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Merri-MAAC: Warriors take the leap into a new conference starting next season
NORTH ANDOVER — Last Friday night, as Merrimack College was unveiling the new renovations at Lawler Arena, behind the scenes, Merrimack president Dr. Christopher Hopey and athletic director Jeremy Gibson were putting the finishing touches on a renovation to the entire department.
Over the weekend, the college accepted an invitation to join the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). Merrimack will leave the NEC and join the MAAC starting next season and will become the first full member from Massachusetts since Holy Cross left the league in 1990.
"Part of how this happened is a product of all the conference realignment at a national level," Gibson said. "Going into Division I and being part of the NEC, sometimes it feels like it's a world apart but it's really not. If one domino falls in one conference, it has an impact somewhere else. We've been paying attention to what has been happening with conference realignment but also with the NCAA, and President Hopey has always planned ahead and made sure we were in the best possible spot. We always want to be proactive, and not reactive."
Merrimack went Division I four years ago (the college is in its fifth season as a D-I member). Since then, several programs have been among the best in the NEC. Last season, the men’s basketball program won the NEC Championship but wasn’t eligible for the league’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament due to transition rules.
In joining the MAAC, Merrimack will align with similar, like-minded institutions. Most of the league's members are private schools in the Northeast (from New York to Maryland).
The MAAC's invitation is not only a sign of the college's growth athletically but also academically.
When Merrimack first joined the NEC, the college had about 3,000 undergraduate students, and they were just starting a graduate program. Today, there are over 4,000 undergraduate students and 1,500 graduate students.
Last year, the college had more than 14,000 applicants, partly due to the expanded footprint going D-I and playing in the NEC provided.
That footprint could become even larger now in the MAAC, with schools in upstate New York as well as centered in New York City and New Jersey.
"There's athletics, but it's really broader than that," Gibson said. "These are the schools, at the presidential level, deciding who are their peer institutions and who they want to be associated with. This is a validation from the schools in the MAAC that this is what Merrimack is now. We're not a small school anymore, and these affiliations made sense for us, for Sacred Heart, and for the schools in the MAAC."
Merrimack's path is similar to Quinnipiac, who went from D-II to the D-I in 1998. They joined the NEC in 1999 and then jumped to the MAAC in 2013.
From a fan experience standpoint, the move could mean bigger non-conference opponents on Merrimack's campus. It's expected that the basketball program will fully integrate into Lawler Arena soon (they are scheduled to play half of their games there this year).
"We'll transition to that," Gibson said. "It's such a great venue. In every conference, basketball is a high-profile sport at the Division I level. We knew we would have opportunities to put Merrimack on display in nationally broadcasted games, and that has come to fruition. That facility is beautiful, and we want to show it off as best we can.
"We also want to be able to accomodate our students. A lot of this is about our student experience, and being able to play those games in Lawler, with more fans, it benefits our student body and the Merrimack Valley."
The move to the MAAC will put the Warriors in a more prestigious conference for basketball (among other sports). The NEC champion is regularly in the “First Four” of the NCAA Tournament, which includes the four lowest-ranked teams overall and the four lowest-ranked auto bids. The MAAC champion has bypassed the First Four since 2015.
Football will find a home
The MAAC doesn't sponsor football, which leaves some uncertainty regarding the future of the Merrimack program. But Gibson made it clear football wasn't going anywhere, and there are plenty of options for a conference home.
"Football is an important sport on this campus," Gibson said. "For anyone who was at Homecoming weekend and saw that we had over 13,000 people back, it's not hard to see why football will continue to matter at Merrimack. "
Merrimack has a few geographical options.
The CAA spans from UNH all the way down the coast to North Carolina with Campbell and Elon.
The Patriot League includes Holy Cross and goes as far south as Maryland (Navy and Loyola).
It's theoretically possible that the Warriors could remain in the NEC as an affiliate member. Sacred Heart also has a football program and will search for a new home.
"There are a lot of pathways in terms of where we end up from a conference standpoint," Gibson said. "There are a lot of schools in this region who have been in different places. We will look for stability quickly, but there aren't limited pathways to securing a really good spot for football moving forward. The fact that (head coach) Dan (Curran) has had the success he has had with his team makes that even easier for us."
The football program is second in the NEC (3-1) behind Duquesne. Merrimack is scheduled to host Duquesnse the final week of the regular season, setting up what could be a defacto NEC Championship game at Duane Stadium. The Warriors have two NEC games before that meeting, including Saturday at Saint Francis and Nov. 11 at home against Central Connecticut.
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