While Morrisville might be new to the world of Division III hockey, the Mustangs have a rich tradition at the junior college level, winning four national titles. Coach Earl Utter is in his tenth season behind the bench of Central New York school, accumulating a record of 167-47-13 to date. But factors other than hockey required the college to move from a two-year junior college focusing on agriculture to a broader-based four year school.
“It was out of necessity,” said Utter. “One thing that made us unique (among junior colleges) was dorms. But now with many other two year schools building on-campus dorms, it was getting harder to attract students. We decided to increase our level of academics and move to four year programs. We were primarily an agriculture school but we’ve added new technical programs.”
So Morrisville applied for Division III status and was accepted. The hockey program plays as an independent this season and then joins the SUNYAC next year. In 2008-2009 the Mustangs will be full-fledged members, eligible for postseason play.
“It’s a definite change, but it’s good to be challenged,” said Utter. “We have always been good, but we’ve been a big fish in a small pond. It’s been getting harder to recruit players at this level. Monroe Community College (in Rochester) started a program and got good very quickly because they are in an area with a lot of high schools to draw from. We’re not in a location like that. Now that we’re a four-year program, we can increase our recruiting. It’s a welcome change.”
So Utter has been expanding his recruiting, bringing in mostly junior players from as far away as Texas. He’s also been able to hold on to a few players he would have lost after two seasons.
“It’s been a natural progression,” Utter said. “We were able to keep some players that would have had to leave us last year as a two-year school. Next year will be difficult. We may have to cut some players but for the most part the loyalty factor is important to me, so I am bringing in guys that will be here for four years.”
The Mustangs had a baptism by fire into Division III, facing Oswego, Geneseo and Plattsburgh in their first three games. Things were off to a rocky start with a 9-1 loss to Oswego.
“Honestly, it was embarrassing,” said Utter, who has been on the other side of many blowouts in the NJCAA. “We let in some bad goals early and were intimidated. Once my players saw their speed they said, ‘We can’t match this’ and stopped playing their game.”
Utter’s players regained their confidence and had decent showings against Geneseo (5-3 loss) and Plattsburgh (6-3 loss) and have since won three games in a row, splitting with Becker College (another first-year Division III program) and sweeping Plymouth State.
Freshman Travis Moore is expected to carry most of the load in net. The rookie from Simcoe, Ontario has a 3.20 GAA so far with a .923 save percentage. At the blue line, Utter points to Even Kernohan as one of his go-to guys. Up front, he expects big things from sophomore Keith Williams and freshmen Andrew Alarie and Stefan Carnegie.
But it’s the two juniors, Matt Damskov and Joe Herman, that Utter will rely on the most. Damskov has three goals and five assists so far, tops on the team, while Herman is right behind with two goals and five assists.
To be successful, “We have to learn that we have to play at a high level day in and day out,” said Utter. “Geneseo does it. Oswego does it. Plattsburgh does it. My players are seeing that to compete in this league, they have to match that.”