Level up: Athletes leap to top-tier schools from Division III dominance

Unlike other athletes, Emma Paulson made a reverse leap from Division I to Division III and has loved it.

Image By: Photo courtesy of Jack Hiniker

When McKena Ramos was recruited to run track at the UW-Oshkosh four years ago, his coaches never expected that he would become a five-time All-American and two-time national champion in just one season.

“When we were recruiting him, I didn’t think he would be able to come in and win a national championship as a freshman,” UW-Oshkosh track and cross-country coach Eamon McKenna said. “We knew he was good and we knew he was a little bit under the radar.”

During the season, Ramos made a decision: If he won a national title, he would transfer to a Division I school.

“I told myself going into the indoor national meet—and I didn’t tell anyone this—If you win the national meet as a freshman, you should really consider transferring,’” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen, I just made a little bet with myself.”

After taking home the indoor title in the 800-meter race and the outdoor title in the 1500-meter run, Ramos decided to transfer to UW-Madison, where he is now a senior. The Sheboygan, Wis., native has been a solid contributor for both the Badgers’ track and cross-country teams since his arrival in the fall of 2014, using the increased intensity and tougher competition to improve his times across the board.

“The biggest difference athletically is the competition level; everyone is on your level and up,” Ramos said. “There are more opportunities. Traveling from coast to coast and competing on the highest stage, that’s big.”

Ramos’ decision to transfer to a Division I school after success at the Division III level isn’t altogether unheard of. While still relatively rare, there have been several high-profile transfers within the last few years from Division III into the Big Ten, and every school in the conference features at least one such transfer on at least one roster.

Besides Ramos, there are two other Badger athletes who have recently made the jump from Division III to Division I: Ryan Ramczyk and Ricky Finco, both members of the UW football team. Finco, a junior who transferred after one year at UW-Whitewater, is a wide receiver who plays mainly on the scout team. Ramczyk’s story has been well documented, from his all-out dominance on the offensive line at UW-Stevens Point to his All-American season in Madison that rocketed his name up NFL Draft boards around the country.

While making the jump to Division I has paid dividends for Ramos, Finco and Ramczyk, competing for a large institution in a hyper-competitive environment hasn’t been ideal for everyone who has tried.

Emma Paulson realized that competing at the highest collegiate level was not the right fit for her during her freshman season on UW-Madison’s swim team, and subsequently transferred to the University of St. Thomas, a Division III school in Minnesota.

“When I was at Madison, I was confused as to how some people could live out the [Division I] lifestyle and that culture, and I kind of got angry about it. How could I be the only one who seems to be unhappy when everyone’s going through the same thing?” Paulson said. “But I realized that people are different and have different fits—it might work for them, but it wasn’t the right fit for me.”

Finding the right fit paid off, as Paulson recently finished a decorated career with the Tommies that included three individual national championships and nine individual All-American designations.

“Training-wise and the quantitative aspects, my times fit with Division I, but the qualitative aspects fit with Division III,” Paulson said. “Swimming DI, it kind of takes over your life in a sense, but DIII [is] just a part of your life. It breeds a different culture.”

Since Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, their athletic facilities are generally significantly lower-scale than those at the Division I level. In addition, Division I schools are more likely to invest more money in those facilities and programs in general, so the difference becomes even more pronounced when an athlete transfers from Division III.

“For running, it’s pretty much the same training, but we have athletic training facilities with ice baths and stuff like that. We didn’t have those facilities at Oshkosh,” Ramos said.

Ramos added that tutoring at the Fetzer Center and the ability to take exams while on the road have allowed him to succeed academically since arriving in Madison, while Paulson says that she is held to the same standards as non-athletes and has no designated academic services at St. Thomas.

Though their paths have led in opposite directions, Paulson and Ramos both firmly believe they made the right decision to transfer after one season.

“I am absolutely happy,” Ramos said. “It’s been my dream to compete for this school since middle school and now that I’m actually here it’s unreal. The best thing that’s happened would probably be all the experiences I’ve had that I wouldn’t have been able to experience if I wouldn’t have transferred.”

McKenna, Ramos’ former coach, was cautiously optimistic when offering advice to other athletes in Ramos’ situation and encouraged them to look for the right fit.

“If you stand out in DIII, you’re going to have opportunities,” McKenna said. “At the end of the day, the biggest question a student-athlete should ask themselves is, ‘Am I going to be able to replace what’s making me dominant here?’”

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