Image credit: (Photo courtesy of New Jersey Tech)
The America East Conference on Friday welcomed New Jersey Institute of Technology as its newest member, bringing the league up to eight members for baseball.
From a geography standpoint, it’s a natural fit, as the conference’s membership is tightly clustered in the northeast of the country from northernmost member Maine to southernmost member Maryland-Baltimore County.
“We think it’s a great fit. We feel it’s regionally really good for us,” NJIT coach Robbie McClellan said. “As a university, as a coaching staff, and (among) returning players, we’re all super excited.”
The hope for NJIT is that it has now found a conference affiliation that feels a little more like home after more than a decade of trying to be a square peg fitting into a round hole.
The Highlanders began the move up to Division I in time for the 2007 season, spending their first three seasons as an independent.
Beginning in 2010, they joined the Great West Conference, a former football-only league that was transitioning to an all-sports league. From a baseball perspective, it was a conference made up of schools spread out all over the country, many of which had recently reclassified from Division II, that had been left behind in the most recent rounds of realignment.
Because the league didn’t have an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to award, it was as much a scheduling alliance as an actual conference, and when a 2012 Utah Valley team that went 28-0 in the Great West and won 40 of 41 games down the stretch failed to garner an at-large bid, it hammered home the fact that it was not a place to be for any program looking to play on the biggest stages.
When some of the schools in the Great West found permanent conference homes, the league officially disbanded at the end of the 2013 season, which pushed NJIT back to being an independent.
“Scheduling was obviously hard because you kind of take what you can get. That was tough to handle sometimes,” McClellan said. “The hardest part was just probably (feeling) for the kids. You bust your butt all season, you’re starting to get better, you’re feeling good about your team and then the season ends because you don’t have the opportunity to play postseason baseball because you’re not in a conference.”
Ahead of the 2016 season, the Highlanders found a home in the Atlantic Sun Conference. As members of a quality baseball conference with a path to the postseason, you could say that NJIT was outfitted with better tools to fit the square peg in the round hole, but as a team in New Jersey in a conference with nearly half of its membership in Florida, they were still very much a square peg.
“When you’re NJIT and you’re going down to play Florida Gulf Coast, it’s exciting and it’s fun, but you don’t really feel the rivalry,” McClellan said.
The expectation is that the move to the America East remedies many of NJIT’s previous concerns.
For one thing, NJIT will no longer be living a fundamentally different existence than the rest of its conference when it comes to weather and everything that comes with that. In the Atlantic Sun, the Highlanders were the only team that could all but guarantee that they weren’t going to be able to get outside to practice in the leadup to the season and they were always several weeks behind the rest of the league in terms of playing their first home games.
In the America East, that inequity disappears.
“In the America East, they have the same weather that we have, they practice inside, so from a fairness standpoint, we’re pretty excited for that,” McClellan said.
In the same way, it removes a recruiting disadvantage that came from NJIT trying to keep up with A-Sun programs located in some of the biggest baseball hotbeds in the country. There are talented players in the northeast and NJIT has had some success recruiting outside of its footprint, but it undoubtedly made it hard for the Highlanders to keep pace.
Just from a logistics standpoint, it also makes the lives of the coaches and players a little bit easier. While trips for conference games in Florida or Georgia in March might have been nice escapes to warmer weather, it wasn’t easy on NJIT’s budget and, as the season winds down, those long trips can take a toll on everyone.
Moving forward in a post-pandemic world that might involve more regional scheduling in college baseball, it also won’t hurt to have far fewer baked-in cross-country trips each season.
Being in the A-Sun had its perks, of course. Most importantly, it got NJIT out of the purgatory that is being an independent, but McClellan also admits that playing in a highly-competitive league helped push his program forward.
“Competing against those schools helped us raise our level of play, and that’s one of the reasons we’re trending upward as a program, just because we’ve played so much good baseball against great competition the last three or four years,” he said.
The progress is clear, albeit gradual. After winning just two conference games each of its first two seasons in the Atlantic Sun, NJIT was much more competitive the last two years, and even made the six-team conference tournament in 2018. It went 22-25 that year and 9-12 in the A-Sun. It slipped back in 2019 to 17-27-1 and 7-17 in conference play, and was off to a 6-10 start this season before the season’s cancellation.
Playing in the A-Sun may have helped push them in the right direction. Perhaps that upward trajectory even would have continued had the Highlanders stuck around. It seems more likely, however, that the key next step for NJIT growing and finding consistency as a program was to find a home in a conference that made sense from all angles, and the America East certainly feels like a fit in that regard.