The New England Small Colleges Athletic Conference (NESCAC) has worked hard to establish itself over the years as an academically oriented conference made up of teams that also excel at the pinnacle of Division III sports. NESCAC’s primary focus has been to achieve the highest levels of athletic play while maintaining an “academics-first” commitment. Throughout their successful campaign to remain one of the premier conferences in all of college sports in the balancing of academics and athletics, NESCAC has instituted a number of regulations preventing sports seasons from consuming too much of the focus of the academic year.
Football, basketball and hockey are just several of NESCAC sports that feel the influence of strict conference rules which prohibit teams from fully participating in post-season competition. NESCAC football teams are restricted to two weeks of pre-season preparation and are forbidden to participate in any form of post-season play. In the last week the Ephs sports community saw first-hand how a NESCAC rule limiting teams to one post-season tournament a year can make for difficult decisions in March.
This year’s Men’s Hockey team finished the regular season with an accomplished 18-5-1 record and a second place finish in the ECAC East. Despite their regular season accomplishments, the club was prevented from participating in a post-season competition in part because of a NESCAC rule. The hockey team had been invited to participate in the ECAC Championship, but because the NESCAC limits them to only one post-season tournament, the team was left to choose between the guarantee of the ECAC and the questionable possibility of playing in the NCAAs. The Ephs decided to forego their ECAC invitation and wait for a bid in the more competitive NCAA National Tournament. It was a unanimous decision that the NCAAs were what they deserved and had been striving for.
Unfortunately, the NCAA decided not to select Williams to the national tournament, and a talented and exciting team was now out of the running for any post-season play. NCAA representatives involved in the decision were not available for comment at press time, leaving the criteria by which teams are evaluated somewhat of a mystery. As a result, the team and their fans missed the opportunity to see how Williams would fare at the national level, and this was disappointing to both parties.
Principally, NESCAC should not have a rule that puts a team like men’s hockey in such a precarious position; leaving them to guess whether they will be granted a national bid while at the same time having to decline the opportunity for a regional title. The one tournament rule puts teams in the tricky position of having to roll the dice when it comes to deciding how their season will end. The only decisions that should matter are the ones made during competition over the course of the season, and from those performances teams should have the uninhibited opportunity to take their skills to the best tournament possible. Whether that is the ECAC or the NCAA, the decision should not fall on the team to evaluate their own performance.
Because of the restrictions of the NESCAC rule, Williams was denied the pure joy and excitement that comes with playing for a post-season championship; one that they would have treasured whether or not it was at the national level. Their counterparts outside of NESCAC all get the chance to qualify and play in the ECAC tournament, and if deserving, the chance to do the same a week later at the NCAA tournament.
It should not come down to an all-or-nothing predicament for a team that battled with great success and emotion for 24 games this season. They made Williams proud, and the fans missed the chance to see them at their best when heading into a post-season championship because of a well-intentioned but ineffective conference rule. Regardless, the season will be remembered best for its hard-fought triumphs and the team’s unregrettable goal to prove they sit among the top in Division III hockey.