GENESEO, N.Y. — “Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect,” Geneseo assistant captain Mitch Stephens said about first going to college.
One of the many lifelong lessons you learn in college is dealing with change. For many students, they are living away from their parents for the first time. For an athlete, you are playing for a new coach.
For most players, learning to deal with a new coach in college is a one-time experience. For some, they may experience a coaching change during their four years. Rarely, however, does an athlete play for three different coaches in his collegiate career. Even rarer, do those constant changes not have an effect on that athlete’s performance.
Mitch Stephens of Geneseo State is one such athlete. When he came to Geneseo, the head coach was Brian Hills. In his junior year, it was Jason Lammers. When he finished his career, it was Chris Schultz. None of those changes slowed Stephens down. In fact, none of those changes slowed the team down.
It takes a special player and a special senior class the ability to not allow the coaching revolving door to get them down.
“The maturity not only that he has, but the surrounding cast had, they never dealt with it negatively. And, if they did, I never heard about it,” Geneseo coach Chris Schultz said. “It always stayed in the locker room. All our seniors — and I’m sure Mitch was right in the middle of it — did a great job maintaining a sense of stability.”
“I think we all tried to help with the new coaches as much as possible,” Stephens said.
That sense of stability from the players allowed Geneseo to finish in second place three years in a row with three different coaches and win the SUNYAC championship twice in a row with two different coaches.
Stephens’ performance stayed just as consistent, especially during those latter three years. After his freshman year in which he tallied nine goals and 19 assists for 28 points, he scored 15, 16, and 10 goals, respectively, the next three years. He also continued putting up more assists than goals — 25, 28, and 45, respectively. This all adds up to 117 assists in 111 games. Combined with 50 goals, it gave him 167 career points.
The Forrest, Manitoba native was awarded for his senior year being his best by being named a first team All-American, SUNYAC Player of the Year, and first team All-Conference.
“I have yet to see a Division III player — maybe [Brendan] McLaughlin [of Oswego] is another one — that has as good as hands as he does,” Schultz said. “The thing that makes him probably one of the top eight players in the country is the vision he has on the ice that goes along with his hands.”
Hills concurs: “We knew we were going to get a good hockey player. He has great hands and great vision. He’s very unselfish with the puck. That’s why he’s so good on the powerplay. He shoots the puck very well. He played up high on the powerplay. He probably would have scored more if he played down low. He’s also a good penalty killer. He can knock the puck out of the air.”
That latter statement is quite an understatement. In Stephens’ junior year, he led the country with seven shorthanded goals. The seventh one couldn’t have been more important. It was the game-winner with 6:24 left in the second game of the three-game SUNYAC final against Plattsburgh that saved Geneseo from elimination. There were times that year where opponents would have been better off declining the penalty.
His playing up high on the power play created numerous opportunities for teammates. In his sophomore year, it was his pass on a power-play goal with 21 seconds left in the third period that salvaged a 3-3 tie in the first game of the semifinal round against Fredonia, allowing the Ice Knights to go on and win that series.
And in the finals that same year, in perhaps the most important goal in Geneseo history up to that point, it was his shot from the point in overtime that couldn’t be handled, allowing Michel Bond to fire the rebound home that won the SUNYAC championship.
When asked what his greatest memories were, Stephens answered, “Winning the two championships, obviously. Winning them at home was great. The atmosphere with all the support from the school and students was amazing. Just being in the building, whether we won or not, was a great experience.”
It takes more than just talent to withstand one change after another.
“It made it difficult,” Stephens admits. “The last two years I came back, I played under different coaches. Luckily, they were all similar and were good coaches. They were receptive to the things we had done in the past. They were willing to listen to us.”
That willingness and Stephens’ hockey smarts made the transitions go smoothly.
“The one thing I know that I’ll look back on is he has an unbelievable knowledge of the game,” Schultz said. “He understands the game really well. There are not too many kids that go through the program that have the kind of knowledge he has. It’s helped me tremendously. He’s come to the bench and told me things about certain situation on the ice that’s helped us during the game.”
Hills said, “He’s a student of the game. He comes to you with different ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a coach one day.”
Just like coaches, players come and go. However, some leave an indelible mark both on and off the ice.
“One of the things I think that when reporters — and fans, too — write about a player, they talk about talent and skills,” Schultz said. “They don’t always get to know about the player personally. He’s a very likeable person with tremendous character. He’s a tremendously mature person. It’s like talking to a GM; that’s the way he thinks.”
“He’s a guy who just comes to the rink and is going to play,” Hills said. “He’s a very coachable kid. He’s not confrontational at all.”
Stephens, a business major, would like to continue playing. He is trying to hook up with a UHL team. In the pros, coaches change a lot more often than in college, but they won’t have to worry about how it affects Stephens.
The only constant in life is change. That is one college lesson Stephens has aced.