June 28, 2009

Empire 8 Faces Exodus, Unwanted Growth

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

The Rochester Institute of Technology won the conference lottery.

One of the three schools in the Empire 8 to apply for admission to the Liberty League, along with Ithaca and Nazareth, after Hamilton left to join the NESCAC earlier this spring, RIT was the only institution to receive an invite to participate in the league (effective in 2012) when the president's votes had been tallied a couple of weeks ago.

Conventional wisdom says this is a score for the Tigers, although not necessarily on the lacrosse fields. When schools move conferences, it isn't athletics on their minds. It's about finding a desired peer group (read: better academic reputation), and that's what RIT has found in the Liberty.

While Ithaca, Nazareth and Stevens comprise a fine pool of associates for any school, there were some issues about the commitment of other E8 schools to the academic side of the ledger. So RIT gladly took the Liberty's invitation.

Before we get to the meat of the issue, let's take a quick look at what this means for the RIT lacrosse programs.

Short form: not much. Both the men's and women's teams transition from one competitive conference to another.

On the men's side, there is just one bully for RIT to overcome - St. Lawrence. The Saints are the only school to win a Liberty League title and will be a tough obstacle to overcome. With that said, the Liberty doesn't come close to the rigors of the Empire 8. Clarkson, Skidmore and, for a time, Hamilton, are reasonably tough opponents, but they don't compare to the Ithaca, Naz, Stevens, St. John Fisher swing.

The Tiger women will have tougher sledding. Hamilton's exit opens up some breathing room, but Union instantly becomes the conference bully when the Continentals leave, if not sooner. RIT will also be taking a back seat to William Smith in the pecking order.

There are larger issues at play here, however.

It's one thing for a lone school to eye a change of conference scenery, but three schools scrambling to exit stage left? And what about Stevens? The Ducks just entered the E8 in 2008 and now they are already trying to find another league. My sources say Stevens applied and was accepted to the MAC, but turned down the offer and are now waiting to hear whether it was accepted to the Landmark or readmitted to the Skyline.

If you're counting at home, that would mean four of the nine Empire 8 schools are actively pursuing, or have accepted, affiliation to other conferences.

What has elevated the angst level among the remaining E8 schools is a rumor about an impending addition to the conference to fill the void left by RIT's defection. Both Keuka and Medaille - members of the North East Athletic Conference, a non-AQ league - are thought to be among the schools under consideration to replace the Tigers. While both institutions offer a wide range of opportunities for their student-athletes, their inclusion would certainly change the academic profile of the E8.

These factors point to an unstable future for the Empire 8. If an institution looks around and sees all of its peers trying to bolt, it is going to do the same. There's almost a panicky feeling among E8ers right now.

How panicky? Had RIT not received the invitation from the Liberty league, it had plans to file the paperwork to bump its entire athletic department to the Division I level, joining its men's ice hockey program.

Crazy stuff.

As easy as it would be to say the E8 is on the brink of collapse with all that is going on, there really isn't anywhere for those schools searching for a new conference. The Liberty, with the addition of Bard along with RIT, is chalk full. The SUNYAC is a niche conference. The only possible options are in New England or Pennsylvania, and institutions don't typically look to expand their travel budgets in lean economic times.

So the current members of the E8 will just have to stew, even if Keuka and Medaille are brought on board.

If the E8 can take some solace, it's in the fact that even with the defection of a top-notch program like RIT, the presence of Ithaca, Nazareth and a blossoming St. John Fisher program will keep the league as a power player in the north on both the men's and women's side.

SCAC Update
The SCAC presidents met to determine the fate of the league and its burgeoning automatic-qualifying lacrosse conference on June 11, and the word is the top dogs have opted to keep the conference intact. As with most institutional presidents' meetings, there has been no official release from the conference, but the trickle down info points to the conference adopting an East-West divisional alignment, if not this year, then next.

Obviously, this is great news for the sport of lacrosse. This keeps the SCAC men's auto-bid on course for a 2011 liftoff and the women online for '12.

Wither NDNU?
NDNU will soon be looking for a new coach. Joe Kerwin, the former Oregon coach who guided the Ducks to the MCLA championship game in 2007 before taking the Argos gig, resigned from his position and recently accepted his old position in the club ranks in Eugene.

This is certainly concerning news for NDNU, especially for an NCAA Division II program on a virtual island in the Bay Area - the closest NCAA school is Whittier (385 miles) and the closest NCAA D-II institution is Grand Canyon (736 miles - roughly the distance between Le Moyne and Limestone), meaning supporting this program is not cheap.

In addition, the brainchild of the NDNU experiment, Doug Locker - the architect of the powerhouse Whittier programs of the early part of this decade who started the NDNU program when he was the athletic director - is no longer in a position to advocate for varsity lacrosse in the South San Francisco area. So if NDNU is contemplating cuts to its athletic overhead, lacrosse would probably make the most sense from a travel budget perspective.

But let's hope it doesn't come to that.


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