Both academic and athletic considerations were cited as factors yesterday when UMBC was officially welcomed as the 10th university in the America East conference at the school's Recreation and Activities Center.
"This really is a natural fit," said league commissioner Chris Monasch. "We were looking for a while for a 10th member, and our presidents were very clear that it had to be someone special. This is a hotbed of both students and athletes."
The move becomes effective for the 2003-04 academic year and ends UMBC's five-year association with the Northeast Conference. During their first four years in the NEC, the Retrievers won the Commissioner's Cup (symbolic of overall program excellence) four times and 30 separate league titles.
"This is the next logical step in our program's growth and development," said UMBC athletic director Dr. Charles Brown. "It was time to move ahead to greater challenges. This is a step up."
All 20 Retrievers teams - 11 women's and nine men's - will compete in America East, marking the first time that has happened in the school's 17-year Division I history. Men's lacrosse and men's swimming had been affiliated with the Eastern College Athletic Conference, with the swimmers taking six straight league championships.
UMBC joins three New York-based schools - Albany, Binghamton and Stony Brook - two from Boston - Northeastern and Boston University - the state universities of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, and one Connecticut school, Hartford. The league gains 12 automatic NCAA championship berths, including in men's and women's basketball, lacrosse and soccer.
"A lot of my past teammates are in this league, one of them my best friend [Kevin Reed at Maine]," said men's basketball forward John Zito, a Connecticut native. "So, I like the move, I'm very familiar with most of these areas.
"It [competition] may be a little tougher, but I know they have better facilities than the Northeast teams."
Men's basketball coach Tom Sullivan is aware that winter travel to the most northeastern section of the nation can be a harrowing experience, as Towson learned firsthand during its 1995-2001 stint in America East.
"I think that travel is something the conference is going to help us with," said Sullivan. "This is the first time we've been in a conference in which schools are nationally recognized. You can see the enthusiasm that generates already. It's a tremendous thing for UMBC."
"I've heard some stories about traveling up there," said Zito, who had recruiting overtures from the two Boston schools. "It'll mean we're on the road more and it'll be harder to keep up with classes. But except for going to Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, the travel is about equal to the Northeast."
UMBC was reclassified Division I in 1986, entered the East Coast Conference in 1990, then went to the Big South Conference two years later. In 1998, the Retrievers became affiliated with the Northeast.
Little more than a year ago, UMBC produced its first national champion as a Northeast member when Cleopatra Borel won the shot put at the NCAA indoor track and field championships. UMBC also had five alumni on this season's MISL champion Blast roster - Giuliano Celenza, Jason Dieter, Billy Nelson, P.J. Wakefield and Andy Wells - and two currently on Major League Baseball rosters - Jay Witasick (San Diego) and Wayne Franklin (Milwaukee).
America East has schools with enrollments between 10,000 and 20,000 students.