BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — Officials at the Mountain East Conference (MEC) announced Thursday that they have unanimously approved an associate membership agreement with The University of North Carolina at Pembroke that will affect the sports of football, swimming & diving, men’s and women’s indoor track & field and wrestling.
As part of the partnership, all five teams will now be eligible to receive conference awards associated with those sports, including conference team and individual championships, all-conference and conference weekly awards and recognition on their respective sport’s all-academic team. The Braves will compete as early as the 2019-20 season in swimming & diving, as well as indoor track & field and wrestling, while football will begin MEC competition in Fall 2020.
The MEC’s proposed football scheduling format will allow UNCP to preserve a Non-Conference Week 1 format for local in-state rivalries. UNCP will continue with its South Atlantic scheduling agreement in football through the 2019 season.
The partnership also marks a historic point in the NCAA Division II era (1992-present) for UNCP Athletics in that all 16 of its varsity sports will now have conference homes for the first time. It will also allow the University to further expand its recruiting footprint into the northeast United States as well.
“This is an exciting announcement, both for our athletics department and our University,” said UNCP Chancellor Dr. Robin G. Cummings. “This partnership is historic, in that it allows all of our teams to have a conference home for the first time in UNCP’s 26-year history in NCAA Division II, thereby ensuring a championship experience for all of our nearly 400 student-athletes. The Mountain East Conference leadership has been visionary, professional and proactive, and we are excited to align with them in such a robust partnership.”
UNC Pembroke has a history of competition against MEC teams. The football team has competed an astounding 19 times all-time against MEC opponents, while the wrestling team has faced MEC competition 16 times. The football team has played at least one MEC team in nine of the last 11 years, while the wrestling team’s rivalry with West Liberty dates back to the 1994 season. The Black & Gold will face Concord, a charter member of the MEC, at Grace P. Johnson Stadium on October 20 to culminate 2018 Homecoming Week in Pembroke.
“Despite being in Super Region 1 for football, four MEC programs are closer geographically to Pembroke than the closest full-time member of the Gulf South Conference here in Super Region 2,” said UNCP director of athletics Dick Christy. “We are so appreciative to the South Atlantic Conference for their scheduling partnership these past few years. Our dedication to a championship experience for all student-athletes is at the forefront of our mission, and the necessity of a conference home for these five sports is paramount to the success of that mission.”
UNCP football is the last independent football program in the country.
“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to be part of the Mountain East Conference as it will afford both a new landscape and new opportunities for our football program,” UNCP football coach Shane Richardson said. “The opportunity to compete for a conference championship and to have players recognized for their efforts on the field will be something new and exciting for all of us. There will be excellent competition and, having past experience with most of the institutions, they have an excellent standard of operating. This will greatly impact our current players, and will continue to bring a new enthusiasm in our recruiting efforts for our program. This is a great day in the history of UNCP Football.”
Established in 2013, the Mountain East Conference has quickly established itself as one of the top all-sports conferences in the country. In just five years, MEC institutions have produced two NCAA Division II team champions, seven national finalists and 13 semifinalists. In addition to the athletic success, the MEC recognizes over 1,500 student-athletes annually for their academic success and has additionally had seven “NCAA Elite 90” winners, which honors the individual with the highest cumulative grade-point average at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 90 championships.
“UNC Pembroke is a great match for us as an associate member,” said MEC Commissioner Reid Amos. “This partnership will provide UNC Pembroke’s student-athletes with a conference home for sports where they do not currently have a conference alignment. In these sports, not only does it provide UNC Pembroke’s student-athletes with a championship experience, it allows the MEC to grow our number of championship sports to provide new opportunities for student-athletes across the Mountain East Conference.”
The wrestling program had competed as an independent before joining the East Coast Athletic Conference for the 2015-2016 season, and won that conference’s championship this past season.
“We are super excited to be joining a conference that gives our guys an opportunity to go against some of the best teams in the country, including Notre Dame College who has already won multiple national titles,” wrestling coach Othello Johnson said. “It is always great to be able to gauge where we are throughout the season so that you are more prepared heading into the postseason. This also gives our student-athletes the opportunity to continue to wrestle for conference championships against teams that have already proven that they are among the best in the country.”
Indoor track & field, along with women’s swimming and diving were started when UNCP cut the men’s soccer program in 2017. Those programs are in the third year of competing.
“This is a very exciting time for our track & field program as we join the Mountain East Conference,” said Peter Ormsby, the director for the track & field program. “An indoor conference championship will put us on par with our peer schools in the southeast region, and will allow our athletes to compete against teams that we would not normally see during the season. This will also serve as an outstanding opportunity for our athletes to achieve qualifying marks for the national meet.”