This Week in the ECAC West: Jan. 20, 2005

Maybe No Shrinkage

Perhaps the single most prevalent issue that has slowed the progression of the ECAC West over the last fifteen years is the lack of stability in membership. From a high of seventeen members back in the early 1990’s, to the low of just four members in the later parts of that decade, the league has seen its membership change on a consistent basis.

Teams have left for various reasons. Some programs have folded like St. Bonaventure and SUNY Binghamton. Others have left en masse to form new leagues of their own like the SUNYAC. A few have migrated individually to other leagues like Hamilton and Skidmore.

A handful of teams have outgrown Division III and moved up to Division I like Union, Canisius, Mercyhurst, and Niagara. RIT is the latest school to join that later group, which again raises the question of the future of the league.

RIT’s defection effectively kills the league’s hopes for gaining an automatic bid in to the NCAA tournament as part of Pool A, which they were scheduled to qualify for at the end of this season.

There were also discussions about increasing the number of teams participating in the league playoffs from the current four to six next season. Those plans are also now on hold indefinitely.

However, the league will go ahead with plans to play each other three times in league play next season.

But perhaps all isn’t as glum as it might at first appear to those who care so much about the health of the league. Every team in the league has shown signs of improving this season in their play on the ice, and has done so in each school’s commitment off the ice.

There are also rumors of the league growing in membership. A school in Pennsylvania has contacted the ECAC and expressed an interest in exploring joining the league for the 2007-2008 season. This school currently offers ice hockey at the club level, and is exploring the options it might have if they elevated the hockey team, and the school, to NCAA Division III.

There is no doubt that RIT will be missed after this season. The Tigers have been one of only three teams (Elmira and Hobart are the others) that have ridden the crests and troughs of the wave of the league over these last ten years of turmoil. They have been a perennial power in the league and in the nation, and have supported the league and the new teams in many, many ways.

But, as times change, the ECAC West will do what it has always done, and persevere while providing an abundance of exciting hockey to players and fans alike.

Plugging Along

This season has been a struggle for Lebanon Valley, as it tries to overcome several obstacles to winning. The Flying Dutchmen continue to adjust to playing in a much tougher league than in the past.

“[The ECAC West] is much more difficult than the other league we were in,” said Lebanon Valley coach Al MacCormack. “In the other league, there were always a bunch of games that were easy games. There are no easy games in this league. I know we have been losing, but we have been right there in many games.”

A comparison becomes apparent just by looking at the games played last weekend, when Lebanon Valley tied Framingham State and beat Western New England. Both are teams from Lebanon Valley’s old league, the ECAC Northeast.

“Those are teams that we should have success against,” said MacCormack.

But outside of those games, the Flying Dutchmen have struggled to finish games. They have had several games in which they were leading entering the third period, only to see their opponent storm back to score bunches of goals late and win the game.

“I have no idea what’s wrong,” said MacCormack. “We’re leading Buffalo [State], we’re leading Cortland, we’re leading teams coming down to the end, and then all of the sudden it just falls apart. This has happened to me years ago, where everything seems to go wrong at the wrong time. And when you are in this business long enough, like I have, it can happen to you or it can happen to anybody. I can’t put my finger on it.”

One factor that certainly has not helped the situation is the loss of Cameron Vandeveer, last season’s second leading scorer, after only ten games this season. Vandeveer tallied 28 points last season, and was the leading returning scorer. But he was lost to injury in the game against Wentworth on Dec. 10 and will miss the remainder of this season.

Lebanon Valley isn’t quitting in games, though, and plans on battling through this season right to the very end.

“We could be a spoiler for someone,” said MacCormack. “We are not going to be a playoff team that is for sure. But we have to play every game and try and be in there in every contest.”

A Few Ramblings

After last week’s column, I received several comments from readers via email and at the rink. Most were supportive of my admission, some rubbed salt in the wounds of the whole SUNYAC thing, and others were wondering why things are the way they are.

And of course, as the games wound down Friday evening, Russell Jaslow was right there in the RIT pressbox, rubbing in certain ECAC West losses that had occurred to SUNYAC teams.

But I did gain a little solace, just as we were packing up for the evening. The last score to come across the ether was Neumann’s defeat of Buffalo State. So, at least it was proved that the ECAC West wasn’t completely packing its bags for interleague play.

Speaking of Neumann, it won in dramatic fashion as is only befitting its season so far. The Knights were up 5-2 midway through the third period when Buffalo State scored two goals. Then Jordan Hancock for Neumann was tagged with a hooking penalty with 1:34 remaining. Buffalo State called a timeout to make a plan of attack, but Knights goaltender Mike Collichio made the big saves and stopped 20 of the 22 Buffalo State third period shots on net to close the game with a 5-4 victory.

“We worked hard and were able to pull one out,” said Neumann coach Dennis [nl]Williams. “It was a good confidence boost, especially for our new guys.”

Neumann has had eight games this year decided by one goal, or a goal plus an empty netter. It is about time that a bounce went their way, and they were able to win one of them.

On the other end of the spectrum is Manhattanville, who for the first time in the school’s six year history is ranked #1 in the country in the USCHO/CSTV Poll. The Valiants remain perfect with a 14-0 record and continue to do all of the little things necessary to win hockey games.

“Certainly being number one in the poll is a monumental step for the program and a testament of how hard our guys have worked,” said head coach Keith Levinthal. “However, our only focus at this point in the season is winning our league. Our first goal is to be the best in our neighborhood.”