College Hockey America’s revolving door might be a little worn from overuse. In the past year, no conference has had more comings and goings relative to its size than the CHA, as the number of teams announcing their departure from the conference this past year has nearly matched the number of current members.
To recap, the season began with original members Mercyhurst, Niagara, Wayne State and Findlay, plus Quinnipiac set to join for 2004-05. Ohio State announced in November its intentions to join the CHA in 2004-05, giving the league the six teams it needed for an autobid provided the expansion of the NCAA tournament to eight teams. With Robert Morris rumored to start a program and expand the CHA’s ranks to seven in 2005-06, the conference’s future seemed secure.
But in January, Findlay dropped its program, setting off a chain reaction as Ohio State dumped the CHA to get back with the WCHA, forcing nearly every school in the country to realign their schedules for the upcoming season. Another January event, Vermont’s jump from the ECAC to Hockey East, caused the ECAC to woo Quinnipiac in August to be its 12th team for 2005-06.
After all that work, the CHA is right back where it started-four teams for 2004-05 and four teams for 2005-06. So even though women’s hockey’s big dance has expanded to eight teams, the CHA doesn’t get an automatic invitation.
Despite all the bad news for the CHA, there’s no need to shower the conference with pity, because its outlook for national success has never been better. While the CHA does not get an autobid, the expanded tournament gives the conference a far better chance of earning a berth than ever before. As long as its members are successful in challenging nonconference schedules, their NCAA hopes will be just fine. Two-time defending CHA champion Mercyhurst, poised for a breakthrough season with 17 players returning from a team that won 26 games last year, is playing just the right kind of schedule to make it there.
The Lakers’ nonconference schedule includes a pair of games against each of the ECAC schools predicted to finish third through ninth in the conference this year. With the ECAC figuring to get at least two teams in the tournament, the bulk of Mercyhurst’s opponents are still the very teams that will be Mercyhurst’s toughest competition for at-large berths. With their pseudo-ECAC member schedule, the Lakers will have every opportunity to prove themselves as the ECAC schools, except for the conference tournament. Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti has never doubted that his program can meet its goals within the CHA.
“If we have the luxury of having a six-team league with an automatic bid, great, but if we don’t, at least with NCAAs going from four teams to eight teams and the commitment our administration has behind us, our kids will always have the road to get there,” Sisti said last January at the height of the realignment tumult. “Obviously they’re going to have to earn it, and that’s the way it should be.”
The teams hurt more by the lack of an automatic qualifier are the younger teams in the conference, who will have a tougher time maintaining the consistency throughout the season to earn at-large bid.
“The AQ is going be great for women’s hockey, especially with a young team,” said Niagara coach Margot Page. “You can work the whole season and develop your players for the conference tournament and hopefully that’s what’s going to lead to the national tournament.”
The best news for the CHA’s long-term health is that recruits are not dissuaded by the conference’s small size. The conference, with its teams’ close proximity to the Ontario border, has always had success attracting good Canadian players, and nothing can take away the league’s geography. For this year’s freshman class, the CHA secured two of Canada’s top Under-22 prospects-Mercyhurst’s Stephanie Jones, another in a string of solid Western Canadian players recruited by Sisti, and Ashley Riggs, another Niagara recruit from Ontario. A few blue-chippers for now will go long way in securing the conference’s national competitiveness for the future.
And while the end of the Findlay program cast a shadow over the conference, the Oilers’ legacy will live on as former players provide a boost to developing programs at Wayne State and Quinnipiac. Laura Monk, the nation’s top scoring freshman last year, will play on for the Warriors, and Heidi Tallqvist, the CHA Player of the Year and the nation’s No. 2 power play goal scorer, will finish her career at with the Bobcats.
Head coach: Michael Sisti, 6th season (112-44-9)
2003-04 record: 26-6-4, 11-1-0 CHA (1st)
2003-04 team offense: 3.03 (12th), 3.50 CHA (1st)
2003-04 team defense: 1.47 (3rd), 1.33 CHA (1st)
2003-04 power play: 17.9% (12th), 19.1% CHA (3rd)
2003-04 penalty kill: 88.5% (6th), 83.3% AH (3rd)
Key losses: F Lyndsay Barch (6-8-14), D Britney Millar (2-7-9), F Jessica Dillabough (2-4-6)
Key returnees: F Teresa Marchese (12-25-37), F Samantha Shirley (16-20-36), D Michelle Bonello (5-12-17), G Desi Clark (1.44 GAA, .937 SV%),
Newcomer to watch: F Stephanie Jones (Canada U-22)
Predicted finish: 1st
Preseason coaches poll: 1st
Outlook: Mercyhurst hasn’t lost more than one game in conference history, and there’s no reason why the Lakers can’t continue that level of success with four preseason All-Conference players on its roster. With Marchese now entering her senior season and her second year at Mercyhurst since transferring from Niagara, plus the addition of Jones, Mercyhurst should pack a better offensive punch than the team that ranked 12th nationally in goals per game a year ago. Mercyhurst would have made NCAAs last year had the tournament field been at eight, and there’s no reason the Lakers can’t be better this season.
Head coach: Margot Page (7th season, 94-91-17)
2003-04 record: 9-23-3, 4-7-1 CHA (3rd)
2003-04 team offense: 1.66 (27th), 2.08 CHA (3rd)
2003-04 team defense: 2.86 (22nd), 2.50 CHA (2nd)
2003-04 power play: 12.8% (23rd), 25.7% CHA (1st)
2003-04 penalty kill: 88.5% (6th), 83.6% CHA (2nd)
Key losses: F Lindsay Vine (11-9-20), D Bradi Cochrane (2-8-10), G Jennifer Mascaro (3.43 GAA, .885 SV%)
Key returnees: F Katie Gray (8-11-19), F Candice Moxley (8-10-18), G Allison Rutledge (2.53 GAA, .921 SV%),
Newcomer to watch: F Ashley Riggs (Canada U-22)
Predicted finish: 2nd
Preseason coaches poll: 2nd
Outlook: Niagara was awfully young last year, but Page’s patience paid off when her team upset Mercyhurst down the stretch and Findlay in the CHA final. Niagara can expect more of the same on the defensive end where Rutledge was solid in net. Goal scoring was the team’s obvious weakness a year ago, and the addition of Riggs will give Niagara its best goal scorer since Marchese transferred. This is Page’s last season with Niagara before taking a sabbatical for the 2006 Olympics. The team should be ready to contend when she’s scheduled to return in 06-07.
3. Wayne State
Head coach: Jim Fetter (2nd season, 15-15-4)
2003-04 record: 15-15-4, 3-8-1 CHA (4th)
2003-04 team offense: 2.03 (24th), 1.08 CHA (4th)
2003-04 team defense: 2.18 (10th), 2.83 CHA (4th)
2003-04 power play: 12.0% (24th), 3.8% CHA (4th)
2003-04 penalty kill: 81.6% (25th), 78.9% AH (4th)
Key losses: F Kim Spaulding (9-9-18), F Katie Jones (7-6-13), D Joanie Denby (4-9-13), G Anna VanderMarliere (2.18 GAA, .918 SV%)
Key returnees: F Kelly Zamora (8-18-26), F Emily McGrath-Agg (15-6-21), G Tina Thibideau (1.89 GAA, .927 SV%),
Newcomer to watch: F Laura Monk (13-20-33), Findlay transfer
Predicted finish: 3rd
Preseason coaches poll: 3rd
Outlook: Wayne State took big steps towards respectability in Fetter’s first season at the helm. The team will be better this year, but don’t expect the record to improve as the schedule replaces D-III programs with established D-I programs. The addition of Monk, the nation’s top freshman scorer, bodes well for the future of the program.
Head coach: Michael Barrett, 5th season overall (45-65-6), 3rd season at Quinnipiac (16-46-4)
2003-04 record: 11-21-2, Independent
2003-04 team offense: 2.47 (16th)
2003-04 team defense: 2.97 (24th)
2003-04 power play: 18.5% (10th)
2003-04 penalty kill: 86.0% (15th)
Key losses: F Serena Hillman (5-9-14), F Debbie Beaudoin (2-4-6)
Key returnees: F Vicky Graham (14-15-29), D Jayne Riley (9-10-19), G Catherine Lapare (2.72 GAA, .903 SV%)
Newcomer to watch: F Heidi Tallqvist (25-19-44), Findlay transfer
Predicted finish: 4th
Preseason coaches poll: 4th
Outlook: The Bobcats’ dual welcome-farewell tour won’t be rewarded with any easy conference wins. The team had a program-best record at 11-21-2 in its third year of D-I play but went just 0-9 against CHA teams and 2-20-2 against programs that had been in D-I for two or more years. Oddly enough, Quinnipiac may well be the first school in college hockey history to be picked for last place with the reigning conference player of the year on its roster. Tallqvist’s addition will bring more competitive balance to the league, but Quinnipiac has a long way to go before it can compete with the likes of Mercyhurst. It won’t get any easier for the Bobcats in the ECAC next year.