Ed. Note — This story will appear in The Eagle-Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack is making a splash on the Division I stage. Just this past weekend, the men’s basketball program upset Northwestern by 10 points and the women’s basketball program topped UMass in its season opener for the first wins in each of the programs’ history.
But no team has — yet — made the type of splash the men’s soccer program made.
The Warriors, in their first season as a Division I program in the Northeast Conference, won the NEC’s regular-season championship. Merrimack finished the season 11-3-2 and went a perfect 9-0 in the NEC; the Warriors were picked No. 10 in the NEC preseason poll.
“The kids always believed in themselves and we believed in them as coaches,” said head coach Tony Martone. “You need that belief. From our first day of preseason, the atmosphere was always positive and we were looking forward to the excitement of playing in Division I. Then we started off well and we rode the wave from there.”
Under NCAA rules, Merrimack is in the midst of a four-year transition period and the Warriors aren’t eligible for the postseason — even the conference tournament — despite finishing in first place.
The Northeast-10, Merrimack’s former D-II home, is a highly competitive conference. The Warriors went 13-6 last season and haven’t had a losing season since 2003, a span of now 16 years; Merrimack won the NE-10 in 2017.
So Martone believed his team could be competitive. The difference between the NE-10 and the NEC isn’t an insurmountable jump.
That belief grew even stronger in the preseason, when the Warriors traveled to UNH for a preseason game and played to a 0-0 draw against the Wildcats. UNH is 12-1-3 on the season and is currently ranked No. 18 in the nation.
But no one expected this.
“Once we played that game I think we knew we could be competitive,” Martone said. “Then we had some good early results against teams like Northeastern and Boston University, and that set the tone. We had success early and that created this feeling that we knew we belonged.”
What has helped the Warriors make a successful transition is balanced scoring. Merrimack has had 11 different goal scorers spread across the team’s 32 goals scored; five Warriors have at least three goals, including Tola Showunmi and Filippo Begliardi Ghindo who each have six goals.
“Our team has been like this for the past few years,” Martone said. “We’re getting scoring from our guys in the back, from our wide midfielders and from our central midfielders. That makes it a lot harder for a team to key on one individual and defend them the whole game.”
Obviously it’s easy for a team in Merrimack’s position to play with a chip on its shoulder. The Warriors developed a swagger over the course of the season, and it was well deserved.
UMass Lowell went through a similar transition when it moved from the NE-10 to America East. The River Hawks only won six games their first year, but in their third season, they won the conference championship and weren’t allowed to continue to the playoffs.
“You try to set expectations, but they all know that while we go through this transitional period, all we can do is compete for the conference regular-season championship,” Martone said. “So, that was our goal. For us, every game was a playoff game because it’s all we had. Lucky for us, our guys were motivated and bought in from the very beginning. I’m sure they’re frustrated with the NCAA rules, but it is what it is. Our goal was to win the regular-season championship, we did that, and there is definitely a feeling of accomplishment.
“This is a point of pride for our program. We made history being the group that won the first conference championship in men’s soccer and for the college in the NEC. Hopefully, there will be more with other sports. I think it sends a good message that as an institution, we’re aren’t just moving up to D-I. We’re moving up to D-I to compete and win.”
Martone says that this season has already done wonders for the program. The added exposure has already increased Merrimack’s visibility in recruiting.
“The level of interest from prospects domestically and internationally is as high as it’s ever been,” Martone said. “I’m sure there will be some reservations with not being able to compete in playoffs, but it’s a decision players will have to make. We know we have a lot to offer players and I think that’s why we’re seeing so many prospects interested.”