Highlanders depart Atlantic Sun for Northeast-focused conference

Heading into the uncertain 2020-21 season, the America East (AE) conference recruited the NJIT Highlanders as its 10th member to its roster of competitors. Offering 19 Division I athletics teams to its over 11,000 students, 14 will participate in the AE. NJIT offers all of the AE’s major team sports with the exceptions of field hockey and women’s lacrosse.

“We are thrilled to welcome NJIT as America East’s 10th member institution,” said AE Commissioner Amy Huchthausen. “We have always been steadfast in our approach to membership and have not wavered from our belief that our institutions should share similar profiles and core values and fall within a compact geographic footprint. NJIT meets all these requirements and will strengthen our conference in all facets. They will be a great addition to our league.”

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench into sports across the world, and college teams have felt the repercussions. In a time when conferences and schools around the country are struggling, this move strongly benefits the AE and NJIT. Joining the AE seems like a timely decision for the institution due to its geographic difficulties in its previous conference, the Atlantic Sun (ASUN). Other members included Florida Gulf Coast, North Alabama and Kennesaw State, all located in the South. The costs and time commitment of traveling such distances were high, and in the wake of the pandemic were a health and budgetary concern for NJIT players, staff and coaches.

“[Location] certainly had a factor in it, because they were in a geographically unfavorable conference,” said AE commissioner Amy Huchthausen. “I think that, coupled with our interest in trying to continue to build more regionally, that maybe wouldn’t have happened as quickly in the pre-pandemic days. Not everything that comes out of the pandemic is bad news. This was looked at as an opportunity. We’ve been trying to be intentional if we were going to expand on schools that fit academically, athletically and geographically, and they check all of those boxes in a very obvious way.”

In the academic sphere, NJIT has gradually improved and broke into the U.S. News & World Report’s Top 100 National Universities list.

In the past, Binghamton and NJIT have battled it out in nonconference play in men’s basketball and played this past season for the first time in women’s basketball. Last year’s matchup between the men’s teams at NJIT was a nail-biter that ended with a game-winning layup from former Binghamton guard Sam Sessoms, who scored 33 points. Women’s basketball rolled past the Highlanders last season, winning 75-40 at the Events Center in December.

Men’s soccer paved the way for the rest of NJIT athletics into Division I, transitioning in 2004. The rest of the teams joined them in 2006, and NJIT became a full Division I member. Last season, the men’s soccer squad was the highlight of NJIT athletics, securing an ASUN regular season title and an ASUN conference tournament title, the school’s first since their transition into Division I, capped off with the first NCAA tournament entry in school history. The team also earned ASUN Coach of the Year, Player of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year and Freshman of the Year awards.

In basketball, NJIT’s team posted a 22-13 record in 2018-19, before falling in the ASUN semifinals, earning both an all-time school win record and a vote in the AP Poll for the first time under head coach Brian Kennedy. The Highlanders followed up that season with a 9-21 record in 2019-20. Women’s basketball has struggled as of late, winning a combined 10 games in the last two seasons.

Many decisions will have to be made regarding NJIT’s integration into the AE, particularly those involving the basketball schedule and playoff format. Thus far, no decisions have been made regarding the future, and the pandemic is likely to have an effect on this year’s procedures.

“That is to be determined,” Huchthausen said. “We were just starting those conversations before the fall sports decision happened, and now that I think we know that this year’s basketball season is going to look probably different, even though we have no idea what that means right now, it’s hard to say what the new normal is going to look like.”