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Nice to know you, NCC

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Patrick Mahoney and four teammates were getting their photograph taken together on the infield at Howard Wood Field on Saturday when Mahoney asked the group a question.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Patrick Mahoney and four teammates were getting their photograph taken together on the infield at Howard Wood Field on Saturday when Mahoney asked the group a question.

A senior, Mahoney wondered if any of them knew who was the final UND athlete to compete in any North Central Conference competition. Teammate Richie Spitsberg answered correctly. The honor belongs to Mahoney, who finished 19th in the 5,000 meters at the NCC track and field meet.

"The last person to compete," Kevin Mahoney said as he snapped another picture of his son and his teammates. "I like that."

The NCAA Division II NCC ends an 86-year run this weekend with the final conference tournaments being held in baseball and track and field. The conference is closing shop, with schools either moving to Division I or joining another Division II conference.

When UND and the University of South Dakota announced plans to move to Division I beginning next fall, the conference was left with just five schools. That wasn't enough to prevent the league from folding.

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Roger Thomas, NCC commissioner, handed out his last two championship trophies -- to the South Dakota women's team and the Minnesota State-Mankato men's team - at Saturday's track meet.

"It's been hard," said Thomas, a former UND coach and athletic director. "Everything we do, it's the last time doing this and that. This is the last weekend of competition."

It was doubly hard for Thomas, who watched his son, Drew, complete his college career. Drew Thomas, a UND senior, placed fourth in the discus and ninth in the javelin Friday. Dad said it was tough to watch his son move on to a different life phase.

Roger Thomas, too, is moving on to something new. He has some interviews set up and hopes to have a new position by July 1. The conference officially closes its doors June 30.

The track and field gates were closed for the last time Saturday.

It was by accident that Mahoney was the last UND person to compete in any NCC event. The 1,600 relay was scheduled to be the final event, but a forecast calling for bad weather Saturday prompted officials to run almost the entire meet Friday.

The men's division had just two races and the women's division three Saturday. And, as anticipated, the final NCC meet ended on a windy, rainy, chilly day. Mahoney and teammates Skip Gilson, Kyle Rosseau and Josh LaBlanc ran the final race in a steady rain.

"I don't know if it's really anything special, but maybe it will come up some time," Mahoney said of being the final UND athlete in NCC competition. "It's kind of cool; this has been such a great conference over the years. Olympians have run in it, numerous All-Americans. It's kind of sad it's coming to an end."

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Many echoed Mahoney's thoughts on this gloomy day.

"It's a day we've been dreading; it really is," UND women's track coach Dick Clay said. "It's emotional because it's been part of us for so long. It's like breaking up a family because a lot of coaches, too, have become really good friends and now everyone is kind of going their separate ways."

Nobody knows for sure when UND will be in a conference again for sports such as track and field and baseball. The school is still searching for a new league for many of its programs.

Senior Heidi Evans won UND's last NCC championship. The Roseau, Minn., native took the 3,000 meters Saturday. She captured the 1,500 meters Friday.

"It's pretty special," Evans said. "There have been such great athletes overall in the conference -- not just in track. It's kind of an honor just being part of the NCC."

UND's men's track and cross country coach Mike Grandall was a part of the conference for 29 years. He had a hard time seeing the end. He had actually been through similar situations twice this school year.

There was the final cross country meet and the final indoor track meet.

But Saturday had more finality.

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"It's been a long goodbye to a real good, old friend -- the conference," Grandall said.

The conference does have one big event remaining. The NCC Celebration Dinner is set for June 21 at the Ramkota Hotel in Sioux Falls.

"We're really excited about the early response," Roger Thomas said. "Anybody and everybody who had something to do with the NCC is invited back. That excites you, to have all those people at one time under one roof."

Current and former coaches and athletes will reminisce about interesting, funny and unusual happenings since the league began competition in 1922. UND was a charter member of the conference.

"That will be an emotional thing, too," Clay said. "It's like Roger was telling us the other day; they've pretty much sold all the assets and the office is closing on June 30th. That kind of hits you at that point."

Fee is sports editor of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1127; (800) 477-6572, ext. 127; or send e-mail to kfee@gfherald.com .

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