The Neumann Knights are entering their fourth season as a hockey team, all under coach Nick Russo, but this year is different. Neumann is no longer playing an independent schedule, no longer playing games against club teams and weaker D-III teams and no longer on the outside looking in. Neumann has joined the ECAC West this season, and Russo has had to change the look of his team so that the Knights can compete with the big boys.
“This is probably going to be our biggest team and we had to do that because last year Manhattanville with their size was able to beat up on us,” said Russo. “We had to gear up a little bit for that, so we went after some size-wise big kids this year.”
Leading the way for the freshman class is Alex Nistor from Bucharest, Romania coming in at 6′ 2″, 215 pounds. “He’s a world class athlete, and is going to be an impact player right away in the West” commented Russo.
Joining Nistor in increasing the size of Neumann are Justin Riccardi, a 6′ 0″ transfer in from the University of Waterloo, and Jeremy Bechdel, another six footer hailing from Indiana.
“[Being in a league] has helped immensely recruiting, with kids having something to play for,” said Russo. “Kids that I normally wouldn’t have got now give us the interest back that we show in them.”
— Neumann head coach Nick Russo
Neumann has a certain lack of forward momentum to overcome, though, if they want to make any noise in the ECAC West. In its three seasons of independent play, the Knights have amassed a record of only 14-47-2.
Coach Russo will find out right away whether the improvements to his team worked. Neumann opens up on the road against Scranton, and then plays Manhattanville, Elmira, and RIT in a span of just eight days.
“Scranton is more of just a warm-up game. Right out of the chute, we’ve got Manhattanville, Elmira, and RIT,” said Russo. “That’s going to be pretty tough.”
After that challenging early schedule, Neumann settles into a mix of games against SUNY schools and Northeast opponents. This is definitely a step up in competition level from the mostly club and weaker DIII teams that Neumann has been playing the last couple of seasons.
The Knights then end the season with six straight league contests. “We’ve got to play well early and we’ve got to play well late, but it would be nice if we could play well all the way through,” said Russo.
Russo has his sights squarely set on earning the fourth playoff spot.
“We have a whole nucleus returning, and with a few big recruits, I am pretty positive about it,” said Russo. “There are the top three [teams], and the other three, and definitely our goal is to sneak past two other teams and make the playoffs this year.”
Neumann plays its games at a community facility just off of campus called Ice Works. But don’t let the “community” label throw you. With four sheets of ice, one reserved just for Neumann’s mens and womens teams, an NHL style locker room, and a reserved training room, the Ice Works has better amenities than many DIII on-campus rinks.
The Knights also have built a solid base of fan support from both the student body and from the community.
“We averaged 600 people per home game last year, and we didn’t win squadally-doo,” said Russo. “So if we start to win the attendance should go way up.”
This year will be a year of adjustments for the entire Neumann program. Making the move from an independent to a highly competitive league is not easy. Financial, player, coach, and administrative commitments all need to be made in order to keep building the program for success. The Knights may struggle this year, and maybe next, but it looks like the foundation may be in place for the future.
“The West is a perfect fit for us with the private schools, the travel. This will be the least amount of travel since we’ve been around. I think it’s awesome,” said Russo. “It’s an honor to be put in the same breath as those teams. Hopefully we can play well enough to stay in the same breath. The great tradition at schools like RIT and Elmira, we want to mirror the good qualities of those programs.”