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For the past 47 years, athletics at Northern Virginia Community College have been exercises rooted in recreation.

The two-year college’s best athletes always have competed at the club level, where players aim at winning games here and there rather than looking toward postseason tournaments or national championships.

That all changes this fall, when the school’s athletic program takes on official intercollegiate status as a newfound member of the National Junior College Athletic Association, the governing body of two-year college athletics.

For the first time, NOVA student-athletes will be eligible to receive academic and athletic All-American distinction.

Moreover, they will be eligible to participate in postseason play, where they can compete against hundreds of other NJCAA schools around the country for a national championship. NOVA will gain intercollegiate membership in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s lacrosse; women’s soccer likely will be added in the near future. The school’s ice hockey team will retain membership in the American Collegiate Hockey Association at the club level.

“We’ve had sports, and I think everybody thought it was going OK, but at the same time our student-athletes really did want to play at the next level,” said Brian Anweiler, NOVA’s College-wide Student Activities coordinator. “It was more viewed as a student activity than it was an intercollegiate one. We were doing some good things in sports, but this legitimizes what we were doing.”

NJCAA membership will help NOVA achieve its mission of being a comprehensive community college by requiring more out of athletes in the classroom. Whereas they only needed six credit hours at the club level, athletes now will have to take at least 12 credit hours and maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average to retain NJCAA eligibility. Sophomores hoping to play this fall will need at least 24 credit hours under their belt.

Membership also brings greater visibility to athletes hoping to carry their collegiate careers to four-year universities. Recruiters look favorably at schools from the NJCAA, whose 60,000 student-athletes in 43 different states make it the second-largest intercollegiate athletic organization in the U.S.

“It’s going to make that jump a whole lot easier now that we’re a part of this association,” Anweiler said. “The NJCAA has been around for 75 years, and they partner with the NCAA to make sure that their rules are compliant with those of the NCAA so that when our student-athletes do graduate or earn enough hours, they’re eligible to participate at the next level.”

Anweiler, who currently acts as the college’s athletic director among other duties, was brought to NOVA in 2009 largely because of his familiarity with NJCAA athletics. He previously served as the athletic director of Tallahassee Community College, a longstanding member school of the NJCAA. Upon seeing that NOVA already had teams playing 20-game schedules, Anweiler knew incorporating those teams into the NJCAA — which requires a $2,000 entrance fee — was financially viable.

Being a part of the NJCAA also makes it easier for coaches to schedule games. Although NJCAA competition is relatively new to Virginia — where all seven member colleges have been admitted within the past four years — several schools around Washington, D.C. and Maryland have been participating in the NJCAA for a long time. Schools such as Prince George’s Community College and Montgomery Community College now will find little reason to avoid scheduling games against NOVA, something that wasn’t always the case in the past.

“We were trying to play intercollegiate sports and yet we were clubs,” Anweiler said. “So we were kind of in no-man’s land.”

NOVA already is reaping the benefits of its new status with some recruiting of its own.

In May, women’s volleyball coach Marcus Robinson inked four student-athletes to national letters of intent, marking NOVA’s first-ever signing class as an NJCAA member. Two high school seniors committed to the men’s lacrosse team during that month, including Hayfield Secondary standout Terry Yarbrough, who turned down NCAA Division I school Mercer in favor of NOVA.

“It does help when you can tell them we can go to regionals, and if we do well we can go to nationals,” Robinson said. “We can be as good as we want to be with the talent of volleyball players in Northern Virginia.”

Recruiting should be further aided by the fact that a shaky economy has been pushing plenty of high school seniors away from four-year schools in favor of more affordable community colleges. Now that they have the added draw of NJCAA membership, NOVA athletes can raise their expectations in the coming years.

“Other community colleges are very, very competitive in volleyball, especially out west,” said Alanah Jones, a returning middle hitter on the volleyball team. “Girls will come here now that there’s a better chance of getting into a four-year school. And now that we’re in the NJCAA, we’re playing better schools and we’ll be more competitive. We’ll actually be working for something.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com