Change is the only constant in the sports world. After the coronavirus took hold of the planet, that notion especially rang true with most sports being canceled or postponed because of the pandemic.
St. Francis University was dealt another slight blow on June 15 when natural rival Robert Morris University left the Northeast Conference to join the Horizon League in 10 sports officially on July 1. Both schools were founding members of the Eastern College Athletic Conference Metro Conference in 1981. The league was renamed the NEC in 1988.
“It definitely was a surprise to hear Robert Morris was leaving, especially in June,” St. Francis Interim Athletic Director Erika Renwick said. “It’s disappointing when a founding member of our athletics conference leaves after so many years. In college athletics, conference membership is always out there in discussion points, but to actually see something change within a conference with an institution like Robert Morris, it was definitely a surprise to many.”
St. Francis has been the NEC women’s basketball champion in seven of the past 14 seasons.
Coach Keila Whittington said she had heard rumblings Robert Morris would make the jump to the Midwest league.
“I had heard since I arrived that Robert Morris was considering leaving the conference,” Whittington said. “We were told in the recent couple weeks that it was a stronger possibility and last week they officially joined.
“Yes I was surprised, but I knew that they were planning to move forward with trying to get into a different conference for football purposes as well as playing at a higher level for the rest of their sports.”
In football, Robert Morris will be an independent in 2020 before moving to the Big South in 2021. The women’s lacrosse program is set to become an associate member of the Mid-American Conference in 2021.
Last year’s opening of the UPMC Events Center, a 4,000-seat venue for basketball and volleyball, made Robert Morris an attractive property for conferences.
Once Wednesday hits, the NEC will be made up of 10 members: Bryant, Central Connecticut State, Fairleigh Dickinson, Long Island, Merrimack, Mount St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, St. Francis, St. Francis Brooklyn and Wagner. Many schools would travel to Robert Morris and St. Francis on a given roadtrip within the conference due to proximity. Robert Morris’ abrupt move has caused the NEC office to compose another schedule.
“Going forward, they’re not a member for the coming year. The conference office is working hard to rearrange the schedule,” Renwick said. “With them being a travel partner for many of our sports, it definitely impacts our competition schedule for the upcoming year.”
Despite the move, Robert Morris would still be an attractive program to have on St. Francis’ nonconference schedule in various sports. This past March, Robert Morris defeated St. Francis in the NEC Tournament men’s basketball championship game.
Robert Morris and St. Francis met in the women’s basketball title game in 2014, 2018 and 2019.
“Absolutely, we’re really excited about hopefully trying to continue a series with Robert Morris, some type of home-and-home series where we go and play them once a year and they return to us the following year,” Whittington said. “The history of Robert Morris and St. Francis games has a lot of excitement to it. They’ve always been tougher battles in the past, so we’ll definitely look at trying to continue the series if that’s possible.”
With the schools located within two hours of each other, Renwick is in favor of continuing the series given current circumstances.
“I think it’s something that we’ll look at on a sport-by-sport basis, where we are with nonconference game availability in each of those sports,” Renwick said. “Just from a competitive nature and financial perspective and standpoint, I think it would make sense for us to keep Robert Morris as an opponent in the nonconference format. We recruit Pittsburgh so it’s definitely something that we would have to look at.”
While some athletic departments across the country have eliminated sports to offset financial deficits due to COVID-19, Renwick was proud to announce all St. Francis teams are set to return in 2020-21.
“I’m thrilled to be saying we’re having 23 teams and our two spirit groups back. We’re trying to move forward as normal as possible,” she said. “We’re trying to plan in a very challenging environment, but trying to keep things back to normal as much as we can. It changes so much from day to day.”
No teams are currently on campus. The athletic department is planning in this ever-changing landscape for the return of student-athletes to Loretto.
“Everything we have to take into account, ensuring the safety and well-being of our student-athletes is the biggest priority,” Renwick stated. “We’ve been looking at sports medicine protocols. Whatever measures that we’ll be putting in place will yield that result in terms of our student-athletes. Someone said that we’ve become the sellers of hope. We’re hopeful and working towards getting everyone playing.”
Despite the lack of athletic activity over the past three months, Whittington and her staff have adapted on the fly in terms of recruiting.
“We have spent more time on the phone, via phone calls, Zoom calls, a lot of texting, just taking the time to get to know players in a different way,” said Whittington, whose 2020-21 team includes local products Kara Dividock (Portage), Abbi Riskus (Portage) and Haley Thomas (Bishop McCort).
“Normally you don’t get a chance to see players face to face until their official visit or until the home visit or unless they come on your campus. We’ve been able to see people on FaceTime or in a Zoom call, actually getting an opportunity to meet and talk to the families. I think it’s enhanced recruiting for us because now we have many other different options to get to know recruits and their families.”
Basketball players will return in July.
“From July 1 through 19, they can be involved in only voluntary workouts with our strength coach,” Whittington said. “Everything else needs to continue virtually. Beginning July 20, we can start with summer access, meaning that we can start working them out on the basketball court. We are talking to each of the team members and anticipating some of them beginning to return after July 4.”