In 1999, the NESCAC formally became a playing conference and began to sponsor conference championships across all sports. The coordination of NESCAC championship events by the conference began in the fall of 2000 and continues today.
The conference philosophy is to honor only one champion per sport per academic year. A total of 27 NESCAC titles are bestowed annually, 13 for men and 14 for women, and for most sports the conference champion is determined by a tournament or similar season-ending event. Football is the only sport that honors a NESCAC Champion based on the final regular season conference standings. In all other sports that have conference standings, a regular season champion is not recognized.
Conference championships are designed to have minimal impact on academic schedules, and nearly all events take place on weekends. Any remaining conflicts with examinations and other academic priorities are resolved by each institution.
Prior to the 2000-01 season, the declaration of conference champions was limited to a handful of sports. Conference champions had been recognized in cross country, golf, men's tennis, track and field, and volleyball dating as far back as 1983.
In the sport of men's ice hockey, most NESCAC teams competed for a championship with members of the ECAC East Division III league up until the 1999-2000 season. Middlebury became the first men's ice hockey squad to capture a conference crown, downing Williams in the winter of 2000.
The following year, conference championships were conducted for the first time in baseball, men's and women's basketball, field hockey, men's and women's lacrosse, men's and women's soccer, softball, men's and women's swimming and diving, and women's tennis. Football also declared its first champion with Amherst, Colby, and Middlebury sharing the title.
Women's ice hockey recognized a conference champion for the first time in 2001, based on competition in ECAC play, and began holding an annual tournament in 2002. Women's rowing started to honor a NESCAC champion in 2002, while men's rowing began the tradition in 2004. The most recent conference sport added to the list of champions was squash. A men's and women's squash team has been named a conference champion since 2007.
The men's golf championship became a fall-spring event for the first time during the 2007-08 season. Instead of crowning a champion based on competition between all 10 teams, which had been done since 1994, the fall round was transformed into a qualifying round with the top four teams advancing to a spring championship round. The team with the best score at the April event is now declared the conference champion.
Women's golf recognized a conference champion for the first time in 2015 based on competition held in conjunction with the Williams Fall Classic. The Middlebury Invitational was also incorporated as an event to crown a conference champion. In 2019, the women's golf championship mirrored the men's golf championship format with a fall qualifier and the top four teams from the qualifier advancing to the spring championship.
Structure of Tournaments
There are 14 conference championships that select teams for participation based on their record against other conference members. Of the 14, nine conduct a quarterfinal round featuring eight teams with the higher-seeded teams hosting the contest. Following the quarterfinal round, tournaments are re-seeded with the highest seed facing the lowest seed and the remaining semifinalists facing one another. The highest seeded team following the quarterfinals earns the right to host the semifinals and final.
When the conference tournaments began in the fall of 2000, a total of seven teams participated in a single-elimination tournament format in field hockey, men's and women's basketball, men's ice hockey, men's and women's lacrosse, and men's and women's soccer. The highest-seeded team in each championship received a first-round bye and the right to host the semifinals and final on their campus. The remaining six teams faced off with the winners advancing to the semifinals. A women's ice hockey championship tournament was established in 2001-02.
In 2002-03, the format of the tournament was changed for men's ice hockey and men's and women's basketball. An eight-team tournament was played with all teams competing in a quarterfinal round the weekend prior to the semifinals and championship. Field hockey, women's ice hockey, men's and women's lacrosse, and men's and women's soccer followed suit in 2008-09 and adopted the eight-team tournament format.
Before 2001, volleyball held a championship with all conference teams participating in the tournament. The format was altered in 2001 to an eight-team tournament.
For baseball and softball, the conference standings are split into East and West divisions. Prior to 2020, the top two baseball teams from each division at the end of the regular season qualified for the conference championship. In 2020 the format was changed to allow the top four teams in each division to qualify for the conference championship. Teams play a best-of-three series (all 9 inning games) during a quarterfinal weekend. The winners advance to the finals the next weekend, which is a double-elimination tournament among the four remaining teams. The host division alternates annually.
In softball, the top four teams annually advanced to the top seed in the host division and competed in a double-elimination tournament over three days. In 2018 the format was changed to an eight-team single-elimination tournament featuring the top four teams in each division. The teams continued to meet at the top seed of the host division and play over three days.
Men's and women's tennis adopted a six-team championship format held over a three-day period beginning in 2006. Seeding for the tournaments is determined by a committee of conference coaches using pre-determined selection criteria. The top two seeds in the championship received a first-round bye. Prior to 2006, the conference champion was determined by an individual flighted championship that awarded points to teams based on individual finish. In 2020, the tennis tournament was expanded to include eight teams.