BY DAN GARDELLA
Asst. Sports Editor
Merrimack College, the private Roman Catholic institute in Essex County, Mass., accepted an invitation from the Northeast Conference’s (NEC) Council of Presidents to join the Conference as the eleventh team. The announcement was made on Sept. 10.
“We are thrilled to welcome Merrimack College to the Northeast Conference family,” said NEC Commissioner Noreen Morris. “From the outset, it was extremely evident that President (Christopher) Hopey and the entire campus community had a clear vision to elevate the academic and athletic profile of Merrimack College.”
Norris also stated that Merrimack’s freshmen class and last year’s sports seasons were reasons as to why the transition from NCAA Division II to Division I athletics was the right decision for Merrimack. This year’s incoming class was the largest in its history and the athletic programs were competitive in the Northeast-10 Conference (NE10) last year.
Merrimack has been a member of the NE10 since 1984. Last season, they won the 2017-18 NE10 President’s Cup, which is given to the top athletic program among the 15 teams within the Conference. Back in May the men’s lacrosse team captured the Division II National Championship. Along with winning the National Championship, Merrimack won three NE10 Championships last season in baseball, men’s lacrosse and men’s soccer.
According to Chris Aliano of the Eagle Tribune, 22 of Merrimack’s 24 teams compete at the Division II level in the NE10. The men’s and women’s ice hockey teams currently compete at the Division I level in the Hockey East Association (Hockey East). The Hockey East has New England colleges such as Boston College, Boston University (BU), and the University of Connecticut (UConn).
The move to the NEC and Division I athletics will not take effect until 2023-24, following the four-year NCAA Division I reclassification period.
“Our student-athletes have enjoyed tremendous success academically and athletically as members of the Northeast-10 Conference,” said Merrimack Athletic Director Jeremy Gibson. “We are thrilled that our dedicated students, coaches and staff will now have the opportunity to pursue excellence through membership in the Northeast Conference and that our entire community will experience the excitement of Division I athletics.”
Gibson also expressed pride in being able to compete with the schools that make up the Conference and also forming new rivalries. One of those teams is Sacred Heart, who have been members of the NEC since 1999.
“We extend a warm welcome to Merrimack College to the Northeast Conference,” said Sacred Heart Athletic Director Bobby Valentine. ”The commitment of Merrimack to academics and athletics is a match for our conference and a perfect addition to the league.”
According to Aliano, the step up to the NEC also means the amount of sports sponsored will increase. Next season, Merrimack will have sports sponsorship for 21 of the 23 NEC sports, with men’s golf and women’s bowling being excluded.
Although the move to the NEC and Division I athletics does not materialize for a few years, Merrimack is still allowed to compete in NEC Championships in NCAA non-automatic qualifier sports such as cross country, swimming and diving, and indoor and outdoor track and field.