Starting in the 2012-13 season, NCAA Division III women’s hockey is expanding to the state of Maryland. Stevenson University, located about 30 minutes north of downtown Baltimore in Owings Mills, Md., will become the 50th D-III college to have a varsity women’s ice hockey program.
The Mustangs will begin play next fall under the guidance of Shera Vis, who was a four-year letterwinner at Division I Minnesota State.
“Being the first coach in this program’s history is such an awesome opportunity,” Vis said. “I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to come here and help start women’s ice hockey. It’s pretty amazing what they are doing here at Stevenson. The school is expanding and adding programs when a lot of places are getting rid of them.”
Last June, Vis finished up a two-year stint at Elmira College as an assistant coach working under Greg Fargo while she obtained her master’s degree. The Soaring Eagles went 40-13-3 with an NCAA Frozen Four appearance in 2010 while Vis was there.
“I knew from my experience at Elmira I was ready for a head coaching job,” Vis said. “Elmira really sets you up for it by doing everything from head JV coach to assistant varsity and all the things that come with it.”
Vis was named the head coach in mid-August, and has immediately hit the ground running to prepare for the Mustangs’ inaugural season in 2012-13.
“They do things the right way here, and after I came on campus I just knew that this was some place I could be successful with the support and resources that are in place. That’s something you want as a head coach.”
Vis also noted that the school’s facilities were a major draw factor when she visited and interviewed for the head coaching position.
“Stevenson is very serious about all their sports here,” she said. “The facilities are unbelievable and our athletic director, Brent Adams, grew up with hockey in Vermont, and when he came here that was something he wanted to start.”
Vis and her full-time assistant coach, Joey Lye, have the luxury of having a full season to recruit their inaugural class without having to worry about the day-to-day duties of coaching a team on the ice this season.
“It’s an adjustment not going to the rink everyday and being on the ice,” Vis said. “It’s such an opportunity though to get out on the road and get our name out there. We’ve been able to get out on the recruiting trail almost every weekend. We’ve been chipping away at it. We’ve had quite a few visits and have a lot of applications in, which is really positive. The biggest thing for us right now is trying to get the girls down here, because we’re kind of an unknown right now.”
Although Stevenson is the new kid on the block and relatively unknown, Vis said that they have received great feedback from kids that have visited the campus.
“Once we get them down here, our campus is so attractive from our dorms to our academic buildings and our athletic facilties,” she said. “Almost every kid that has come down has applied, so we’re pretty happy with how things have been going so far.”
Starting next year, Stevenson will have the unique opportunity to now take over as the southern-most women’s varsity college hockey program, which has drawn the attention of other schools in the area.
“Another aspect of my job here is that I’m kind of catalyst here to grow the sport,” Vis said. “I’ve heard rumblings of other schools in the area maybe thinking about starting hockey, and I think when we do things the right way that might attract other schools’s interest in starting it up.”
However, one drawback to being the farthest south and only school in Maryland to have college hockey is trying to find an existing conference to call home.
“We applied to the ECAC West, and unfortunately they said no,” Vis said. “We’re going to be independent for our first year. We’re going to have a full schedule and we’re still working on it right now but we’re going to be eligible for the NCAA tournament.”
Vis hasn’t let the initial denial get her down though, and remains optimistic of the prospects of finding a home in the near future.
“We’ll reapply for the ECAC West next year and see what happens,” Vis said. “I think there is always the possibility of some shuffling going on in D-III women’s hockey in the next couple of years, and hopefully we’ll be able to find a home.”
Stevenson’s home rink for the next year will be the Reistertown Sportsplex, which is a Balitmore County rink that officially opened in February 2008.
“The rink is located just six miles from campus and it will be a good spot for us for now until we can hopefully build a rink on campus,” Vis said.
With a seemingly strong support system in place, Vis and the Stevenson Athletic Department have a model in place that should lead to the Mustangs becoming competitive Division III team sooner rather than later.
“It’s kind of refreshing to take a step back this year and just have the recruiting,” Vis said. “But, it’s going to make us that much more anxious to get on the ice on Oct. 15 next year for the first day of practice.”