The Beacon-MCTV interviewed Jeremy Gibson (Athletic Director), Jackie Ireland (Women’s Soccer Captain), and Erick Browne (Football Captain) to find out more about Merrimack’s transition to D1.
What are some of the regulation and compliance changes that have been going on since the transition to D1?
Jeremy: That’s one of the more challenging aspects of this transition. Fortunately, we’ve had men’s and women’s D1 ice hockey programs for a number of years, so we’ve operated by two sets of rulebooks, and they are big thick things, but now we get to operate by one set of rules. All the rules that we’ve been applying to the hockey program now apply to all our other groups, and there are a lot of different things that range from the size of the rosters, to playable seasons, eligibility, and all sorts of things.
Do you think Merrimack will be adding any teams moving forward due to the D1 changes?
Jeremy: I don’t know if it’s so much about the D1 changes, as it is about the amazing growth we’ve seen on this campus over the past 10 years. I came to Merrimack in 2013, and over a matter of time we’ve added a number of sports, primarily women’s sports. We’ve added a Women’s Swim Team, Track and Field Teams, the Golf Team,with the Women’s Hockey Team in 2013 being the most recent one. We’ve really created over that period of time about 120-140 opportunities in the varsity program for women, and it’s been part of the overall growth strategy for the college as well.
As we go forward, we’re going to look at our conference and the sports that they sponsor as championship sports, and while we fit their profile very closely and offer a lot of the same sports already, there are some that we don’t have right now. Women’s bowling is a championship sport in the NEC and we don’t have it. At some point we probably will, but then we look at the opportunities that we have to meet the interest and ability of our students, and for prospective students… We’ve got a partnership that’s being developed with an organization called SquashBusters, and so there’s the likelihood of having squash on campus at some point.
How many students here currently are athletes, and do you see that number changing moving forward?
Jeremy: We’ve been steadily increasing for a number of years as well. Again going back about 6 or 7 years, we had about 420 varsity student athletes. We now have about 608 on campus, and that’s up from last year by about 50 student athletes. We’ll continue to see some growth as we add some of those other sports. We’ve also seen growth in our club sport program. We have over 400 students on campus participating in a club sport…It’s a really vibrant athletic culture on campus and it’s fun to be a part of that.
How does this recruitment change, how do you see it growing, expanding of where you will be recruiting from?
Jeremy: I think more and more of the sports are going to look like the profile of how the hockey team recruits have looked in the past. Not necessarily quite as international as hockey, but we’ve always had a lot of players on the men’s and women’s side from some of the Scanndanavian countries. Soccer has always been an international sport with a lot of South Americans and Eurpoeans on the team, but most of our other teams were very regional and our strategy for recruiting was to win the best D2 talent in our area and we’ve had a lot of success doing that.
We’re still going to be trying to win our backyard from a recruiting standpoint, but from a geographical point of view, we’re going to be a lot broader, so looking at sports being done more in New Jersey, Pennsylvania…it’s part of why this conference is such a good fit for us. Many of the other schools are spread out into Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, but we’re seeing more and more coaches going down to Florida, Texas, California, and really all over the country to find the best talent that’s out there. It’s a really competitive process, to a) identify the best student athletes, and b.) there are so many other schools competing for them as well. We’ve been thrilled by how well Merrimack has been received by these kids, and we’ve got a lot already committed coming in.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities you guys have faced so far going D1?
Jeremy: The biggest challenge, frankly, was the timeline of putting our schedules together, so we’re just a little over a year past the day where we got the invitation to join the conference and we held a great celebration on campus.We’ve really put our foot on the gas pedal trying to make sure we had all the schedules in place. There’s really two pieces of it. They play their conference schedule, which is all the other teams that are in our conference, and then there’s a non-conference portion, which depending on the sport, might make up about a third of the games that they play…we’ve had to go out and find these other non-conference games. Some of the sports games are scheduled years in advance, so we’ve been having to leverage the relationships we have with colleagues around the country, whether it’s our coaches working with our colleagues, or myself and other people in the administration, just trying to find the matches, and we’re thrilled with what we’re able to do in terms of the opponents.
We have football going down this weekend to play at Lehigh, they’re one of the really historic programs in college football, they’ve been around for over 100 years down there and here we are just our fifth game into being a D1 program and we’re competing against them. In future years, we have games that are scheduled for four years in a row with schools like Holy Cross, and we’re going to be playing at Harvard and UNH next year, so that’s been a challenge and a lot of work to get to that point, but I’m proud of all the efforts that have gone into it.
How are students being helped throughout all this process, I know all the travelling and schoolwork must be hard, so how are students being supported?
Jeremy: One of the great things about Merrimack is that there’s always been this tremendous network of support around not just student athletes, but all students. The things that we’re doing for student athletes moving forward with the D1 piece is a little more focused on the academic side of things. Although the academic standards at the D1 level to be eligible are actually higher than at the D2 level. We’ve always done a really good job of bringing in talented students to be our student athletes, but there’s a real time commitment. A lot of it is about having structure, and making sure, from a time management standpoint, you have a student that’s spending as much time in the classroom as they are on their sport, and making sure they get the tools to be successful, whether it’s from the student success center, or all the different deans in the academic areas, they do a fantastic job of working with all the student athletes.
Interview with Jackie Ireland (Women’s Soccer Captain)
How does not being able to play in the playoffs affect you guys this season?
Jackie: So, it’s definitely been a change. Obviously last year in the NE10 we were able to make the playoffs, in the past few years we were able to make the playoffs, so that part is a big change, but the end goal is to still just compete and show people that we’re able to compete at the D1 level. At the end of the day, we’re trying to achieve that goal.
How have you guys been dealing with the increased attention, especially with going D1 this season?
Jackie: At first it was definitely a scary though, thinking that we’re all going D1 and it’s going to be a huge change, but now that we’re kind of here, it’s been positive attention. We’ve been recognized much more, which I think is pretty cool.
How are you guys managing the increased practices and traveling with balancing school work and life?
Jackie: Travelwise, it’s been different. Last week we had a 10 hour bus ride, which was pretty long. So, that was definitely a lot different from last year, but we have a really good team so honestly it was fun. Last year our longest bus ride was six hours. These small changes do impact us a little bit, even academically, because we are missing classes, but there’s been a lot of support from our academic advisers and stuff like that kinda helping us through.
Do you feel more emphasis on being an athlete than a student this season?
Jackie: I’d say yes, slightly, but only because of the publicity and the little bit of pressure on us, but I think it’s good pressure, honestly. I think it’s a way for us to share what we are able to do, and without that pressure, no one would care as much as they do right now, so I think it’s definitely positive.
How much was your practice schedule altered since you’ve gone D1?
Jackie: surprisingly it hasn’t changed that much. So basically we practice every single day except for one day during the week, and it’s usually the day after a game.
Interview with Erick Browne (Football Captain)
How does not being able to play in the playoffs affect you guys this season?
Erick– We have the same goal and mission every day: to compete, to be consistent every day, and to be a great teammate.
With the D1 transition there’s a lot more attention on you guys, how do you guys deal with that?
Erick: You deal with it by not changing anything. Just go out there and do the things you were doing before. If you’re doing all the right things, continue that and build upon it. Go into class, go into study hall, if you have that, and make a positive impact on the community. Have the same practice habits, still compete, still go hard, still play fast, and still play for the men next year.
How are you managing with the increased traveling by balancing school life and everything?
Erick: Traveling. I’d say that’s been the biggest difference. Not the competition or anything, just the traveling. But the guys have embraced it. It’s nice to go out, and play some new teams, see some new places, because football gives you the opportunity to take you to places you couldn’t really go if you don’t have those opportunities. Guys are still enjoying it now and are going to keep enjoying the traveling we have until the end of the season.
Do you feel any more pressure or more emphasis on being an athlete rather than being a student athlete in the D1 world?
Erick: I don’t feel any more pressure being an athlete because Merrimack has an academic standard that was always high. The athletics has come up some, but speaking on behalf of some of my teammates, every player here feels like they could’ve played at this level from today to the past, or in the future. They all believe in their talents and the work they put in, and that D1 football isn’t that big of a jump. D1, at the end of the day, is still just football, and you got a game plan, you practice, you work on that game plan, and you go out there and show it off every Saturday.
What are you guys hoping to get out of this D1 transition?
Erick: We’re hoping to get everything out of it…and that means putting everything into practice, in preparation in the film room, the weight room, and lastly, on the field.