Queens University had already begun the process of transitioning to the NCAA’s highest level in December 2020 when its men’s basketball team was invited to play in the prestigious Paradise Jam as an emergency replacement during the height of the COVID pandemic.
The Royals’ success in that event, which included an upset of Howard, only strengthened the belief of school administrators that the jump to Division I was the right decision.
“As a top Division II program in the country, we are high-performing across many sports and we often compete against Division I opponents in the championship season or in preseason,” athletic director Cherie Swarthout said. “But that went a long way to saying, ‘Yeah, we are there.’ It validates you as an athletic department.”
A private school located in the Myers Park area of Charlotte with an enrollment of around 2,500, Queens sponsors teams in 24 sports.
It will begin play as a member of the Division I ASUN Conference in the fall and will be immediately eligible to compete for league championships. Until proposed legislation is passed, however, it must serve a four-year transition period before being able to qualify for NCAA national postseason events.
Because of the Royals’ success at the Division II level, including 25 team national championships and 144 individual national titles, men’s basketball coach Grant Leonard said the move to Division I is a natural progression — not just for his program, but for all the school’s teams.
“It’s something we’re prepared for as an athletic department and an institution,” said Leonard, who was an assistant that helped Queens to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances before being elevated to the head coaching job this spring.
“We were so successful in the South Atlantic Conference and Division II that I think we’re ready for the challenge and to blaze a new trail in the ASUN and Division I.”
Because many of Queens’ athletic facilities were built within the past 10 years, including the $30 million Levine Center that houses Curry Arena — home of the Royals men’s and women’s basketball teams — much of the physical infrastructure needed for the move is already in place.
Leonard believes that the transition on the field of play will be just as seamless.
His confidence is strengthened by the fortunes of future ASUN rival Bellarmine, a private university in Louisville that made a similar jump from Division II to Division I a year ago.
The Knights’ men’s basketball team went 20-13 overall and 11-5 in the conference in 2021-22 before beating Florida Gulf Coast, Liberty and Jacksonville for the championship in its first appearance in the ASUN Tournament.
“We already feel like we can compete right away because of our own past success against Division I teams,” said Leonard, whose program also claims a recent exhibition victory against VCU and a two-point loss to Wake Forest in addition to its strong performance at the Paradise Jam.
“Watching Bellarmine do it gives us another model. But also in the negative, it prepares teams that we’re going to be ready. We’re not going to sneak up on anybody. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
While the move to Division I directly impacts athletics, AD Swarthout said that the decision to upgrade was made with more than just sports in mind.
“This is really a more broad-based part of our university’s strategic framework to fuel growth and raise brand awareness,” she said. “We feel like in athletics, we’ve done a very good job positioning ourselves from a position of strength for this transition. But it’s very much a university initiative.”
The choice of the ASUN over at least one other potential conference suitor was part of that same initiative.
“Our board felt that the ASUN represented larger markets with their current footprint,” Swarthout said, “markets that we are not in right now. That will help us fuel growth and increase our national recognition.”
The Royals’ first competition as a Division I program will likely be a men’s or women’s soccer game this fall. But before that happens, there’s still some unfinished business to address.
On Friday, the undefeated women’s lacrosse team will take on East Stroudsburg in a national semifinal in St. Charles, Missouri. The winner will play either Adelphi or Indianapolis for the title two days later. Then next week, Queens will be represented by athletes competing in the NCAA track and field championships.
Swarthout said that a Division II national title celebration would be a fitting way to celebrate her school’s upcoming move to Division I.
“I couldn’t picture or plan for a sweeter story,” she said of the possibility of going out on top. “I just can’t think of a better ending.”