On the evening of Tuesday, March 7, Joe Gallo, Merrimack College’s men’s head basketball coach, took a leap.
It wasn’t a leap of faith, but rather of celebration. With a basketball net draped around his neck, Gallo jumped off the top of a ladder and into the arms of his players, who moments before won the Northeast Conference tournament championship. The win capped a historic season for the Warriors, culminating in the first Division I tournament title in the program’s history.
“If we keep winning, I am going to keep jumping,” said Gallo after the game.
In front of a raucous crowd of more than 2,200 at Lawler Arena, the Warriors overcame first-half scoring struggles and strong defense by opponent Fairleigh Dickinson University to win 67-66 in the closing seconds. It was Merrimack’s 11th straight win dating back to the end of January.
As the final buzzer rang throughout Lawler, fans stormed the court to celebrate with the team, and stayed to watch the trophy presentation and net-cutting ceremonies.
“That is everyone’s dream to play in an environment like that,” said senior Jordan Minor ’23, who was named to the NEC all-tournament team. “For me, coming in here I always wanted to win championships. I am just so proud of our guys.”
For Minor and fellow seniors Jordan McKoy ’23 and Ziggy Reid ’23, the win bookends their college careers with trophies. As freshmen, they were part of the 2019-20 Merrimack team that won the NEC regular season championship. Gallo noted that the three players came off the bench for the 2019-20 team and grew to become leaders of the program.
“The older guys on our team when we were freshmen, they showed us the way and how to play Merrimack basketball,” noted Reid, who was named the NEC tournament MVP. “And leading up to our senior year, we took that same knowledge and continued to apply it.”
The 2022-23 athletic season has been a true coming out for Merrimack’s varsity programs. In its first year of postseason eligibility, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s bowling all qualified for their respective NEC tournaments, along with football hosting the NEC title game and men’s and women’s hockey advancing in the Hockey East tournaments.
“This is a foundation,” said Merrimack College Athletic Director Jeremy Gibson. “We came into Division I and we expected to be successful. We are creating a new norm here. And the goal has been about using athletics to really help spearhead a lot of the institution’s goals. We are a very visible aspect of a great institution.”
Typically, the winner of the NEC tournament receives an automatic bid into March Madness. But due to NCAA restrictions as part of Merrimack’s transition to Division I, the Warriors cannot compete in the NCAA or NIT tournament. Opting not to participate in other postseason college basketball tournaments, Merrimack is ending its season on top.
“Obviously March Madness is the biggest stage but that’s something we can’t control,” said Minor. “So I told our guys, focus on what we can control and that is putting our best foot forward each day and win a championship, which we did. This is a big deal for us and this program.”