Updated: Jan 24, 2019
It was just five years ago that the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) came out of a time of exodus with the addition of three new member institutions in Christopher Newport University (CNU), Penn State Harrisburg and Southern Virginia University (SVU). Today, away from that time of resurgence, the CAC has found itself under a different shadow in this era of NCAA Division III conference realignment.
The summer of 2017 proved to be the initial sign that times were changing for the conference founded in 1989. Alongside 2007 addition Wesley College, Marymount University (Va.) announced their intention to depart the CAC, marking the third charter member of the conference to depart. Six schools originally chartered the conference.
This summer the uncertainty continued to unfold in varying ways. After recently joining the conference in 2010, Frostburg State University announced that they had accepted an invittion to join the Mountain East Conference of NCAA Division II. CAC Commissioner Jeff Ligney says that Frostburg State notified the conference of their intention to investigate the idea of a Division II move last fall.
“There’s a philosophy that their president, their athletic director and people on campus shared that they may have the opportunity to be more successful athletically by offering athletic scholarships,” Ligney said.
Other pieces began to fall in place, which led to the eventual departure.
“It really didn’t look like it was going to mount to much, but then some other things in Division II occurred, specifically with the [MEC] having two members leave. That really opened the door for Frostburg to make that transition,” Ligney said. “It was kind of the perfect storm of nothing that we really could see coming.”
Ligney saw much logic in the decision to depart, one he respects considering Frostburg was a notable outlier in the geographic blueprint of the CAC. As a former Division II conference representative, he says that he does not foresee any unconquerable obstacles coming towards the Bobcats in their application for Division II membership.
Later that week in July, multiple media outlets reported that Penn State Harrisburg intended to rejoin their native North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC), after departing the NEAC for the CAC in 2013. This marked the fourth announced departure from the CAC in one year. Only six full-time members remain moving forward into the 2019-20 academic year.
While the departures have come recently, the issue of exoduses has shadowed the CAC since 2007. The conference has lost nine members during the time since then, while briefly adding five new schools that then departed. CNU and SVU are the only two remaining schools that were added in the last decade.
Original charter schools the University of Mary Washington, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, York College of Pennsylvania and 1993 addition Salisbury University are the other schools that remain.
The question for the conference now is, what’s next? The CAC now sits on the edge of the debate to seek out new member institutions or end a long-tenured competitive conference.
For Ligney and the member institutions, the mission for now is to seek new member institutions. The conference commissioner says that all of the athletic directors recently expressed their commitment to the conference this summer.
“They all want to see the CAC succeed and that’s plan ‘A’ for everyone right now, to expand the CAC,” Ligney said.
The plan moving forward is exactly that with the idea to expand with two additions some time during this academic year. While no time table is currently set, Ligney does understand the severity of the situation.
“We definitely need to expand. Right now, we’re looking at having six members in 2019-20,” Ligney said. “That’s certainly going to be difficult, but the good thing is that the NCAA gives conferences a two-year grace period to get their automatic qualification numbers back to where they need to be.”
The NCAA mandates that a conference must have seven members in a given varsity sport to receive an automatic bid to the national tournament at the end of the season. A few CAC sports were already feeling the heat of that threshold before the announced departures of Frostburg State and Penn State Harrisburg.
Ligney is currently optimistic and confident about the future of the conference that he joined early last year. While the immediate challenge is to expand with a few more institutions, he does have a goal in mind down the line.
“We are actively looking at expansion right now, talking to institutions to see what makes sense,” Ligney said. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll get our numbers back up to eight soon and then eventually to 10 and to 12 is where we’d like to be as a conference.”
For now, the CAC readies itself for the upcoming start of the fall varsity sports. After settling in during his first year as commissioner, Ligney looks forward to enjoying the CAC culture this season.
“Now that I’ve gotten a chance to meet everyone and have a taste of CAC sports, I’m really excited about some of the individual players and teams returning,” Ligney said. “We have some national championship contenders this year in a number of different sports, so it’s going to be fun.”
While the top competition continues among the current CAC members on the field, things continue to shake up off the field for Salisbury and their conference. With four conference members departing in the span of just over a year, uncertainty continues to grow for now. It is to be seen what the future holds for the CAC and for the Salisbury Sea Gulls on their schedules.
By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: Penn State Harrisburg and Salisbury most recently met during the CAC Championship in baseball this past spring (Emma Reider images).