The Empire 8: The conference where all 9 can beat you

St. John Fisher hasn't won the Empire 8 title in the past three years – not even sharing it –but the Cardinals have made the national quarterfinals twice in the span regardless.
St. John Fisher athletics photo 

In the first two months of this season, Brockport State has beaten Hartwick, who beat Alfred, who beat Buffalo State, who beat Frostburg State, who beat Ithaca, who beat Salisbury, who beat St. John Fisher, who beat Utica, who beat Brockport State.

That, folks, is parity. That is the Empire 8.

“You have to be ready to play week in and week out in our league,” said Paul Vosburgh, head coach at St. John Fisher. “Things can go astray on you really quickly; there are no breathers.”

There isn’t another conference in Division III in which every team has won at least one conference game this season. And no conference has dominated its out-of-league competition the way the E8 has this season, going 14-2 in those matchups.

Over the past several seasons, that balance has manifested itself in a positive way in the postseason – even if the road to get there can be a restless one. Twice in the past three seasons, the conference has sent two representatives to the playoffs, with 2011 seeing both Fisher and Salisbury making it to the national quarterfinals. That span marks an expansion in the Empire 8, when Salisbury, Frostburg, Buffalo and Brockport all entered the fray (Springfield, in turn, left for the neighboring Liberty League).

The E8 is also famously the only conference since the start of the 32-team playoff field to land three teams in the bracket. Hartwick earned the conference’s automatic qualifier, while Ithaca and Fisher were at-large picks in 2007.

“Every team in this conference is very good, and it’s always done a very good job of preparing us for the postseason,” Vosburgh said. “Our conference has always done well … with a very good winning record against nonconference opponents, but I think it has also helped us a lot when the teams have gotten to the postseason.”

In this conference, “There are no real bottom teams,” he said.

Salisbury coach Sherman Wood said the parity means that teams never take one another for granted. He credits the preparation of the coaches and the discipline of the players for the level of competition.

“Whenever you talk about the strength of a conference, you don’t talk about the first two teams, you talk about them from the top to the bottom,” said Wood, who has been at the helm for 16 years and brought the Sea Gulls to the E8 from the now-defunct ACFC. “I don’t know if you can call any of our teams a bottom-type team. You take Hartwick, for example, who scored 49 points on us, or you take a Frostburg who defeated Ithaca in overtime, and then just last week, Ithaca bounced back from two defeats in the conference to beat us. And earlier, we beat St. John Fisher at their place.”

Salisbury, with perhaps the toughest nonconference slate of any E8 team, cut its teeth early this season against regular playoff contenders Wesley and Christopher Newport – the same pair the team has faced since becoming an E8 member. Two years ago, Buffalo State nabbed what, at the time, was seen as one of the biggest wins in conference history with its 7-6 victory over defending national champion UW-Whitewater.

“You find out each week if you are a good football team or if you are going to be a great football team by coming up to the task at hand every Saturday, because in the Empire 8, you have to do it,” said Jerry Boyes, who has coached the Bengals on and off (mostly on) since 1986.

Boyes ushered his team from the NJAC in 2012. He said the differences between then and now are stark.  With the NJAC, he said, “there were definite levels. The top dogs stayed there. Then the middle group fluctuated from year to year.”

While that may have been great for some teams, Boyes notes that it was a different mentality for the teams who couldn’t break into that top tier.

“There’s the difference between the NJAC and Empire 8: In the Empire 8, every team is right there, where in the NJAC there were … guys who were always there and then guys who were fighting for the next level, hoping to get over that hump to beat Cortland and to beat Rowan.”

He said many teams around the nation have a couple of games a coach really has to get his players pumped for, then there’s a couple that could be more of a toss-up, and then there’s the pack that the team really should win against.

However, he noted, “That’s not the Empire 8.” He’s right, and that’s the kind of claim very few conferences can make.

Coaches can work that to their advantage. Vosburgh and Wood both said that the Empire 8 badge is a powerful recruiting tool.

“I believe it’s a selling point for all of us,” Vosburgh said. “You can tell a young man that no matter which of the schools he ends up choosing to go to that you’re going to play in a very good conference. If you want to get challenged every week, you’ll be playing for one of the teams in the Empire 8.”

However, much like on game day, the E8’s teams can’t be getting too comfortable. Next year will present a radical shift to the conference landscape.

Salisbury and Frostburg will join Wesley and CNU in a revamped NJAC, while Cortland and Morrisville State will join the E8 and create a conference that is truly Empire in name and body.

Boyes said it’s something that has been talked about for decades and will be beneficial for travel, money and classroom time, among other things.

When the pack is all from New York, “The rivalries become greater because everyone knows each other, players included. They’re often playing against athletes that were their high school teammates.”

Should we expect any dropoff in parity once the 2015 change happens?

Doubtful. The weekly feeding frenzy has survived change in the past and will do so again.

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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