January 20, 2009

Continental Shift?

There's no question that the Hamilton women -- the 2008 national champions -- could compete in the NESCAC, but does a future move really make sense?
(Photo: Brendan Bush)


by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

For the past decade, Hamilton College has enjoyed the best of both worlds.

In one world, the Continentals are a full member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), an 11-member league that has had great athletic success due to unmatched academic prowess and innovative admissions policies. As a member, Hamilton has participated in the conference championships in a host of sports - cross country, baseball, football, golf, hockey, softball, swimming, tennis, track and volleyball.

In another world, Hamilton participates in the Liberty League, a group of schools located, for the most part, in upstate New York, many of which are vestiges of the old Upstate Collegiate Athletic Association. Those sports include basketball, field hockey, soccer and lacrosse.

Depending on whom you ask, the reason for this split varies. The justifications range from budgetary issues, to missed class time, to a fortuitous competitive advantage in earning NCAA bids. Jon Hind, the Hamilton athletic director, did not return phone calls for this story.

Now, in what might be the worst kept secret in Division III, Hamilton has petitioned the NESCAC presidents' committee to be allowed to compete in all of the conference's championships.

The exact details of Hamilton's application and timeline for possible admission are undetermined. Andrea Savage, the NESCAC executive director and mouthpiece for the conference presidents, was unwilling to concede any information about the petition other than "it is under review." Savage, who is quite amiable, spent the better part of 10 minutes gracefully deflecting my questions, certainly well aware that divulging any information, however innocuous, would draw the ire of her sometimes mercurial employers.

To be fair the conference presidents, their reticence to get too far ahead of themselves is understandable. There is very little precedent for movement in the NESCAC - the last big change came with the inclusion and expulsion of Union nearly 30 years ago - so this is uncharted territory. It is also a delicate situation for the Liberty League, although it comes as no surprise - Hamilton's application was announced at one Liberty League institution's staff meeting.

Hurt feelings aside, what does it mean for the lacrosse landscape in the conference?
Undoubtedly, if you asked the NESCAC presidents, they would say the primary issue is missed class time, which is code for budget issues. There would obviously be a money hit, especially for the Maine schools located as much as eight hours away from Hamilton, but I'm guessing the schools will be able to carve off a little slice of their endowments to mitigate the expense.

The real sticking point is the addition of basketball, which would require the Continentals to pick up a travel partner - kind of tricky in an 11-school league.

Should it happen, the impact of Hamilton's full admission would be mildly significant in lacrosse.

On the men's side, the Continentals would be competitive, but not necessarily in the hunt for the league title anytime soon. The only notable effect of the Hamilton infusion is the loss of another non-conference date, making the conference more insular than it already is.

The addition of Hamilton's women, which won the national championship last spring, would make an already cutthroat conference even more so. The NESCAC has received up to four bids to the tournament (one AQ and three at-larges) in the past, and that allotment would likely persist with the Continentals in the fold.

Logistically, the readmission of Hamilton would force the NESCAC to change its playoff structure, at least for lacrosse. The current model has the regular season ending on a Saturday and the first round of the conference tournament starting the next day. The possibility of Colby traveling to Hamilton - a nearly eight-hour bus trip - on a Saturday evening for a Sunday game will force tweaking of that format.

From a strictly athletic standpoint, Hamilton should not compete in the NESCAC in any sport. It's not a competitive issue - the Continentals can compete in most sports, including lacrosse, in any conference - but a geographic and logistical one. The Liberty League has just about everything Hamilton could want and, athletically, it's absurd it wouldn't want to take advantage of that fact.

But this isn't an athletic issue. It's a prestige issue. Hamilton views a close association with schools like Williams, Amherst and Middlebury as a boon for the school's reputation. The fact that its application is being dealt with at a presidential level with little input for the athletic directors is a tacit confirmation of this.

Hamilton will eventually join the NESCAC in lacrosse, but it won't be anytime soon, and certainly not next year (the schedules are pretty much set in both the NESCAC and Liberty). One athletic administrator within the conference estimated the move would probably go into effect for the 2012-13 academic year.

Until then, the NESCAC lacrosse landscape will remain static. But, whether as a hindrance or benefit, change is a coming to the conference.

Start Me Up
Are you ready to get this going? It doesn't matter because we're a scant two weeks away from kicking off the 2009 season. On Feb. 5, the third-ranked team in the MCLA, Arizona State, visits D-II Grand Canyon in an inter-divisional clash. The following weekend D-III Hampden-Sydney battles D-II Rollins and, in the first full-blown D-III men's battle of the year, Virginia Wesleyan travels to Mary Washington.

On the women's side, Limestone visits D-I Davidson - just as it did last year - while C.W. Post, the D-II runner-up last spring, will face the Wildcats two days later.

Things are still a bit fluid at this time with schedules still coming in, but regardless, it's almost go time.

Slides & Rides
- How good is it to be Florida lacrosse school? Well, the Florida Southern men have 13 games and 11 of them are home games in Lakeland. Not too shabby. One of the two road games consists of hopping on the bus for a game at St. Leo's - a whopping hour away in Tampa. History would say the Moccasins are going to take their lumps in their first year, but they'll be nice and warm doing it. Speaking of Florida schools, Rollins needs to get on the stick. Despite a one-win campaign in '08, the Tars need to make a better effort at attracting the big boys, whichever the division. It will pay big dividends in recruiting down the road.

- Bill Gorrow, the former head coach at Franklin & Marshall and Georgetown, was named the head coach at Wesley. He takes over a program that finished 9-6 this year, including a one-goal loss to Washington College, but finished 3-4 in the CAC and bowed out in the first round of the conference tournament to York. Gorrow has been a head coach for 21 years, including nine years at Anne Arundel Community College, where he won a junior college national title in 1998. There will be no easing into the season for Gorrow, as the Wolverines open the season against defending national champion and CAC rival Salisbury on Feb. 25. The Gulls beat Wesley, 21-4, last spring.

- Joe Ernst, a former Siena attackman, will guide the Southwestern (Georgetown, Texas) University in its inaugural varsity season next spring. Ernst, who has coached at Marymount and Buffalo State in the past, is making the jump from the prep level, where he was the head coach at Mercyhurst North East. After spending the last 25 years as a club sport - the Pirates earned a bid to the MCLA Division II tournament last year - Southwestern becomes the first men's varsity program in the Lone Star State.


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