After 18 years of competition, charter member Emerson College has left the Great Northeast Athletic Conference and joined the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference.
In 1995, the GNAC was established with Emerson as one of the original group of 12 NCAA Division 3 colleges and universities. Emerson was unanimously voted in as the 11th member of the NEWMAC back in Feb. 2012, the first expansion of the conference’s membership in 14 years.
“In the big scene, we’re looking to be competitive, lay the foundation [and] get us up to speed in terms of how the NEWMAC runs their organization,” said Interim Athletic Director Stanford Nance. “Each year we’re looking to get better and better.”
Thirteen of Emerson’s 14 sports teams joined the conference this semester. Men’s volleyball, which is not a NEWMAC sport, will remain in the GNAC.
The Lions’ new, more challenging slate of conference opponents will include Babson College, Clark University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Springfield College, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, among other top Division 3 schools.
Phil McElroy joined Emerson in 1999 as an assistant softball coach, and in 2003, he took over as head coach of the softball team. McElroy has compiled the most wins of any Emerson head coach, boasting a 337-201 record over 10 seasons. Despite his success, McElroy said NEWMAC opponents will present a greater challenge.
“In the GNAC, I felt comfortable going into every year saying we were going to be a top four team. Since 2007, we have been. I felt comfortable every year saying that we had a chance to win the conference,” McElroy said. “I think when you get into the NEWMAC, you are talking about every one of the schools being the same. Whatever the top four teams in the GNAC were, there are going to be 10 or 11 of those teams in the NEWMAC.”
McElroy’s expectations aren’t just based on an intuition. Emerson teams went a combined 0-11 against NEWMAC opponents last year.
“We are very, very happy to be going to this new league, but we also know that there’s an adjustment,” Nance said. “Our trainers will be tested, our strength and conditioning coaches will be tested because we’ve got to raise our level. So our student athletes have to be in the best shape possible… we’re competing at a higher level, and so we’re still working on all those aspects.”
For the first time in NEWMAC history, preseason coaches’ rankings were released for each sport. The fall rankings are out now and show the high level of competition Emerson will be facing during its first season in the NEWMAC.
The reigning GNAC champion women’s volleyball team, which went to the NCAA Tournament last year, is only ranked sixth out of 11 teams. After reaching three consecutive GNAC championship games, women’s tennis is also ranked sixth, but out of nine teams, while women’s cross country has been projected to finish 10th out of 11 schools. Men’s soccer and men’s cross country were both picked eighth out of eight teams.
“It’s going to be a real struggle for some programs, maybe even us included,” McElroy said. “You can hope for as much success as possible, but I think we have to prepare our coaches and players. A lot of people have talked about having us as coaches be supportive because it could be tough.”
Although the NEWMAC will bring tougher opponents, Eli Kell-Abrams, a junior point guard on the men’s basketball team, said he is expecting some growing pains, but is ultimately looking forward to the opportunity the Lions will have this season to test themselves against stronger teams.
“It’s like going from the Atlantic 10 to the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) or the Big East, but nobody ever became the best by playing easy teams,” Kell-Abrams said. “However, I like the challenge. Instead of playing down to our competition we can play up.”
Emerson will play its first conference games on Sept. 21, when men’s soccer hosts an MIT team ranked second in the preseason poll. That same day women’s volleyball will kick off its NEWMAC schedule at Mount Holyoke.