs having been launched over the past five years.

Vanguard, founded in 1920, began its road to Division II three years ago.

“We did thorough research on it,” Mr. Bussell said. “We asked whether this is the best move for Vanguard and where we’re going. Now that we’re into this process, what I’ve tried to really focus on is the NCAA wants to see you be successful.”