By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Eight years ago, when the New Jersey Institute of Technology arranged for its athletic programs to compete under the NCAA Division I banner, the Highlanders have fought hard for respectability in all sports.
It’s been an uphill battle for the men’s basketball program, which once had to endure an NCAA-record for consecutive losses with 51. So in years past, the final regular season game would mean the final game of the season for the men’s basketball program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
A team without a conference since the Great West Conference disbanded three years ago, the Highlanders, the nation’s lone independent, would collect the uniforms, put the balls in a closet and call it a year.
However, the Highlanders knew this year that they knew they had something to play for, namely a berth in the postseason and the College Insider.com Tournament.
The CIT extended its first invitation to the 32- team field to 18-11 NJIT and even gave the Highlanders a home game against the University of New Hampshire, a game that was played at the Fleisher Athletic Center Monday night after press time.
Needless to say, the people at NJIT are ecstatic to be extending their basketball season by a few weeks.
“It’s really hard to put it into words,” said NJIT head coach Jim Engles, who has spent the last seven years at the school. “It’s a special moment for everyone involved. From where we were to where we are now is pretty special.”
When Engles took over the program seven years ago, the Highlanders were winless the season before (0-29) and in the midst of an NCAA record 51-game losing streak. In fact, Engles won only one game during his first season.
But the improvements soon began. The Highlanders won 10 the following season, then 15 in 2010-11. They won the Great West Conference regular season championship in the league’s final year in 2012-13, winning 16 games, which was the NCAA Division I high before this season.
NJIT helped its reputation earlier this season, when the Highlanders traveled to Crisler Arena and the then-No. No. 17-ranked Michigan. It helped the Highlanders gain national recognition.
“We came full circle that day,” said senior forward Daquan Holliday, who hit the clutch free throws in the final minute to secure the 72- 70 victory over the Wolverines. “Before then, no one knew what NJIT was. After it, everyone would say, ‘Hey, you go to NJIT.’ It’s just amazing how far we’ve come in such a short time.”
The Highlanders did have to pay an entry fee of $36,000 to get into the CIT, according to athletic director Lenny Kaplan. But the school gets to keep all revenues in ticket sales for the game, so that’s why they’re making a push to sell out the 1,500-seat Fleisher Athletic Center.
“It’s still a positive for us,” Kaplan said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had an opportunity to play in the postseason. Getting a chance to host a game in the postseason doesn’t come around often. As an independent, just getting a chance to play in the postseason is tough. But we’re getting a chance to play in front of our own fans. We’re excited to offer that opportunity.”
“We want people to know we have a good team here,” Engles said in a recent postgame press conference. “To be honest, it’s been a whirlwind. The amount of recognition and exposure we’ve received has been tremendous; the amount of people who have reached out to contact us. It’s been humbling for all of us.”
And the Highlanders are the lone Division I program in New Jersey still playing. Everyone else is on the outside looking in.
NJIT has been battling for the last three years to find a permanent conference. The Highlanders once played in the Great West Conference with schools like Chicago State, South Dakota and North Dakota, but that league disbanded when the remaining schools all found suitable leagues, except NJIT. This marks the second straight season that the Highlanders are the nation’s lone Division I independent.
“I want to see us get in a league,” said Engles, who led the Highlanders to a 13-16 record as an independent a year ago. “I think it would help the school, but also help the entire city of Newark. We’re going to continue to do what we have to do. We need to get in a league and we need more of that. A game like this definitely has to be a selling point and has to put us back in the conversation. It has to be used as leverage.”
Engles said that he gets choked up thinking about all the players who endured that horrific losing streak.
“I get emotional when I think of all the players who had to go through all of that,” Engles said. “We can’t forget about that, because that’s part of who we are. It’s always going to be with us.”
Kaplan said that the postseason berth comes on the heels of the announcement that plans are underway to build a new $100 million athletic facility that should be ready for occupancy by 2017.
“We would much rather get a postseason bid through a conference tournament,” said Kaplan, who continues discussions with several leagues in order to gain possible admittance. “It’s tough enough right now operating as an independent. If this is an opening to take it to the next step, then we’re going to do it.”
Kaplan said that he has already scheduled meetings with officials from the Mid- Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), which is comprised of mostly all-black institutions.
“We’ve also reached out to others as well,” Kaplan said. “We’ve had some conferences tell us that the No. 1 reason why we didn’t get in was our athletic facility. Well, now we’re getting a new one, so that will hopefully reenergize conversations.”
In the meantime, the Highlanders will get another game – a home game at that – and maybe more.
“I think we look at it as a challenge,” said sophomore guard Damon Lynn, the Highlanders’ leading scorer who collected the 1,000th point of his career in a recent win over Howard. “We feel like we’re going to make the most of it.”
“It feels great to know that my last practice wasn’t my last practice,” Holliday said.
Engles knows that the program has to start somewhere.
“It’s definitely a reward, but we don’t want to be too happy about it,” Engles said. “We need to get into a conference. Before people weren’t ready to entertain us as a member of their conference because we were so bad. Now no one might want us because we’re good. We’re getting some national recognition and that’s a good experience for us moving forward.”
So how much has NJIT mania gripped the nation? Well, it has definitely stirred up the sales of athletic gear at the school’s book store.\
Peter Maranzano, the book store manager, said that sales have increased an estimated 258 % since the win in December over Michigan – with a lot of those online sales coming from places like East Lansing, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio, the Wolverines’ two biggest rivals in the Big Ten Conference.
“To say sales have exploded would be an understatement,” Maranzano said. “It’s kind of amazing. On a typical Monday morning, I’d come in and have 3-to- 5 online orders. I came in Monday and there were 90 orders. It was incredible. Roughly half of the orders came from Michigan and Ohio, so we’re theorizing that it was Michigan State and Ohio State fans trying to razz the Wolverines. To get T-shirt sales from East Lansing is not at all what I expected.”
Maranzano said that a majority of the sales were from New Jersey, from alums and students.
“We had a lot of students coming in,” Maranzano said. “It was a nice little victory for everyone.”
Lynn knows that the Highlanders have to build on their new-found attention.
“It was only one game,” Lynn said. “We can’t stop here. We’re the ones stuck without a conference.”