When you think of the NCAA, most people think of March Madness and the thrilling run to the men’s and women’s basketball championships every spring. Millions will watch the championship games, and for good reason.

What is often overlooked is that thousands of exceptional NCAA student-athletes compete in a variety of sports that are not part of the prime-time TV lineup. The NCAA will celebrate its 10th annual Division III Week April 5-11. Though Division III programs can get lost in the shuffle of the spectacle of the Division I programs battling on the big stage, I invite you to take a minute to learn a little about the student-athletes who are making a difference every day in communities across Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference is made up of eight remarkable universities and more than 5,000 student-athletes who compete every season in 21 sports. The WIAC, founded in 1913, is one of the oldest athletics conferences in the country. From women’s ice hockey to men’s cross country, WIAC teams across the state give our student-athletes the chance to compete at the collegiate level in their own backyards. More than 80% of the competitors in the WIAC are graduates of state high schools, and more than 400,000 alumni from the WIAC call Wisconsin home after their playing days are over.

What amazes me about the student-athletes who compete at our Division III universities is that they put their hearts and souls into their chosen sport without the benefit of an athletics scholarships. And they work just as hard in the classroom and the community as they do on game day. The success on the field of competition is legendary. WIAC schools have won more NCAA Division III championships than any other conference in the country, and more than half of the student-athletes who compete in the WIAC every year have a GPA above 3.0. Our student-athletes perform at a higher level in the classroom and graduate at a higher rate than the students on campus who do not compete in university athletics.

Our student-athletes’ commitment to success does not end in the classroom and on the playing field. For example, WIAC student-athletes contributed close to 4,000 volunteer hours of community service in the 2018-19 academic year. Despite the impact of COVID-19, our coaches and student-athletes have continued to answer the call by helping their campuses and communities rise above the pandemic.

I have been fortunate to watch UW-Eau Claire student-athletes compete against their rivals from across the WIAC, and I am inspired by the commitment to excellence that drives these young people who are playing for the love of the game. I also have enormous respect for the coaches who don’t make the huge salaries many of their counterparts earn at the Division I level, and the assistants and volunteers who put in long hours to mentor young people pursuing their dreams.

I invite you to support the phenomenal student-athletes who are competing at the local Division III university down the road. You too will be inspired by their energy, excitement and enthusiasm to compete.

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt represents the WIAC as a member of the NCAA Division III President’s Council.