Wednesday, 30 May 2012

College Hockey America: Two steps forward, one step back

While it is exciting to see College Hockey America (the smallest conference in NCAA Division I) add three teams to its conference, the loss of two of its programs in less than one year is a cause for concern.
The first loss came in the summer of 2011 as Wayne State University announced that it was discontinuing the Warriors women’s ice hockey program. March 2012 set the stage for the second loss, as the Niagara Purple Eagles (an NCAA member for over a decade) announced it was also pulling the plug on its program.
While both programs claim financial reasons for the decision, how could one not speculate that the dominance of the Mercyhurst Lakers did not have a role in determining the outcome? There is no question that both programs competed in economically depressed areas (Wayne State in Detroit, Niagara near Buffalo). How frustrating must it be to compete in a division of five teams and have the same team win year after year? Such a situation makes it very difficult to recruit talent, and both schools do not have the name recognition of other schools in their state, which puts them at a disadvantage.
The irony of this decision is that Mercyhurst showed vulnerability with its loss to the Robert Morris Colonials in the 2012 CHA championship game. Now that Mercyhurst has lost all of its superstars (Meghan Agosta, Vicki Bendus, Bailey Bram, Hillary Pattenden, Kelley Steadman, Jesse Scanzano,) to graduation, the program is finally beatable.
Wayne State had a very competent coach in Jim Fetter that maintained a very respectable program. Some of his stars included Alyssa Boldin (the last captain in Wayne State history), goaltender Delayne Bryan, Veronique Laramee-Paquette (now with Concordia of CIS), Jill Szandzik (who transferred to Mercyhurst), Melissa Boal, Ashley King, Sam Poyton, Gina Buquet and Lindsay DiPietro. Their greatest moment of glory came in the 2007-08 campaign, when they claimed a share of the CHA regular season title. In addition, the Warriors could boast the top four scorers in the NCAA in points per game. Melissa Boal became a top-10 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, while Lindsay DiPietro led the NCAA with 48 assists. In addition, Wayne State found themselves ranked 10th overall in the national polls.
In 2002, the Niagara Purple Eagles earned their only trip to the NCAA Frozen Four. Coached by former Canadian national team member Margot Page, the program experienced an unsurpassed level of glory. A few years later, CWHL star Ashley Riggs developed her scoring touch with the Purple Eagles, while rewriting the record books. In Niagara’s final season, Jenna Hendrikx, along with Kaleigh Chippy, restored some of the competitive fire that had been lacking in previous campaigns. Goaltender Abby Ryplanski was a strong reason that there was optimism for the program’s future. Now, she will hone her craft with the Bemidji State Beavers in the WCHA.
With the loss of the Niagara Purple Eagles, the potential for a great rivalry with newly arrived Rochester Institute of Technology will never reach fruition. The Tigers rivalry with the Norwich Cadets at the NCAA Division III level was legendary, and admitting Norwich to the CHA would be a way to renew the rivalry. For now, Syracuse will build a strong rivalry with RIT that should help both programs to thrive. Niagara would have added another element of excitement. An element that becomes possible for the three CHA teams emanating from the state of Pennsylvania. Mercyhurst, Robert Morris and Penn State now have the foundation in place to create one of the best rivalries in NCAA hockey. With the Beanpot in Massachussetts and the Nutmeg Classic in Connecticut, it is only a question of time before Pennsylvania has its own tournament to showcase their state’s CHA clubs. Robert Morris has recently benefitted from superb recruiting, Mercyhurst is very well coached, and Penn State enters the CHA representing a university that has always had a strong tradition of competitive sports clubs.
For teams like Lindenwood and RIT that experienced glory at the Division III level, the loss of Niagara and Wayne State should be seen as a harbinger. Smaller schools are susceptible to unforeseen circumstances, and glory at the Division III level may not always be so simple to obtain at the Division I level. As an independent during the 2011-12 campaign, Lindenwood played their first Division I game against the defending Frozen Four champion Wisconsin Badgers. The Lady Lions lost both games by margins of over 10 goals, a welcome to Division I moment. Lindenwood and RIT are like expansion teams, and they have to truly rebuild their programs to be more competitive at such a higher level of competition.
Although Niagara and Wayne State never produced a Patty Kazmaier Award winner, or never won the NCAA Frozen Four, both programs served as part of the backbone of College Hockey America for nearly a decade. Their dissolving truly ends the first chapter of CHA hockey history. While the Lindenwood Lady Lions, Penn State Nittany Lions, and Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers constitute the next chapter in CHA women’s ice hockey, one can only hope that they will remember the path that was laid for them, so that they could gain entry into the league.

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