CASTLETON, Vt. – At the start of the 21st century, when Castleton made the decision to move completely from NAIA membership into Division III of the NCAA, it needed a new conference home.
A member of the Mayflower Conference, once the largest NAIA-affiliated conference in District 5, since 1979, Castleton left before the 2001-02 season and spent that academic year as an independent. In the fall of 2002, the Spartans would begin what would turn out to be a 16-year tenure as a full member of the North Atlantic Conference.
Now, as Castleton prepares for its transition into the Little East Conference on July 1, it is worth looking back at the success of the Spartan athletic program in the North Atlantic Conference. Without the vast amount of positive results within the NAC, the 18 sports that are making the move may not have been as attractive to the Little East.
Castleton, along with Johnson State, were the first two Vermont institutions to join the NAC, which at the time consisted of mostly Massachusetts schools: Bay Path, Becker, Elms, Lasell, Lesley, Mount Ida, and Wheelock, along with Maine Maritime. However, the conference quickly added three more Maine institutions in Husson, Maine-Farmington, and Thomas.
In the past 16 years, Castleton won 57 NAC team titles in 14 different sports: baseball, men's basketball, women's basketball, men's cross country, women's cross country, field hockey, men's golf, men's lacrosse, women's lacrosse, men's soccer, women's soccer, softball, men's tennis, and women's tennis. In addition, over the past three years, the Spartan men's track and field team won seven individual titles, and the women's track and field squad took home six individual titles.
The Spartans' success started right away in the fall of 2002 with conference championships in both men's and women's cross country. As the calendar flipped to 2003, the Spartan women's basketball team went 12-1 in the NAC during the regular season, followed by victories over Becker, Elms, and Maine Maritime to capture its first of five NAC championships.
Castleton won at least two conference titles in each of the 16 years it was a NAC member. Two years stand out: the Spartans earned five league championships in 2008-09 (women's basketball, field hockey, women's lacrosse, men's soccer, men's tennis), and then exceeded that with a program-high six NAC titles in 2011-12 (baseball, men's basketball, women's basketball, women's lacrosse, women's soccer, women's tennis).
The spring sports led the way for the Spartans with 28 NAC championships among baseball, men's lacrosse, women's lacrosse, softball, and men's tennis. The baseball team won eight conference championships, all between 2008 and 2018, including the last five in a row as it won almost 84 percent of its conference regular season contests.
The women's lacrosse team also earned eight league titles, but they dominated the NAC by not losing a single conference contest, either regular season or league tournament. Starting in 2009 and then continuing from 2012 to 2018 after two seasons in the New England Women's Lacrosse Association (NEWLA), the Spartans went 70-0 against NAC opponents.
The men's lacrosse squad advanced to the NAC Tournament championship match in 15 straight seasons, winning four titles along the way as well as over 90 percent (98-10) of league regular season contests. The men's tennis team earned seven NAC titles in an eight-year span (2004-2011), while the softball team finally broke through in 2016 with its first conference championship as it won almost 70 percent (160-70) of its NAC regular season contests.
Besides women's basketball, three other Spartan teams won five conference championships: men's soccer, women's soccer, and women's tennis. The field hockey team took home three league titles, while both men's cross country and women's cross country added a second NAC championship each in 2006.
The men's golf team won the NAC title in 2005, its first year as a varsity program at Castleton. The golf program will remain in the North Atlantic Conference as an affiliate member, as the Little East does not sponsor men's golf as a championship sport.
In total, among all of the sports within the conference, Castleton has earned the Player of the Year award 51 times, the Rookie of the Year award on 36 occasions, and the Coach of the Year award 55 times. In addition, baseball and softball combined for five Pitcher of the Year awards, while women's basketball, field hockey, men's and women's lacrosse, and men's and women's soccer collected 22 Defensive Player of the Year awards.
Two Castleton coaches were voted NAC Coach of the Year in two different sports over the past 16 years. Ted Shipley received Co-Coach of the Year honors in men's basketball in 2003-04 before earning seven Coach of the Year awards in baseball. Chris Chapdelaine was a two-time NAC Coach of the Year in softball (2012, 2014) as well as a five-time honoree in women's soccer (2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2015), including receiving the award in both sports in the 2011-12 academic year.
Castleton put together a 1,327-445-20 record in North Atlantic Conference competition over the past 16 years, a .746 winning percentage within the league. Besides the undefeated run by the women's lacrosse team, men's lacrosse won over 90 percent of its regular season league contests, while three teams (baseball, women's basketball, women's soccer) posted winning percentages above 80 percent within the NAC.
Castleton student-athletes have been recognized among the conference members as high performers not only in competition, but also in the classroom and through community service. Matt McNamee of the baseball team was selected as the 2014 NAC Man of the Year, while four Spartan females received the NAC Woman of the Year award: Courtney Chadburn (women's soccer) in 2012, Alyssa Leonard (women's basketball) in 2014, Meghan O'Sullivan (women's basketball) in 2015, and Rachel Bombardier (women's lacrosse) in 2016. Bombardier, also a standout for the Spartan women's ice hockey team, advanced all the way to the top 30 for the 2016 NCAA Woman of the Year Award, a first for both Castleton and the NAC.
Now, a new set of conference rivals awaits the Spartans, but the Castleton athletics department believes it will eventually find success within the Little East. The history of Spartan athletics is not close to complete without the 16 years Castleton spent as a member of the North Atlantic Conference, and the Spartans will continue to face its former conference foes in non-conference contests.