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Ex-UA interim basketball coach Russ Pennell is moving up to the WAC

Russ Pennell hugs Arizona point guard Nic Wise after the Wildcats defeated Cleveland State to advance to the 2009 Sweet 16. Photo by David Wallace/The Arizona Republic

Russ Pennell, fondly remembered at Arizona for leading the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 after coach Lute Olson retired before the 2008-09 season, is moving back to Division I.

Pennell is in his fourth year as the head coach at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, and the Antelopes will be joining a reconfigured WAC for the 2013-14 season, the league announced Tuesday.

Grand Canyon is a currently a Division II program.

“The big thing is it’s going to be an incredible challenge that we look forward to and we embrace,” Pennell told the Arizona Republic, our Gannett partner.

“For my staff and I, we didn’t wake up this morning and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’re going Division I.’ We’ve been working on this for three years, laying the foundation. Now that it’s here, we can take the next step. But it’s definitely a crowning day.”

With Grand Canyon becoming a Division I basketball program, perhaps we’ll see the Antelopes eventually be a regular on Arizona’s schedule, as is NAU. The Lumberjacks play at UA on Wednesday night.

Conference realignment has shredded the WAC, which is disbanding for football after this season but continuing in other sports. The WAC turned to Grand Canyon when it needed a quick replacement for new member Denver, which announced it was leaving for the Summit League.

The Antelopes will join Cal State-Bakersfield, Idaho, New Mexico State, Seattle and Utah Valley in the WAC. Grand Canyon won’t be immediately eligible for the NCAA tournament as it completes its transition to the higher division.

And, as noted by baseballtucson.com, Grand Canyon’s move to the WAC means an opportunity for Tucson kids to play Division I baseball. The Antelopes have four local players on their roster: sophomore outfielder Nick Chapman, sophomore catcher Lucas Leifeld and freshman pitcher Tommy Harding (all from Sabino), and freshman pitcher Hunter Miller from Salpointe Catholic.

Several other former high school athletes from the Tucson area compete at Grand Canyon as well.

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