Three new varsity programs joined the varsity Division II/III ranks at the start of this season, with the University of New England, Stevenson University, and Franklin Pierce all playing their inaugural seasons.
Stevenson and Franklin Pierce each announced their intentions of starting varsity hockey well in advance, leaving their respective coaching staffs nearly a full year to recruit and prepare for the inaugural seasons.
So far, both programs have had success, with Stevenson currently holding a 3-3-0 record and Franklin Pierce sporting a 3-5-0 record.
Stevenson experienced success right from the opening weekend, splitting with Buffalo State the last weekend in October and recording the program’s first win in just its second game with a 4-1 victory over the Bengals.
“I’ve been really happy with the start to the season so far, and our progress and improvements,” said Stevenson coach Shera Vis. “It was exciting to get the monkey off our back so to speak right in the first weekend. I think that definitely helped with the girls’ confidence and believing they could do it. I think we have a good group, with some good talent that can surprise some people.”
The Mustangs followed up with two more wins on Nov. 9 and Nov. 10 against fellow first-year squad Franklin Pierce by scores of 3-1 and 4-3, which actually garnered Stevenson a vote in the USCHO.com Division III national poll to become the third-fastest program to achieve such an honor in D-III history.
“It has generated a little bit of buzz on campus, and people are surprised with how much success we’ve had so far,” Vis said. “As a young team, you need those sorts of things to keep you going and believing in what we’re trying do here.”
Vis said the Franklin Pierce weekend was an important pair of games on the Mustangs’ schedule, as the team has made it one of their goals to try and be the best first-year program out of the three new teams.
“[Coach Stockdale] has done a good job over there at Franklin Pierce,” Vis said. “We didn’t make it easy on ourselves; we had to kill a lot of penalties. I was really proud of the girls with the character wins that we got that weekend.”
While Franklin Pierce didn’t get off to as fast of a start as Stevenson did, the Ravens have won three of their last four games. Franklin Pierce dropped a tough 13-2 decision to Salve Regina to start the season, and then they haven’t lost by more than two goals since then.
“First game was just one of those days where everything they threw at the net went in,” said Franklin Pierce coach David Stockdale. “We had a lot of kids playing their first college hockey games. Certainly the score was not reflective of the ability of the team, and I think that has shown in every game since then, as we’ve been competitive. Several of those games, like Nichols and Stevenson, could have gone either way. They were close, hard-fought games that we gave ourselves an opportunity to be successful in.
Franklin Pierce also played Saint Anselm to a 4-2 game just a few days after the Hawks knocked off No. 1 Norwich.
“Saint Anselm has a great team; they were just coming off that win over Norwich and we really gave them everything they could handle, minus five bad minutes in the second period where they got up 3-0,” Stockdale said. “We’re certainly able to go out there and compete, which is exciting as a first-year program.”
Franklin Pierce got a little bit of a later start than Stevenson, as Stockdale didn’t officially start until October 2011.
“The quality of kids we were able to bring on in as short of a timeline as we had I think was impressive,” Stockdale said. “Excited about being able to be the start of the program and experience all those firsts. I saw a lot of [Coach Vis] out on the road last year, as we went to a lot of the same tournaments and talked to a lot of the same kids.”
While both teams are independent this season without a conference to call home, they’ve been at complete opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their schedules so far. Stevenson has yet to play a home game, and still won’t until Dec. 30; Franklin Pierce, on the other hand, has played seven of its eight games so far at home.
“Being independent it’s tough, especially where we’re at,” Vis said about being located in Maryland. “I was just looking to fill a 25-game schedule and it’s just the way it worked out. We’re looking forward to getting some home games soon. It hasn’t been too bad though, because the girls don’t know any different on the road trips and how far some have been.”
Franklin Pierce has a home-and-home this weekend with Plymouth State, and then another home date with Saint Anselm before playing its next eight on the road after that.
“We’ve been able to get our legs under us here in the first semester, and then be a little more road heavy in the second semester once our kids have had adjusted to college and playing at this level,” Stockdale said. “It’s the way things worked out, and there were a couple that got moved around late in the process to help accommodate other teams. We had some more road games in the first half that ended up getting moved. In our situation, it may have actually helped us, so we didn’t have to worry about traveling and missing class and those sorts of things.”
Both schools applied to conferences, with Stevenson trying to join the ECAC West and Franklin Pierce attempting to join the ECAC East, but both were denied access for the 2012-13 season.
“Things are kind of still on that front,” Vis said of Stevenson’s situation. “We’re fighting for it, and still want to get into a league, but as of right now there haven’t been a lot of changes in that regard. Sooner rather than later, we’ll be a member of some conference I think. It’s just a matter of when.”
This weekend, Stevenson gets another chance at first-year program bragging rights as it heads up to the University of New England for a two-game set on Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s about a 9-9.5-hour trip to there,” Vis said. “It’s happening at a good time though, as we’ve had two weekends off and the girls are ready to play some games again, so it’s good timing. It’s a big weekend for us, because we would love to go into break at 5-3 as a first-year program. The girls know the importance for this weekend.”
On the flip side, Franklin Pierce will wrap up its first semester schedule looking to get to .500.
“We’re just trying to find consistency right now,” Stockdale said. “We were a little rusty against UNE, and picked it up as the games went on. We’re focusing on the process of how we can be the best we can be right from the start of the game. We’re 3-5 right now with an opportunity to be .500 at the Christmas break, and I think for a new program that is admirable.”