NORTH ANDOVER — It was a celebration befitting of a Division I program. Merrimack’s gym was turned into the center stage on Thursday, when more than 700 people packed the stands as the college held an introductory press conference to officially accept an invitation from the Northeast Conference to become the league’s 11th member.
The gym’s house lights were turned down and blue and gold lights lit up the walls. As Merrimack president, Christopher Hopey, ended his speech, cannons that hung from the ceiling shot out blue and gold streamers. Fans that walked into the gym did so in a tunnel of blue and gold balloons.
It was a celebration, and after all, this was a celebratory moment. Hopey mentioned in his 2011 inauguration speech that this was his vision for Merrimack athletics. Merrimack AD Jeremy Gibson, when he was hired in 2013, was charged with making that vision a reality.
“At the time, few thought (going Division I) would be possible,” Gibson said. “That goal became my charge. As this past week has unfolded, I took the opportunity to go back through my files and I came across an email from August of 2013, which I sent to (NEC commissioner) Noreen Morris, introducing myself and asking for the opportunity to talk about Merrimack’s possible membership to join the NEC.”
For the last five years, the Warriors have been persistent.
“It is very clear that Merrimack and this athletics department is in the rise,” Morris said.. “I have no doubt when the Warriors join the NEC in 2019 that they will immediately make some noise. … Let’s not forget the physical transformation of the infrastructure. When we came on campus, we were overwhelmed by the number of projects already completed and the construction still taking place. That is inspiring, because it shows there is growth and excitement. That’s part of the excitement the NEC wants to be a part of.”
Merrimack’s move to the NEC couldn’t come at a better time. On the field, Merrimack’s teams are perhaps more competitive, as a collective group, than they’ve ever been. Men’s lacrosse is coming off a national championship, several programs have won conference championships in the last year, men’s soccer and field hockey are both currently nationally ranked and both men’s and women’s basketball are young teams on the rise.
Merrimack football, which just brought in one of its strongest recruiting classes in program history, saw a record attendance on Saturday night against Assumption, with the crowd pushing 4,000 people.
“30 years ago, Father John Deegan made the historic decision to move our men’s ice hockey program to Hockey East and Division I,” Hopey said. “He believed in the college and saw where it should do. He laid the foundation for what we’re doing today. The Northeast Conference is where we belong. It’s not simply an athletic recognition, it’s the kind of school Merrimack is today.”
We’ll have more in the upcoming days on Merrimack’s move to the NEC, including how the move will have an impact on individual programs, including men’s and women’s lacrosse and basketball, as well as football.