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Home court advantage: A playbook for investing in athletics at community colleges

Submitted by on June 24, 2024 – 9:25 am

This viewpoint originally appeared in CC Daily on June 20, 2024. Written by Lane Glenn and Mike McCarthy.


When the #3 nationally ranked Northern Essex Community College (NECC) men’s basketball team hosted the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region 21 Championship Tournament in front of standing-room-only crowds this spring, the starting five hoopsters for the NECC Knights included Dominican players from the immigrant cities of Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, alongside a trio of teammates from Germany, France and Japan.

The rest of the Knights’ 18-man roster included three French forwards, a guard from Turkey, and a 6’8” center from Cameroon who arrived in the United States in a shipping container, fleeing conflict in his home country and receiving a temporary protected status from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

What might seem like an unlikely collection of competitors on the court of a small New England community college is actually part of a planned, rapidly growing, increasingly successful athletics program seven years in the making.

A win streak

At a time when colleges across the country have been downsizing or entirely eliminating athletics programs, NECC has recognized the tremendous benefits intercollegiate sports offer, and since 2017 has been investing in adding teams, growing enrollment, exciting local fans and, most of all, fulfilling our mission by opening doors of opportunity for academic and career success for hundreds of student-athletes.

NECC volleyball team

Between 2017 and 2024, Northern Essex Community College grew its athletics program from six sports and 46 athletes to 14 sports and 178 athletes.

The results speak for themselves:

  • Between 2017 and 2024, NECC expanded from six sports and 46 athletes to 14 sports and 178 athletes.
  • During a seven-year period when overall college enrollment fell by nearly 20%, the number of student-athletes almost quadrupled, making up for nearly $1 million in revenue each year.
  • Four NECC teams — men’s basketball, baseball and soccer, and women’s volleyball — reached national rankings in 2023, with three finding their way to NJCAA national championship competitions.
  • Last year, for the first time ever, NECC’s athletics program reached the Top 30 (28th place overall) in the National Alliance of Two-Year College Athletic Administrators (NATYCAA) Daktronics Cup standings, which recognizes colleges that accomplish the most overall success with their athletics programs.
  • The college has built a thriving Academic Coaching Center, with a strong focus on student-athletes, that has helped improve their persistence, retention and completion rates: In 2023, 100% of NECC’s student-athletes remained academically eligible for the entire year.
  • Building on the success of these programs, the college is embarking on a multimillion-dollar public-private partnership to build a new health and wellness center on campus and upgrade our outdoor track, along with our baseball, softball and soccer fields; and we are exploring options for dormitories to house our growing out-of-state and international student population.

Our players aren’t in it for the money. In Division III, athletes aren’t eligible for scholarships, our games aren’t televised and, so far, none of our players are cashing in on the NJCAA’s new “Name, Image, and Likeness” earnings opportunities.

They are here for the exercise, for the love of the game, the camaraderie, a quality education and preparation for a good career.

And because we want all that for student-athletes everywhere, we’re glad to share a few pages from our playbook that may be helpful for other community colleges with a vision for athletic excellence.

Leadership matters

One of us is the college’s president who also happens to be an adventure athlete, competing in ultramarathon relays and obstacle course races, climbing mountains around the world, and starting the NECC President’s Running Club for students and employees.

And the other is the college’s chief financial and operating officer who grew up playing team sports, is still dedicated to physical fitness and recognizes he wouldn’t be where he is today without the coaches he had and the education he received thanks to athletics.

Both of us emphasize the importance of athletics to our college at every opportunity, show up at games to cheer on our student-athletes, and include our athletics program in planning processes for staffing, facilities, enrollment management and, most importantly, student success. Through our words, our actions and our allocation of resources, we demonstrate our commitment to a high-quality student athletics program at NECC.

Leadership from the top can certainly make a difference, but you don’t have to be your college’s president, or an athlete yourself, to help lead the way.

Get informed about the benefits of a strong athletics program for enrollment, campus engagement and student success. Create an exciting vision for what it can mean for your college and recruit a team of supporters, including senior leaders, to help.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Like most public community colleges, our budget, our facilities and the salaries we offer are all modest.  However, our vision for our athletics program is enormous. So, we pace ourselves. It has taken NECC seven years to significantly grow the number of our teams and athletes and to accomplish some of our recent regional and national success, and we still have a long way to go.

We began in 2017 by hiring a top-notch athletic director from a nearby Division II university who shared our vision for growing a nationally competitive community college athletics program and impressed us with a concrete plan for making it happen. We already had a talented baseball team with a long-time coach that was regularly punching their ticket to the NJCAA World Series most years, and women’s volleyball and men’s basketball teams that were beginning to find regional success.

To expand opportunities for student-athletes, we started off slowly, bringing both men’s and women’s golf back to the college in 2018-19 after a 20-year hiatus. Then, during the 2019-20 season, we brought men’s soccer and women’s basketball back to the college, and added, for the first time, eSports (with a team that won the NJCAA National Rocket League Championship in its inaugural season).

Men’s and women’s cross country and track and field are sports that, at a relatively small community college, often seem to come and go depending on student interest and coach availability; but in seasons past, we’ve had nationally ranked runners, and since 2022, we have found our groove again with newly hired coaches and a growing roster of athletes.

Building campus excitement

While adding these teams and recruiting more players both locally and internationally, we also gradually built more awareness and excitement across our campuses for student athletics. For example, our athletic director creates a business plan for each new sport we add, and we transparently share investments we are making in athletics with our faculty and staff and show returns in the form of increased enrollment and student retention.

We work with our student-athletes to make sure they are visible ambassadors for the college, attending campus events and contributing to volunteer projects like food delivery and, after a devastating earthquake struck Turkey, home to some our basketball players, last year, leading an emergency donation drive that sent hundreds of pounds of clothing, tents, blankets and more.

Our student-athletes have become some of our most effective recruiters: on an annual basis, about 25% of our student-athlete population transfers into NECC from other colleges and universities, thanks to word-of-mouth about an athletics program devoted to excellence and support for students both on and off the playing field.

As you think about your vision for your own athletics program, be mindful of resources and other campus interests competing for them, and prepare to build over time, demonstrating wins along the way.

Play to your strengths

One of NECC’s campuses is in downtown Lawrence, Massachusetts, known since its founding in the middle of the 19th century as the “Immigrant City,” because of the waves of Italian, Polish and Lebanese workers who migrated to America to work in industrial mills along the Merrimack River. In more recent decades, the population has become predominantly Hispanic, as people have moved there from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and countries in Central and South America.

The NECC Knights on the field in the Dominican Republic, where they played exhibition games against the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo.
With this kind of history, international student recruitment comes naturally to us. And, since a third of our students are Dominican, it also helps that baseball is the national pastime of the Dominican Republic, the country that has given us players like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa.

NECC baseball team posing with family and friends in the DR

The NECC Knights on the field in the Dominican Republic, where they played exhibition games against the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo.

To celebrate this international connection, last fall the NECC Knights traveled to the Dominican Republic, where they played exhibition games against the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo and the Universidad Central del Este and visited some of our players’ families in their hometowns.

We may all play by the same rules, but every team that takes to the field or the court is different. Consider your college’s unique qualities — its history, geography, student demographics and more — when building your athletics program.

Celebrate school spirit

By now, pictures and video recordings of NECC Knights teams and players have been featured countless times on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, and in local and regional publications; but one of everyone’s favorite images is actually of Academic Coach Gretchyn Gallagher cutting down the net after the men’s basketball team won the Region 21 Championship at Holyoke Community College in March 2023, and the players chanted her name until she climbed the ladder to do the honor.

PHOTO: NECC Academic Coach Gretchyn Gallagher cuts the net at the NJCAA East Regional Tournament.

NECC Academic Coach Gretchyn Gallagher cuts the net at the NJCAA East Regional Tournament.

The athletics program at NECC is, first and foremost, about creating opportunities and success for student-athletes. It’s also about creating community and school spirit, a stronger sense of belonging for all of our students, players and fans alike, and for our faculty, staff, and people in the communities we serve.

Over time, we have built promotion and celebration of our teams and players into the routines of our marketing and communications staff, who regularly use college social media channels and our online NECC Newsroom to share images and updates about the Knights.

We look for opportunities to create “buzz” around our teams whenever we can. For example, this year’s NJCAA Men’s Basketball season started on November 1, 2023, so the NECC Knights played the first game in the country against the Bunker Hill Community College Bulldogs in a special “Midnight Madness” matchup in front of a packed fieldhouse on Halloween.

We have transformed the walls of our Sport and Fitness Center into a celebration of the history of NECC Knights teams and outstanding athletes, and in 2019 we created the Northern Essex Community College Athletics Hall of Fame by inducting 2010-11 women’s track and field NJCAA National Champion Noelia Figuereo and the 1970-71 Eastern Conference Champion men’s basketball team. The induction ceremony has become a popular annual dinner, with athletes and their families from decades ago returning to campus to celebrate with and inspire today’s players.

Dr. Lane A. Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College.

Michael McCarthy is the college’s vice president of administration and finance and chief operating officer.