Ed. Note — This story will also appear in the Tuesday edition of The Eagle Tribune
NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College has not kept its ambitions a secret. The North Andover campus has exploded in recent years, and it only made sense for athletics to follow that path. For the past five years, speculation has ramped up that the Warriors were looking to elevate all of their athletic programs to Division I status, and yesterday that move was made official when the college announced it had accepted an invitation to join the Northeast Conference beginning next year.
Merrimack’s men’s and women’s ice hockey programs, which are currently Division I and a part of Hockey East, will remain (the NEC doesn’t have a hockey conference).
“From the first day I set on campus five years ago, this has been the goal,” said Merrimack AD Jeremy Gibson. “President (Christopher) Hopey pushed this as part of the agenda from the very beginning.
“For us, the NEC is a perfect fit. The profile of the sports we offer align closely with the NEC, and from a geographical perspective we fit right in. We couldn’t be more excited.”
The NEC currently fields 23 sports, and Merrimack currently sponsors 21 of those sports. The only sports Merrimack doesn’t currently sponsor are men’s golf and women’s bowling.
The move to Division I plays a big role in the college’s ambitious growth agenda, which Hopey instituted when he took over as leader of the college in 2010. As part of that agenda, the college has grown from about 2,000 students to 4,600 this year. Over the last eight years, construction at the college has been practically nonstop, with several new dorm facilities constructed as well as a multi-million dollar upgrade to the Merrimack Athletic Complex that included a new ice rink (Gallant Arena), as well as a new lobby, new strength and conditioning center and a new athletic training facility.
Last year, Merrimack opened the 3,000-seat Merrimack Stadium, a move that was necessary for this Division I jump, and the college will soon open the new Crowe Hall, which will house the Girard School of Business.
“Merrimack is growing at a rapid pace and we need to grow in athletics along with it,” Gibson said. “That’s why this was such an important piece of the agenda. It was at the forefront. We’re about progress and in the five years I’ve been here, there hasn’t been a day without a construction truck on this campus. Merrimack has changed a lot since I first got here, but while staying true to its mission and core.
From an athletics perspective, Gibson and his staff have been preparing for this move for almost five years. The enhancements to the athletic facilities were all done with an eye towards Division I, as have been additions to the department’s full-time staff.
“Seven years ago, Merrimack College created the Agenda for Distinction, a 10-year strategic plan to transform the college into a modern, selective, regional, master’s- comprehensive Augustinian Catholic institution,” Hopey wrote in a letter to alumni yesterday. “Among the ambitious goals of that strategic plan was for us to become an NCAA Division I institution by 2021.
“The world is learning that Merrimack has achieved yet another major goal — and well ahead of schedule.”
NEC commissioner Noreen Morris said in a video posted on the league’s website that Merrimack represents not only a great fit institutionally with the other NEC member schools, but it also gives the league a chance to get into the metro-Boston media market.
“There is a great alignment between Merrimack and the NEC,” Gibson said. “I think it was apparent to everyone that Merrimack and the NEC would be a great fit. Not only could we come on board and be a member, but we want to enhance the conference. They get a footprint into the Boston area, which I know they’re excited about. We hope to be able to add other things to the league as well.”
Gibson hopes this news ignites excitement from the Merrimack Valley community as well. More recently, he said that the college has begun to notice interest from the local community in its teams. Last Saturday night at the football team’s home opener, the crowd was nearly 4,000 people (3,742). Fuddruckers was grilling on the concourse as part of the concession sales, beer was being sold for the first time at events and there was a giant inflatable field goal set up where kids were trying their luck.
“We’ve started to make our games more and more of an event,” Gibson said. “We hope that this is just the next step in that process. We had a huge crowd at football the other night, and now we have the potential to be bringing in more recognizable and exciting programs to our campus. Having a place where the community and come to and families can engage is really exciting. As a parent, I’m interacting with other parents at baseball games and soccer games and there’s genuine excitement. There’s a lot of pride the students, alumni, faculty and we hope the community can take in our programs. We want our games to be events where people come together.”
Up next for the college is likely a plan to update the gym. New LED lights were added last year, but there needs to be work done to address seating and some other needed updates.
“(The gym) has always been the next thing on the agenda,” Gibson said. “We never had any intention of slowing down, even without this announcement. I expect you’ll see further things done at the basketball facility to increase capacity and add other amenities.”
Merrimack has a press conference scheduled for Thursday.
|Bryant University||Rhode Island|
|Central Connecticut State||Connecticut|
|Fairleigh Dickinson||New Jersey|
|LIU Brooklyn||New York|
|Mount St. Mary’s||Maryland|
|St. Francis||New York|
|Wagner College||New York|