Making Magic Again

St. Lawrence’s magical run to the NCAAs crumbled in a span of 42 seconds in Madison on Saturday. But when the smoke cleared, Joe Marsh knew he could speak of a year in which a reinvigorated program could look ahead to making its appearance a more regular occurrence. One that relies not upon magic, but upon newfound resources.

When the St. Lawrence dominance of the 80s and early 90s dried up, Marsh could see the handwriting on the wall.

With recruiting budgets and competition for players increasing around the NCAA, the St. Lawrence head coach knew better than anyone that regaining a place in the national spotlight could only be achieved by awarding scholarships, something the school had never done.

When the typically arduous process of convincing school administrators came to an end, it came with a sense of relief, but also with a newfound urgency. Marsh knew the expectations would be higher, both on the ice and in the quality of the individual. The program pledged to make sure the cost of scholarship was spent on a high-character student-athlete.

“We should be accountable,” Marsh said following Saturday’s 5-2 first-round NCAA loss to Colorado College. “The school wants to protect its assets. We’re trying to bring in the best kids, and we had a great group of kids this year.

“Our track record, in my 16 years here, I’ve tried to do that. There’s good-quality kids in the program and everyone’s appreciative of that. It’s a healthy environment. St. Lawrence is a terrific place.”

In 1985, Joe Marsh took over a program with just two 20-win seasons in its history and just one NCAA appearance in 24 years. After getting his feet wet with a 16-15 season, Marsh led St. Lawrence to three straight 20-win seasons and five in six years. Included were two straight 29-win seasons and four NCAA appearances, highlighted by an appearance in the title game in Lake Placid in 1988, where the Saints lost to Lake Superior in overtime.

But after the last of three ECAC championships in 1992, St. Lawrence fell on hard times, winning an average of 13.5 games over the next six seasons. It was ironic, as well, that St. Lawrence would make no trips to the ECAC Final Four since the tournament moved to Lake Placid, the site of the biggest win in school history.

In its first year with full scholarships, St. Lawrence bottomed out with nine wins, but with the confidence that better times were ahead.

That turned out to be right. Led by a remarkable season from Hobey Baker finalist goalie Eric Heffler, ECAC Rookie of the Year Brandon Dietrich and a solid defensive corps, St. Lawrence rose to the top of the ECAC standings again.

Staying there is the next goal.

“We have some things still to do to get there,” Marsh said. “Just because we’re here [in the NCAAs] doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll go back. It takes every ounce to get here. But I’m proud of what we did this year. We had a good group who worked really hard and had a great attitude.”

St. Lawrence loses Heffler and high-scoring forwards Bob Prier, Matt Oikawa and Steve Poapst. But they return Dietrich, junior-to-be Erik Anderson and his 40 points, and the entire defense.

But more importantly than the specifics, the overriding philosophy and resources and now in place for the program.

“We’re healthy, and we’ve gotten plenty of things to improve ourselves,” Marsh said. “We have better equipment. We’ve gotten improvements in the rink. Everything’s better. But it won’t be those things that does it for us, it will be the people.”

The people include those he recruits and those in the administration, including new athletic director Margie Strait. Marsh has stayed at St. Lawrence for so long because of those reasons.

“The area has been good to me and my family,” Marsh said. “The [administration has] always been good to me. Every AD since I’ve been here has been real honest. I have a ton of respect for everyone I’ve worked for. They realize what the program means, and we’ve never had a win-at-all-costs mentality. The philosophy is strong.”

Like it or not, the measuring stick for St. Lawrence is North Country neighbor Clarkson. The resources in the past may have been different, but with the schools being 10 miles apart, travel partners, and of similar size and academic philosophy, the comparisons are inevitable.

Of course, if you compare the long-term success of the programs, there’s no question Clarkson, with its perpetual run to the top of the ECAC, comes out on top. But St. Lawrence can now say its program has closed the gap, and nearly erased it. Marsh says the key is now to take the new resources they have and make them work for the program.

“They [Clarkson] have a newer rink, yeah, but we have what we need,” Marsh said. “It’s incumbent upon us to not sit around and talk about what we don’t have. We have enough in place, and we have that type of athlete we need. Now’s the time to take those steps.”