MJ: Hamilton Finally Heading Home
There is no place like home. For the Hamilton men's lacrosse team, which makes its return to the New England Small College Athletic Conference this spring, it could be a very rude sort of homecoming. The Continentals are transitioning from the Liberty League, in which they finished with a 3-3 record and failed to make the four-team conference tournament, into a circuit that is, from top to bottom, far more rugged.
If jumping into the stiffest men's Division III lacrosse league wasn't enough, the NESCAC has given Hamilton a perverse house-warming gift to start the season. While the Continentals will begin 2012 in their bucolic, CNY homestead, they will be tasked with entertaining Tufts – a program that has played in the last two NCAA Division III national title games – in the opener. As if that wasn't enough, a grizzled Wesleyan team will visit Clinton, N.Y., the very next day.
Welcome home, indeed.
Neither head coach Scott Barnard nor the rest of the Continentals believed the immersion in the NESCAC would be an easy road. However, they now finally know that Hamilton will no longer be at a competitive disadvantage. Despite playing in the Liberty League, which operated under the traditional NCAA expectations, the Hamilton athletic department was bound by the draconian NESCAC mandates that not only stipulated that there are no organized fall practices, but that teams must wait until Feb. 15 to start spring practice – a solid month after their former Liberty rivals.
"We're getting back on the same page with all of the other conference schools we compete against, which we're excited about," said Barnard. "The playing field is finally level. Even though we were a NESCAC school playing in the Liberty League, we weren't playing by the Liberty League rules."
Barnard, like many Hamiltonians, is prickly about the notion the Continentals reconnection with the NESCAC is a somehow a monumental development. He quickly points out that Hamilton was a founding member of the conference and that 21 of the 28 sponsored varsity programs already are full NESCAC members in their respective sports. As such, there is a high level of anticipation for Hamilton lacrosse to embrace its roots.
"They couldn't be more excited about the opportunity," said Barnard, referring to his players. "We're leaving some great colleagues and great rivalries in the Liberty League, and, in a sense, it's tough moving on from that. But the NESCAC is where we belong."
While it remains unsaid by those closely involved, one of the key factors in Hamilton hitching back up with the NESCAC in a full capacity is the type of student-athlete that will be drawn to the institution. While the Liberty League was undoubtedly comprised of solid academic institutions, to cast ones lot with the likes of Amherst, Bowdoin, Tufts and Williams is a no-brainer. That holds true on both the academic and athletic level.
"If you're a young man and I'm talking to you about Hamilton College and you have the choice to go to Bowdoin or Amherst or one of these other NESCAC schools, in the past we had to convince them to come to Hamilton by selling the NESCAC education, but yet we were playing in the Liberty League," said Barnard. "No offense to the Liberty League; it's a great academic conference and a great lacrosse conference. It's just different. For the last couple of years we've been telling student-athletes we're going to open up in the NESCAC in 2012, which we've been able to use to our advantage. We're recruiting NESCAC young men who will now play in the NESCAC."
Barnard already has a recruiting haul coming in this spring, including top players from New York, Connecticut and Maryland. Add that to a team that only lost a handful of seniors and the Continentals may not be the tomato cans most people expect them to be.
There won't be many welcoming committees lined up at the other conference schools, but if Hamilton maximizes its potential, the Continentals could quickly make themselves at home in the NESCAC.