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SIOUX CITY -- Platinum jewelry is considered the modern gift for 20th anniversaries, according to the Chicago Public Library.

So as the Great Plains Athletic Conference begins its 20th season of football, the conference's programs will take aim at earning some platinum at the end of the season, which is no different from about any other season since the GPAC was formed.

Throughout the 20 seasons, GPAC football programs have taken home crystal (third-anniversary present), diamond jewelry (10th anniversary), gold jewelry (14th anniversary) and something bronze (19th anniversary).

Basically, GPAC football has been quite successful as the conference heads into its 20th season.

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Morningside Football Celebration
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Morningside Football Celebration
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Morningside Football Celebration
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Morningside Football Celebration
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Morningside Football Celebration

The latest success was this past season when Morningside College won the 2018 NAIA championship over Benedictine College, giving the GPAC its fourth national title since its formation in 2000.

"From day one, such a competitive conference," GPAC commissioner Corey Westra said. "The programs are just so good. You never knew what was going to happen year-in and year-out. There's been a lot of national championships that have come through the conference and a lot of deep playoff runs. It really has been a fun conference."

While Westra wasn't the commissioner back when the league formed, he still had a front-row seat since he was the sports information director at Dordt College (now Dordt University). The Defenders didn't field a football program at the time but later added the sport, playing their first varsity game in 2008.

Westra was hired as the GPAC SID in 2002 and became the conference commissioner in April of 2003, so he has seen all four of the league's football titles.

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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming
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Morningside football NAIA championship homecoming

The University of Sioux Falls won the NAIA title in 2006 over St. Francis and the Cougars became back-to-back champions in 2008 (against Carroll) and 2009 (against Lindenwood). In 2010, Sioux Falls went 13-1 but was transitioning to NCAA Division II and left the conference.

Morningside's 2018 title is the GPAC's fourth title. Mustangs coach Steve Ryan, who has been at the helm at Morningside since it joined the conference in 2003, said it's always been a formidable league.

"You think of how great some of those Sioux Falls teams were and how good Northwestern was and the way they compete," Ryan said. "This year, I think it's going to be an outstanding year. The GPAC has had plenty of really good years and really good football teams."

Besides last season's title, Morningside played for the NAIA national title in 2012, narrowly losing to Marian 30-27. It's one of a few runner-ups that the GPAC has had.

Sioux Falls played for a national title in 2001, losing to Georgetown (Kentucky). In 2007 and 2010, Sioux Falls lost to Carroll in the title game.

"The conference prepares you (for deep playoff runs)," Westra said. "You get through this conference and (in the playoffs), you feel good about what you can do."

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Sioux Falls helped bring instant legitimacy to the GPAC along with Northwestern, which won national titles in 1973 and 1983 and is a three-time national runner-up (1972, 1979 and 1984).

Northwestern hired Matt McCarty as the head coach in 2015 but he was already familiar with the GPAC since he served as the Red Raiders defensive coordinator for 11 seasons. He played for Northwestern and graduated in 2003, so he's been around since the conference began.

The Red Raiders ended last season ranked No. 12 and are primed for another successful season in 2019.

"Year-in and year-out, we feel like we have teams that can compete for a national championship in football," McCarty said. "If you can compete throughout this league, it's a test week-in and week-out, you are prepared for postseason play."

Nebraska Wesleyan, Concordia University, Dakota Wesleyan, Doane, Hastings, Midland and Dana were also the original football programs of the GPAC.

Morningside dropped down from NCAA Division II and joined the GPAC in 2003. Briar Cliff joined the conference in 2002 but didn't have its first football season until 2004.

Then in 2010, Dana College ceased operations and closed permanently. Sioux Falls moved up to NCAA D-II in 2011. Nebraska Wesleyan moved to NCAA D-III after the 2015 season.

The GPAC evolved, though, adding the University of Jamestown in North Dakota, which played its first full GPAC schedule in 2018.

Mount Marty announced in April that the Lancers will field a varsity football team beginning next season. Mount Marty hired Mike Woodley, who was at Grand View and led the Vikings to an NAIA national title in 2013.

McCarty said hiring Woodley away from Grand View shows how committed the Lancers are to being competitive in the GPAC right away.

"I know coach Woodley really well and he will do an outstanding job and they will be a team to be reckoned with right away," McCarty said. "The talent in the league has gotten deeper and you have to be ready to play every week. That's a good thing. It forces your players to prepare every week and you know you are going to get a test every week."

Parity has been one of the biggest changes Ryan has seen, especially in the past few seasons. Dordt entered the national rankings for the first time last season and Briar Cliff had one of its best seasons in the program's history. Doane enjoyed back-to-back nine-win seasons just a few years ago and were ranked in the top-10. Dakota Wesleyan only won two games last season but it was the first losing season the Tigers suffered since 2009. Midland has won 20 combined games in the past three seasons.

"All of those teams in the middle are really good," Ryan said. "I think one of the things that is unique about the conference is that they are all high-quality institutions. It goes beyond athletics."

With the new additions to the GPAC and the improvement many of the programs have made the past few seasons, Westra said he doesn't think the conference has come close to hitting its ceiling yet.

"We are getting deeper and deeper every year," Westra said. "You look at programs pushing at the top that hadn't five to 10 years ago. It's great to have that competition and know you have to be at your A-game. I think that kids now see the GPAC as a really strong destination to go play college football along with going to our great universities and institutions."

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