Nearly four years ago, Emerson College was voted into the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference as its 11th member. The move was a step up for the Lions, advancing out of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference to compete with national championship-caliber teams.
As their third year in the conference year rolls on, varsity programs are still trying to make their mark, as no Emerson team has finished a season with a winning record in the NEWMAC, nor have they won a playoff game.
There’s reason to believe, however, that progress is being made.
Athletic director Patricia Nicol said the change was proposed with a plan. Starting in 2014, one year into the school’s NEWMAC move, Nicol said she came in with a to-do list stuffed with tasks meant to significantly improve every team, help them consistently finish in the middle-tier of the standings, and annually compete for championships.
“I said to the staff when I arrived that it takes three to five years to establish a successful and sustainable program,” Nicol said. “We’re going to build a foundation and do it the right way, and that takes time and it takes patience.”
Head women’s basketball coach Bill Gould said that playing in a more aggressive conference is a recruiting tactic in and of itself, and that it’s paying off.
“I think we’re doing better in the conference in the sense that the players we’re getting are much more able to compete with the kids in the conference,” Gould said. “I think what we need to do now is not individually be able to succeed but to, as a team, succeed and compete with those other teams.”
Currently in the third year of this process, Nicol said she has worked with the enrollment and student life departments to accomplish some of her tasks, like promoting four coaches to full-time and hiring an athletic trainer. According to Nicol, all head coaches could be full-time by next year, with the exception of cross-country.
“That impacts recruiting in a significant manner not only from the time and effort that can be devoted to recruiting, but it demonstrates consistency and stability to the prospective student-athletes that we have committed to our programs,” Nicol said.
Emerson College was one of 11 schools placed into the GNAC at its inception in 1995 and went on to win 15 conference championships.
Now in his ninth season, Gould, the 2009 GNAC Coach of the Year, said the type of opposition there was nowhere near the kind they now face in the NEWMAC. While there were only a few decent squads in their old conference, almost everyone can compete in their new one, Gould said.
“Even the teams that are bad are going to know what plays you run. They’re going to know how to defend us. They’re going to know what our weaknesses are. They’re going to have a game plan for how to stop us,” Gould said, “and we need the same thing.”
For Nicol, building a program the right way means never compromising scholastics for physical talent when searching for players. She said she wants the sports at Emerson to improve, without damaging the educational prestige of the college.
“I don't believe in the quick fixes, meaning building programs on your transfers, basically putting athletic ability over the right fit of student,” Nicol said. “We certainly embrace transfers, we certainly embrace students who we want to give an opportunity to, but it’s always with the right intention in mind.”
The NCAA does not allow for athletic scholarships to be given at the Division III level. Recruiting is permitted, but students must also be accepted into the school, and can only receive money in the form of financial aid based on academic success and need.
“Not a single kid who has ever played at Emerson College in any sport at any time ever has ever gotten a dime because they were a good athlete,” Gould said.
Gould said he understands the academic aspect of this rule restricts the number of student-athletes he can get on his squad because of other schools’ lower requirements for acceptance.
“Even in our own conference there are other schools that can get kids that we can't get in here, and I’m okay with that; that's the way it should be,” Gould said. “But there’s still a level of understanding and commitment that we, as a program, are still working through.”
A responsibility from players, Gould said, entails having the ambition to win every day through shooting hoops daily to pumping iron in the weight room.
“They can't just forget basketball the day the season ends and show up in October and say ‘I'm ready to go,’” Gould said. “At this level, there is no scholarship, so they [play] by choice. They [can play well] by having a level of competitive desire that they want to do this so that they can compete.”
By next August, every Lions squad will have players who were recruited into the NEWMAC as opposed to their former conference. Gould said he believes that’s when the school will start to see big results.
“There are still kids here in every sport who played in the GNAC one year,” Gould said. “Once that kind of mindset goes away, then I think we are a full out, full-fledged NEWMAC conference school, and everything that comes with that will be cemented.”
This past fall, the women’s soccer team finished 3-6-1 and ninth in the standings, missing the playoffs by two spots. However, in non-conference action, the Lions were unbeaten, 9-0-2, and went on to win the invitational Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament as the seventh and last seed.
The different campaigns made it apparent that it’s difficult to prevail in the NEWMAC. Head women’s soccer coach David Suvak said while he and his players know how to win outside of the conference, being victorious within it takes much more.
“It’s going to take a little bit better coaching,” Suvak said. “It’s going to take more buy-in and seriousness of the athlete, more understanding that every game in the NEWMAC has deep meaning to it.”
Men’s basketball senior Tyson Hallowell said his team has proven they belong where they are, with upsets over nationally ranked teams like no. 1 Amherst College in 2013 and, most recently, against no. 19 Worcester Polytechnic Institute this year. But it’s the teams at the bottom of the conference, alongside Emerson, that Hallowell said the Lions can’t quite count on as dependable wins.
“We don't elevate our game against the lesser teams of the conference,” Hallowell, a communication studies major, said. “I'd say that once we start to consistently beat teams like Coast Guard [Academy], Wheaton [College], and Clark [University], we’ve moved in that upper echelon, but we’re not there yet.”
Nicol said the outcomes of games and the teams’ improved standing in the NEWMAC are evidence of the strides she believes her program has made.
“Even though our win-loss records in the NEWMAC don’t reflect where I know we are, I have to go and peel another layer and look at how many games we lost by maybe one goal or in overtime for basketball,” Nicol said. “If you measure our success in the NEWMAC, it may not reflect progress taken, but this is a process.”
What Nicol ultimately wants for the athletics program is not only records and ranking, but to make an impression on the conference.
“I want the other team to worry about playing Emerson,” Nicol said. “I want them to know that they have to bring their game.”