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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    Mitchell College set to make the move to the GNAC

    Mitchell College’s Morgan Fontaine (top) keeps control of the ball against Fisher goalkeeper Olivia Leo during Friday’s women’s soccer game in New London. Mitchell joins the Great Northeast Athletic Conference this season and will make its league debut Wednesday versus Simmons. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mitchell’s Cassandra Roman of New London (16) and Fisher’s Melissa Fajardo fight for control of the ball during a women’s soccer game Friday in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Mitchell women’s soccer coach Marc Davis yells to his players during the game against Fisher on Friday. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    New London — When women’s soccer coach Marc Davis heard about Mitchell College’s move to a new conference home, he reached out to his team.

    The players reacted positively to the news.

    The Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) is an upgrade over Mitchell’s former home in the New England Collegiate Conference, which gradually lost members over the years until completely disbanding at the end of the last academic year.

    “A lot of good things have been happening around this place in terms of athletics for a while now and this was one all of the coaches and administration really wanted,” Davis said on Friday. “As soon as we told the players, they had that nervous excitement, which was a great place to be.”

    The entire Mitchell College athletic department is excited about the change.

    “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” director of athletics Matt Finlayson said. “I think we’re going to surprise some people. I know the student-athletes are excited to have a substantial conference schedule.”

    For example, the women’s soccer program will go from a four-team NECC last season to a 16-team GNAC.

    With a bigger conference comes better competition.

    Teams come from around New England and include Johnson & Wales, Lasell, Saint Joseph’s (Maine), Emmanuel, Regis, Saint Joseph (Conn.), Albertus Magnus, Colby-Sawyer, Elms, Simmons, Rivier, New England College, Anna Maria, Norwich and Dean.

    “It was a move the school needed, probably a little sooner,” Davis said. “It’s absolutely going to be an adjustment.”

    In his fifth season in charge, Davis is in the process of building his program. He continues to add talent and depth to the roster.

    “We have a few more pieces that can help, so we’re excited,” Davis said. “You’re obviously always looking to upgrade talent any season; that’s how programs continue to progress and develop. But we’ve gone from a four-team to a 16-team conference and the top teams in that conference are very, very good at what they did, so a bit more quality and a little bit more depth is what we’re going to look to do.”

    One of those skilled newcomers is freshman Morgan Fontaine, who scored two goals to break a scoreless tie in the second half against nonconference foe Fisher College and led her team to a 3-0 victory in Friday’s season opener.

    Sophomore Taylor Bialowas of Griswold capped the scoring with an unassisted goal. Junior Francesca Zamarripa added an assist and goalie Gemma Landry made six saves to earn the shutout.

    After opening the season with two nonconference games, the women’s soccer team makes its GNAC debut by hosting Simmons on Wednesday.

    Some Mitchell programs are better equipped to handle the jump than others. But all programs will receive a recruiting boost with the new conference home.

    “From a competitive standpoint and recruiting standpoint, some of our programs are ready to walk in and do well right away,” Finlayson said. “And then others are going to need growth and that takes time. We’re trying to bring in coaches that are ready to recruit at that level and grow some of our programs.”

    Mitchell’s soccer programs will start off with an uphill climb. Both the women and men were picked last in the GNAC preseason poll.

    Johnson & Wales is the preseason favorite on the women’s side, receiving all 16 first-place votes, and on the men’s side, as well.

    “If the competition has less expectations of us, that’s a good place for us to be,” Davis said. “Being the overachieving underdog is a narrative that will suit us. It takes a little bit of the pressure off, for sure, but it also gives us a chip on our shoulder to want to prove some people wrong. I don’t believe that’s where we’ll finish. But I don’t mind that others do. We’ll use that as motivation.”

    Men’s soccer coach Cam Pilger, who’s in his second year, has his team in a good spot heading into the GNAC. He’s restocked his roster with 15 players for the return to the conference where he spent four years coaching Saint Joseph in West Hartford.

    The Mariners opened the season Friday against Fisher, rallying from a two-goal deficit in the second half to salvage a 2-2 tie. Lyman Memorial graduate Dylan Lucey and Noslin Antunez scored goals while Flavio Alvarado of New London and Matt Ladd of Griswold each added an assist.

    Goalie Dylan Kinsella made several stellar stops to save the Mariners.

    Mitchell opens its conference season on the road at Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on Tuesday night. Elms, Dean, Regis and New England College all once belonged to the NECC.

    One thing the Mariners won’t have to worry about is their athletic facilities, which are top-notch for a Division III program. There’s a plan to add new bleachers in Yarnall Center over the Christmas break.

    All in all, Mitchell will benefit in a number of ways from the move.

    “It’s super exciting to have a future where you can build your programs and look forward to growth,” Finlayson said. “It’s a great opportunity for Mitchell College as a whole to grow.”


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