About a decade ago, the Southern New Hampshire University Athletic Department was at a crossroads. The New England Collegiate Conference was on the verge of folding, with several schools moving up to Division I. Unless they could find a new conference, the Penmen would be forced into life as an independent, making it hard to put together schedules and virtually impossible to make NCAA tournaments.
In the fall of 1999, SNHU, along with NECC rivals Southern Connecticut, UMass Lowell and Franklin Pierce, were invited to the Northeast-10 Conference, New England’s other Division II conference at the time. With Saint Rose also joining, the Northeast-10 was set to compete with 15 members starting in the fall of 2000.
“I felt we had to get in a conference, and at the time there were only two left in the region. We had to take measures to get into either one,” said SNHU Director of Athletics Chip Polak, who spearheaded the move to the Northeast-10 along with former Vice President George Larkin and former President Richard Gustafson. “The Northeast-10 is where we should be, and it’s a perfect fit.”
It didn’t take long for SNHU to get comfortable. The men’s soccer team captured the Northeast-10 Tournament title in its first year in the league. The past decade has arguably been the best 10-year stretch for Penmen athletics in history. SNHU teams captured six Northeast-10 titles, led by men’s soccer’s three. Golf took a pair of titles, while women’s tennis earned the league crown in 2010. The Penmen made 15 NCAA Tournament appearances by six different teams, including three that had never appeared in the NCAAs (golf, women’s tennis, softball). All but one of SNHU’s 15 athletic programs has competed in a league tournament.
As a testament to its broad based success, the Penmen were seventh out of 15 schools in the Northeast-10 President’s Cup in 2008-09, which measures the overall success of Northeast-10 athletic departments. SNHU was able to accomplish this despite sponsoring the league minimum for sports.
“A lot of the success we’ve had, it’s because we have had great coaches,” Polak said. “The competition’s been a lot tougher in all sports, which is a good thing. Fortunately, we’ve been able to have success in such a competitive conference.”
A Boon to Athletics
During its association with the Northeast-10, SNHU athletics has grown considerably. Three sports were reinstated after a decade-long hiatus (men’s and women’s tennis, men’s golf) and a fourth (women’s lacrosse) was added in spring 2004. An addition to the athletic complex, including a new fitness center and four new locker rooms, was completed in 2001. The soccer/lacrosse field, now known as Larkin Field, received artificial turf in the summer of 2003. The school’s baseball and softball fields as well as the tennis courts have all been renovated. Prior to joining the Northeast-10, athletic scholarships were only offered in a handful of sports; now they are available in more than a dozen.
“If we were going to join the Northeast-10, we had to upgrade whatever we were doing,” said veteran SNHU men’s basketball coach Stan Spirou. “The school has done a great job of staying on top of what we need. Our fitness room is second to none. We’ve always had a good basketball arena, but maybe we were lacking in some of the other stuff we needed to compete. Now, we’ve gone ahead of many of the schools we’re competing against.”
Terry Prouty, who has served as women’s soccer coach since 1999 and was SNHU’s softball coach for seven years, agrees.
“We’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years, both as a department and as a university,” said Prouty, who was a two-sport standout at SNHU and is in the Athletic Hall of Fame. “We do things right here, and I think we have to, to stay competitive.”
With its reputation as one of the top Division II conferences in the country, the Northeast-10 offers SNHU teams a challenge every game, something not necessarily true in the NECC or in other conferences in the region. The conference routinely sends multiple teams to nearly every NCAA championship. In the past decade, 10 league teams have captured national championships.
“(In the NECC) as a player, you knew there were games that were going to be a win. Same as a coach: You knew there were teams at the bottom you could beat and it wasn’t going to be a problem,” said Prouty, who guided the Penmen to the NCAA Tournament in 2003. “Now, in the Northeast-10, with 16 teams, No. 16 can beat No. 1, No. 2, No. 3. You’ve got to get kids to look at it, that every game counts, and that this conference is extremely tough.”
Like Prouty, Spirou has had success in the Northeast-10, guiding the Penmen to a pair of league title game appearances and three NCAA appearances. However, Spirou said that excellence was harder to achieve.
“The Northeast-10 is one of the best, if not the best, in the country. There’s not a night as a coach where you can say that we don’t have to bring our A game. (In the NECC) there were games that you knew if you just came in and played, you would get a W. You can’t say that in this league.”