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  • Photo: Tony DiMarco

    Photo: Tony DiMarco

    What Would EIWA Conference Realignment Look Like?

    With the large NCAA conferences being in the news cycle as of late, it feels right to discuss the potential of a realignment with the EIWA. Conference realignment “is so hot right now” in the words of Zoolander - so it has me asking, what would it look like? When would it occur? What other questions do we need answers to? The EIWA is the only wrestling-specific DI conference in the nation. This is part of what makes it unique. In a pessimist opinion, this also makes it susceptible to fading away forever. I say this because every school in the EIWA has a parent conference the school is part of where other sports are played. A perfect example of this is the Ivy League schools. There is no Ivy League wrestling conference tournament, so they are included with the EIWA schools at the end of the year. 

    This makes the perfect transition to how this article came to fruition. By the looks of it, the Ivy League teams will eventually withdraw from the EIWA to start hosting their own conference championships. I use the term “eventually” because it’s been discussed over the past few seasons with no real timeframe. It does appear to be picking up steam lately and will become a reality. Let’s assume the Ivy League schools leave. The conference would become an 11-team conference once Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Penn, and Princeton withdraw. 

    Of the remaining teams, there is a hodge-podge of parent conferences represented. Actually, six to be exact. This is not a normal conference. It’s not uncommon for a wrestling conference to absorb a team from another sports conference because the school’s main conference does not have wrestling. A prime example of this is Missouri. Every sport in the athletic department competes with the SEC. We know the SEC does not have a wrestling conference, so the Missouri wrestling squad is a Big 12 Conference affiliate. There are a few examples of this elsewhere. 

    The Patriot League is home to American, Army, Navy, Lehigh, and Bucknell. The American East conference is home for Binghamton. The CAA is the sports conference for Drexel and Hofstra. Long Island and Sacred Heart each call the Northeast Conference home in their athletic department. The lone division 3 school, Franklin & Marshall, belongs to the Centennial Conference. One can see why the EIWA is such a unique conference. It’s the perfect conference for all of these teams without a place to call “home” in the wrestling landscape. The geography and academic standards are all similarly associated to each other.  

    The EIWA has had a respectable number of NCAA qualifiers over the past few seasons. Note that the Ivy League did not compete during the 2021 season, so let’s ignore that data and look at the postseason since then. The EIWA allocated 45 automatic qualifiers in 2023 and 41 in 2022. According to the data, the Ivy League accounted for 22 of these allocated spots each season. Half of the automatic bids from the conference were from Ivy League schools. To break that down even further, Penn led the way with 14 over that span, while Cornell had 13. Again, this only looks at wrestlers who earned a qualifying spot for NCAAs before the conference tournament. These numbers dictate how many wrestlers advance to the championships at each weight class. Once we include the total number of actual participants, the numbers alter slightly, but the trend remains. In both 2022 and 2023, the conference gained 10 wild card spots each year. This brought the total number of NCAA participants from the EIWA to 51 in 2022 and 55 in 2023. 

    It's evident how the six Ivy League schools are exceeding the expected average number of qualifiers per team. They make up approximately one-third of the conference (6 of 17 teams) and produce half of the automatic allocations. The emergence of the Ivy League wrestling schools has been discussed before, but these numbers show it to be true. Let’s not forget about the three NCAA Champions in 2023 representing the EIWA were all from Ivy League schools. To even further prove this point, the EIWA had seven All-Americans in 2023. Six of them were Ivy League guys. The lone non-Ivy All-American was Josh Humphreys of Lehigh, who is out of eligibility. This highlights the depth of the EIWA, as a whole conference, but proves the Ivies are much more top-heavy. This is in large part due to Cornell’s dominance in both the EIWA and NCAA alike. 

    What would two separate conference tournaments look like? Going off past results, Cornell would probably still be the top dawg in the Ivies with the remainder chasing them down. Coach Leen taking over at Brown will increase the competition. Plus, a new head coach (Dubuque) at Princeton will expectedly continue to close this gap. The Ivy League wrestling teams are all on the right path to creating a very viable conference, albeit very small in size. 

    Another hypothetical idea to consider is the addition of other conference teams. Once the Ivy League has an established conference tournament, what is stopping both Yale and Dartmouth from getting on board with varsity wrestling teams? An eight-team conference is a great number for wrestling, when looking at bracketing. It’s a perfect scenario to seed all 8 wrestlers and complete the tournament in a single day, if desired. I’m not sure what the consensus for a single-day conference tournament is, but I prefer two days. It just feels right to me. Also, let’s not hold our breath on Yale and Dartmouth adding wrestling to their athletic lineup. 

    How about the EIWA? It’s hard to see anyone overcoming a Lehigh squad with the Ivy schools gone. Lehigh is already a perennial threat to be in the top-three currently. You would see a plethora of teams looking to challenge them at the top. Similar to the previous paragraph, let’s explore the idea of expansion. What teams could join the EIWA – since 11 members seems like a bizarre number. We know Morgan State recently applied to join the conference. That’s an obvious option, if accepted. We mentioned Drexel and Hofstra belonging to the CAA. Campbell is also a CAA program in other sports. Would they be willing to jump ship from the SoCon? This would really expand the conference geographically, making them the furthest team south. Their North Carolina location may not be ideal for the teams closer to the northeast like Sacred Heart, Hofstra, LIU, and more. George Mason used to be in the CAA, over a decade ago. They would be another option to join, as they would need to leave the MAC. For the record, I am not for teams leaving other conferences to join the EIWA – it is simply a hypothetical scenario. Both teams mentioned have seen steady improvement and we would hate to see any switching of conferences disrupt that growth. 

    The Ivy League separation will add a large wrinkle to allocations across the board. The EIWA having such a large conference equates to more upsets at the conference tournament. With an increased number of overall matches, and larger brackets, we are more likely to see upsets occur. With two smaller conferences, the allocations are basically split in half. The conference tournament would make it much more difficult to qualify for NCAAs, as each weight would most likely only allocate the top two place-finishers. A few weights would get a 3rd place finisher through, if lucky.

    No one asked for my opinion, but I’ll conclude with it. The history of the conference is full of tradition. A handful of these schools have competed in over 100 seasons. We’ve seen many teams come and go from the EIWA. Many have gone into large conferences like the Big Ten and ACC. We’ve seen programs get cut without notice. At 17 teams, it is currently the largest and oldest conference in the country. I understand the desire for the Ivy programs to have their own conference. The potential for upsets, as mentioned before, is so intriguing with large brackets. Splitting the conference will eliminate much of this potential. Not to mention some of the rivalries that came from this conference may end up going by the wayside. Cornell and Lehigh seem to have a nice rivalry going to see who the king of the EIWA is. Many of the fans would love to see this rivalry continue. Drexel and Penn had a friendly rivalry, which has steadily dissipated as they both encourage bettering one another via the Pennsylvania Regional Training Center. But, there is always room for more rivalries once conferences are realigned. It is part of college athletics, and one of those aspects we will need to deal with – whether we like it or not. Whatever the outcome is, whenever the decision is made, the most important thing is for the student-athletes having the opportunity to better themselves for the future. Any current EIWA or Ivy League institution will already provide that. Nothing will change on that front, and that’s a great thing! 

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