An uncertain future is looming for the Capital Athletic Conference.
Since 2018, five schools have decided to leave the CAC. Marymount University and Wesley College moved to the Atlantic East Conference (AEC) last year, while Frostburg State upgraded to Division II and Penn State Harrisburg returned to its former conference, the North Eastern Athletic Conference.
York College of Pennsylvania recently announced that it will become the 18th member of the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) and the 10th member of the MAC Commonwealth division beginning in the 2020-21 season. St. Mary’s College of Maryland also announced that its field hockey team will compete as an affiliate of the AEC next fall.
While the CAC has a reputation as a “transition conference,” commissioner Jeff Ligney is looking for permanent solutions.
In July of 2017, Ligney took the reins as the commissioner of the CAC. At the time, the CAC had ten members and appeared to be thriving.
Meanwhile, Marymount and Wesley were in negotiations to join the recently formed AEC. They officially became members in February of 2018.
The departures of Frostburg State and Penn State Harrisburg dropped the CAC to just six schools for the 2019-20 season. Once York departs, there will be only five.
Conferences with fewer than seven teams risk losing their automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA allows a two-year grace period before removing the bid.
Ligney said that while this has been a trying time for the CAC, the ultimate goal for all parties is stability.
“My goal as commissioner is to find stability … which means we can’t just look at the quick fixes, we need to find partners that really want to be partners and want to be with us for the long haul,” Ligney said. “That’s made the process longer than we had hoped, but it is also leading us to some good conclusions as we try to shore up our membership issues.”
Institutions have several factors to consider when choosing an athletic conference. Location and enrollment are the two most important to note when it comes to Division III athletics.
In almost every instance, geographical location is the key factor in the decision. York’s move is no exception.
York’s geographical location has always been an advantage for filling schedules, as they are surrounded by other Division III universities. Moving to the MAC allows them to take advantage of the nearby schools and cuts down on travel for conference games.
Paul Saikia, assistant dean for athletics and recreation for York, said that the geographical competition that the MAC offered was the main reason for choosing to leave the CAC.
“We were very much embedded in the CAC and actively taking part in looking for new members,” Saikia said. “But the opportunity from the MAC was one that had been explored by York College and the MAC reaching back all the way to the 1980s because geographically, it’s a very sensible fit.”
However, there is some concern regarding the dwindling numbers of the CAC.
Saikia shared this concern and acknowledged that it also played a role in the decision for York to leave the CAC.
“With schools leaving the CAC, it has become a precarious situation, and for the betterment of our athletic program and our student-athletes, we felt that this would be heading into a more stable situation,” Saikia said.
Scott Devine, director of athletics and recreation for St. Mary’s, declined to comment on the decision to move the field hockey team to the Atlantic East.
The shrinking of the CAC has significantly changed the way that coaches go about scheduling opponents. Many teams are being forced into a home-and-home schedule, meaning they play each of their conference opponents twice in conference play.
Salisbury University’s Sports Information director Cyrill Parham said that scheduling is one of the main issues that the schools in the CAC are currently facing.
“Scheduling is probably the biggest thing … for example, volleyball being away from home for a month having to play in these multi-team tournaments to fill a schedule, men’s and women’s soccer having to travel to Virginia to fill their schedule,” Parham said. “I think it will be a problem moving forward, but it leans on the creativity of some of the coaches in terms of filling their schedule.”
Salisbury has found ways to fill its schedules by utilizing some of the alliances it has established with schools in the region outside of the CAC.
Parham said that these schools could prove to be important for Salisbury going forward, especially if numbers continue to drop.
“There’s still some strong teams in the region that we can play,” Parham said. “Schools like Stevenson, Johns Hopkins or Washington College who are close enough … and still provide that strength of schedule that looks good when you’re looking for postseason bids, especially if the CAC loses their automatic qualifier in a couple years.”
These problems reach further than the fall season. Spring sports are also feeling the pinch from the lack of teams in conference play.
Salisbury Men’s Lacrosse Head Coach Jim Berkman said that the current scheduling issues may be one of the most challenging in collegiate sports.
“If we talk about all the issues in college sports, I think we might be in the most difficult situation,” Berkman said. “As coaches, it’s very frustrating because we don’t know what to do right now.”
Public institutions are in the minority in Division III athletics. Around 80% of Division III schools are private institutions.
By contrast, four of the six institutions in the CAC are public: Salisbury, the University of Mary Washington, Christopher Newport University and St. Mary’s.
Most private schools prefer to compete with other private schools as they tend to be of similar size. A public school like Salisbury, with over 8,000 students and some of the top facilities in Division III, scares most private schools away.
Salisbury’s Director of Athletics and Recreation Gerry DiBartolo said this is a big reason why there has been no quick or easy solution.
“A lot of conferences put into their bylaws that they will only entertain membership from private institutions,” DiBartolo said. “That creates a lot of difficulty for us as a public institution in that our academic standards are high, obviously we put a good product on the field or court, our facilities are exceptional, so we’re hitting all the right things, but the big issue is we’re a public institution.”
This has been a problem for the CAC, as there are few public schools in the area and most schools are already aligned with a conference.
Ligney echoed this, citing the geography of the area as a roadblock for trying to fix the numbers issue.
“We are surrounded by a large majority of small, private schools … If you’re a small private school, and you look at some of our institutions, there’s some trepidation,” Ligney said. “The budgets that some of our schools operate at have been a factor, and just the enrollment of an institution … that’s something that hasn’t really played a role in Division III, but in the last five or ten years, it has become a huge issue.”
Aside from the four public schools in the CAC, there are three other areas with Division III public schools. These schools are in New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin.
But even if travel to some of these schools was not an issue, these places do not offer a feasible solution. All the large public DIII schools in these areas have their own conferences in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, the State University of New York Athletic Conference and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
There is no real alternative to the CAC for the four public schools that are involved. Because of this, these schools have been working hard to find potential solutions and other schools to help fill the schedules.
DiBartolo is pleased with the job the Salisbury coaches have done in finding opponents for this season despite the struggles.
“Our coaches are trying to figure out what kind of schedule they can put together and how many games they can get in prior to the rigors of conference scheduling,” DiBartolo said. “They’re working real hard at it, I can tell you that much.”
With the two-year clock ticking, Ligney and the CAC are actively pursuing new members and need to find schools to introduce to the conference.
However, Ligney said the recent events have changed the goals surrounding the pursuit of new schools.
“It’s led us to take a little bit of a different mindset here,” Ligney said. “We are now looking at stability, we’re not looking at schools that might be the best geographic fit, we’re not looking necessarily at schools that might be the best competitive fit, we’re looking at schools that are the best all-around fit … we’re looking at more of a partnership and building a relationship with these institutions that goes beyond athletics.”
Despite the alarming situation in the conference, Salisbury has no real alternatives. The hope is that the situation will be resolved long before the automatic qualifier is in danger.
Ligney is optimistic that a solution will be found sooner rather than later.
“We would like to have our membership situation settled by June 30 of 2020,” Ligney said. “We’re looking at two or three different scenarios … I believe we’re on the right path and we’re close, within a couple of months, to having the situation addressed.”
By NICK LEWIS
Featured photo: Sports Information image.