The Colgate Raiders begin their 12th season as a member of ECAC Hockey, the previous 10 with Scott Wiley as head coach.
Under Wiley, the Raiders performed at a fairly consistent level, always managing double-digit wins. In Wiley’s first eight seasons, Colgate qualified for the postseason every year, finishing as high as fifth in the ECAC. In 2007, it swept a pair of one-goal decisions over Princeton in the quarterfinals and reached its only league semifinal, where it fell to Dartmouth. The next year, Colgate’s season ended in the quarters in two one-goal losses, again inflicted by the Big Green.
The 2008-09 season may have been the Raiders’ best. Led by senior forward Sam Hunt and rookie goaltender Kimberly Sass, they finished fifth in the ECAC and earned a first-round date with, who else, Dartmouth. A see-saw 7-6 overtime win in game one gave Colgate a program-best 19 wins on the season and a lead in the series, but after a narrow 2-1 defeat in game two and a 7-3 thrashing in the deciding game, the season was over and Hunt and her classmates were gone.
The Raiders sank to 12 wins, eighth place, and a quarterfinal defeat in 2009-10. The last two seasons of 11 and 10 wins have left Colgate on the outside at playoff time, Sass has graduated, and Wiley has resigned.
Now Greg Fargo arrives to take over behind the bench and revive the slumping Raiders. Fargo previously was in charge at Division-III Elmira College, leading the Soaring Eagles to a pair of NCAA tournaments in four years, including a runner-up finish in 2009. Already, he has found some differences in a Division-I athletic department.
“We’ve got a great administration at Colgate that is behind women’s hockey, and you see that with two full-time assistant coaches and a support staff that’s there to help and takes a little bit of the load off my shoulders, I guess,” Fargo said. “Whereas at Division-III, where maybe finances are a little tighter, as a head coach, you wear a lot of different hats. I think that’s the biggest thing: the support allows me to do what I need to do and just focus on the coaching and developing players and recruiting — the things that make us better.”
And the Raiders do need to get better. Senior forward Brittany Phillips tallied 29 points last year and has 82 in her Colgate career, both tops on the roster, but she’s been held off the score sheet through four games this fall. She’s not alone in that regard; the Raiders have scored just one goal thus far.
“We really just want to take this thing a day at a time, continue to make forward strides every single day,” Fargo said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, just bringing back that mentality that if we play the way our systems are designed and the way we want to play as coaches, we’re going to be in a lot of hockey games.”
After a rough opening weekend in Minnesota where the Raiders were outscored 18-0, they made progress in that regard in week two. A 4-0 loss to Northeastern included two empty-net goals, and another empty-netter made the 4-1 defeat by New Hampshire appear more one-sided than it was.
“I think this team in the past has been in a lot of hockey games; even looking to last year, they lost a lot of one-goal games along the way,” Fargo said. “We want to be on the winning side of those games. I think that by doing the little things well, day in and day out, I think eventually those one-goal games or those ties, they turn into wins for you.”
The bright spot for Colgate thus far has been the performance of sophomore goaltender Susan Allen. Her statistics may not show it however, as they were hurt by a 7-0 loss in the opener when she was left to fend for herself at times against the defending champion Gophers. Fargo described Allen’s play as “fantastic” after that game.
“When the puck was around our crease, a lot of times we were there, but we weren’t picking anybody up or moving anybody out of the way,” he said. “You can’t let teams like that get second or third chances at pucks.”
Luckily, a hockey season allows a team second and third chances, and then some. The four Colgate losses have all been out of conference, so the ECAC slate is still clean, with Yale and Brown first up on October 26 and 27.
“We’ve got our goals set on the playoffs,” Fargo said. “Not to look too far ahead, but just to take every week at a time. I think when you get to the playoffs, the season becomes very short and anything can happen. I think if we play the way we want to play, come playoff time in those close games, we’re going to have chances to win them. Step one is getting there, and step two is to win a few playoff games down the road, and anything can happen.”
Fargo is very happy with the staff that he has to help him develop the talent at Colgate. Assistant Josh Sciba was the head coach at Niagara last season before that program dissolved into dust.
“When you take over any program, it’s nice to have that person that’s been in those shoes and you can bounce ideas off of who understands what goes into some of the decision making that a head coach does go through,” Fargo said.
The other assistant, Karell Emard, is new to the coaching ranks, having just wrapped up her playing career at St. Lawrence with an NCAA tournament appearance in March, and is in the unique position of having competed against many of her charges within the last year.
“Karell brings a completely different experience to the table as far as our staff goes,” Fargo said. “Having just been a player, having been to the NCAA tournament, having played for the Canadian Under-22 team and being a captain at St. Lawrence, I think she brings some more insight. Fresh out of university, able to relate to our players, which has been good. Some of the finer points of the game, both on and off the ice, I think she’s going to be a real impact and someone that our players can look to throughout the season. Just for our players to know that both Josh and Karell are there. Sometimes it is hard to come and have conversations with the head coach, but that’s what they’re there for — to coach our players through those experiences. And I think they’ll do a great job of it.”
With an entirely new staff from last season, the Colgate players are faced with a steep learning curve and a lot to learn very quickly.
“This group has been open to new ideas, as obviously, with a new staff, we’re throwing a lot of new things at them,” Fargo said. “There hasn’t been any pushback whatsoever. We’re kind of giving them what we think is a big load to handle, and they’ve been very receptive to this point.”
The new coach has been encouraged early on by how his team does when everyone plays within the team’s systems. Many of the problems he has witnessed seem to come when players try to do too much individually and abandon the system. Progress in that regard will come through increased trust in the coaches and each other.
“Regardless of who we play, I think we’re just going to continue to focus on us and the areas that we need to improve on,” Fargo said. “Regardless of our opponent, we’re just going to approach every game the same way. We’ll give it our best shot, and try and win those games.”
If they win enough of them, the Raiders will be back in their customary spot as a mainstay in the ECAC playoff picture. For the longer term, Fargo believes that Colgate can find its own unique recruiting niche within the ECAC.
“We feel at Colgate, we’ve got the best of both worlds,” he said. “We are an institution that has outstanding academics, and we also offer athletic scholarships. So to be playing in a league where not everybody has that luxury, I think it’s to our benefit, I really do. If we can target those students who are serious about school and about getting a great education and are looking for opportunities to have some of their college experience or their whole college experience paid for, Colgate is a great place to be. I think there’s a lot of excitement right now. As long as we continue to make strides forward everyday, we’ll get to where we want to go. I’m really confident in that.”