Two NJIT sports, women’s tennis and men’s soccer, have been invited to join and accepted membership in conferences whose championship team receives an automatic spot in the postseason NCAA Division I championship field.Described as “associate” or “affiliate” membership, the women’s tennis team will play for the America East Conference championship in tournament play to be held April 25 to 27 in Baltimore at UMBC. Men’s soccer will join the Sun Belt Conference, which is reinstating the sport as its 18th championship offering beginning in September.
NJIT’s path into the two respective conferences for a specific sport is not altogether uncommon. In broad-based multisport conferences such as the America East and Sun Belt, not all full members sponsor teams in every championship sport. As a result, conferences will take in associate member programs in order to bolster the number of teams in a given sport. Such circumstances came into play with NJIT women’s tennis and the America East and NJIT men’s soccer in the Sun Belt.
The America East Conference is a multi-sport grouping with nine full-time member institutions located on the East Coast, with members as far south as UMBC and as far north and east as the University of Maine. The conference conducts championships in 19 sports.
The women’s tennis champion of the America East, determined in tournament competition, automatically qualifies for a berth in the NCAA Division I national tournament. In-season scheduling is not a requirement in the AEC for tennis. However, the Highlanders will take on America East members UAlbany, Binghamton, and defending champion Stony Brook in regular season competition. NJIT will host UAlbany on February 14 and Binghamton on March 8 before visiting Stony Brook on April 13.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for our women's tennis team,” said NJIT coach Mike Sowter, who has led both the men’s and women’s teams since 2008-09, guiding the women to an 80-39 record. “I think it's great for college tennis to develop conference rivalries and we are all excited to play for an America East title and a potential trip to the NCAA National Championships."
Coincidentally, the associate membership in the America East offers a championship opportunity for the six members of the NJIT women’s tennis team in the Class of 2014. In 2011 and 2012, their first and second years, respectively, the Highlanders were champions of the Great West Conference, which did not conduct a women’s tennis championship in 2013 due to not having enough teams in the sport and then ceased operations entirely on July 1, 2013. The Great West champion did have an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
In men’s soccer, the Highlanders are part of a six-team group consisting teams representing full-time members Appalachian State University (Boone, NC), Georgia Southern University (Statesboro), and Georgia State University (Atlanta), plus affiliate members NJIT, Hartwick College (Oneonta, NY), and Howard University (Washington, DC).
The teams will play a single round-robin conference schedule consisting of five regular season games, followed by a conference tournament to be hosted by a member institution. The championship format will see the top two teams from the regular season earning a bye into the tournament semifinals. A date and site for the championship will be announced in May. The winner will earn the coveted automatic qualifying bid to the NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship.
“NJIT is very excited to be part of the Sun Belt Conference,” said Director of Athletics Lenny Kaplan. ”It gives our student-athletes and coaches the competition and championship opportunity they deserve.”
Head coach Didier Orellana led NJIT to a 7-9-2 record in 2013 against an Independent schedule that saw the Highlanders play 12 of their 18 matches away from home, including a pair of one-goal losses on the road against nationally-ranked St. John’s (#19 at the time) and Fairleigh Dickinson (#22).
Orellana said: “It's an exciting day for the NJIT men's soccer program and Highlander family. It's always special to be a part of history and have an opportunity to compete for postseason play against highly reputable soccer programs and be a part of the highly-respected Sun Belt Conference. These developments are not only advantageous for men's soccer, but will surely elevate NJIT's national exposure.”
This move to add men’s soccer to its championship offerings actually is a rebirth of the sport in the Sun Belt, which conducted men’s soccer championships from 1976 to 1995.
“The reintroduction of men’s soccer to the Sun Belt Conference means that we will be able to provide valuable opportunities for student-athletes and deliver them a first-class championship experience,” said Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson. “Our new affiliate members provide us with a full field of competitive teams and we welcome them to the Sun Belt Conference.
“We are looking forward to having an automatic qualifier in the sport to represent us in the NCAA postseason,” said Benson. “And we are optimistic at the possibility of sending multiple teams to the tournament field each year.”
For NJIT, the opportunity to play in the Sun Belt Conference is a boon for its men’s soccer program, which played as a Division I Independent in 2012 and 2013.
The first NJIT program to move to the Division I level in 2004, men’s soccer was then part of the Atlantic Soccer Conference, which had an automatic qualifying berth for the NCAAs until 2007, when it fell below the minimum number of programs needed to retain an NCAA bid. The ASC continued without an NCAA bid for its champion from 2008 to 2011, but folded after that.
The three new affiliate members of the Sun Belt were all part of the old ASC at some point, with Howard belonging for the entirety (2000-2011), NJIT belonging from 2004 to 2011, and Hartwick, a founding member in 2000, departing for the Mid-American Conference, where it played from 2007 through 2013.
Among the three full members of the Sun Belt Conference with men’s soccer, Appalachian State previously played in the Southern Conference, posting a 4-7-7 overall record in 2013; Georgia Southern also played in the Southern Conference and was 9-10 overall in 2013; Georgia State was 9-9-1 in 2013 as an Independent and made the NCAA field as recently as 2011, when it was in the powerful Colonial Athletic Association.
NJIT continues active pursuit of full membership in one of the multi-sport Division I conferences.