This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey:
Oct. 26, 2006

She kept them waiting practically until the last minute but finally in early June, the phone call came to the coach.

“Coach, I’ve made my decision ….” were the words, like those of so many prized recruits, that began the conversation.

Within a minute or two, Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti heard what he had been waiting for: “I’m coming to Mercyhurst,” from Canadian Olympic Gold Medalist Meghan Agosta.

“We knew by the e-mails and questions that we were getting close,” Sisti said. “The questions got more serious and they increased.” But until that call actually came, nothing was in the bank, especially since national champion Wisconsin was also high on Agosta’s list, as were a number of other top schools such as the New Hampshire and Ohio State.

In the end, it was the small, family-like setting of the Erie, Pa., college (student population: 3,080) and the support she felt she would get from the coaches and academic counselors that sealed the deal.

“It was a very touch decision with so many good schools after me,” she said. “But I had an extra year to think about it.” She had visited Mercyhurst at least two years before she committed and was drawn to it right away.

“I really thought it was a family-oriented school,” she said. “I knew I would get help — academics and as a hockey player I want to get better. There was no doubt in my mind the coaches would help there.”

“We worked really hard to get her because I felt a small school was really best for her,” Sisti said, even holding out a scholarship until she made the final decision, as late as it was. “But I knew in my heart that we were the best place for her.”

Agosta, who is from the small town of Ruthven, Ontario, sat out a year after high school to get ready for the Olympics and to think over her options. The 19-year-old lefthanded forward had a hat trick against Russia in the Olympics. She is not shy about using her Olympic experience (she was the youngest on the team) to assert herself with her new squad.

“Coming from a national team I have a lot to learn, but I can also bring my experience to them,” she said. “If I see someone dong something wrong in the weight room or even on the ice, I tell the about it. Since I’ve played at the national level, I feel I can bring this to the team.”

Senior Julia Colizza says the Lakers all look up to Agosta. “Every girl wants to be on a national team,” she said. “She’s got leadership abilities, experience and skills. She’s an excellent, excellent hockey player.”

Agosta is the right place for a freshman to dictate to upperclassmen if she thinks it’s necessary. For if nothing else, the Mercyhurst Lakers are about pulling on the same oars and getting to the Frozen Four. That elite company has eluded them twice by one goal in the NCAA quarterfinals. Last year, they lost to eventual champ Wisconsin 2-1 in double overtime, and two years ago they lost in triple overtime to Harvard 5-4.

Since 1993 when he assumed the head coaching position after three years as assistant men’s coach at Canisius College in Buffalo, Sisti’s record is 169-59-18.

“Mike’s done a nice job and has gotten some kids that have really helped the program,” said Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson, who usually doesn’t see the team until the postseason. As far as reaching the elite level, “They are already there,” Johnson said. Mercyhurst is ranked No. 4 in this week’s USCHO poll. Their 5-0-1 start is the best in team history.

UNH coach Brian McCloskey, whose team has regularly played Mercyhurst, called them one of the best coached teams in the country. “They are a legitimate contender for the national championship,” he said. “In the past they didn’t have the fire power, although they always worked hard and were well coached. They would outshoot teams and still lose by a goal. But with Agosta and the more experience they have, they’ll be a real threat.” The teams will clash in New Hampshire’s Thanksgiving weekend tournament on Nov. 25.

Mercyhurst has achieved its success the old fashioned way — through hard work, slow success in recruiting and coaches who play down the star system and emphasize the team.

“We’ve tried to establish our team and our program as one of the classiest in the country,” Sisti said. “We don’t con kids, we don’t want them to come here for the wrong reason. We aren’t a bells and whistles team with glitzy arenas. We’re meat and potatoes types.”

The meat and potatoes are mixing up nicely in the pot so far. Sisti and his associate head coach Paul Colontino think they have the best chemistry they’ve ever had with a blending of new and old players and those from America, Canada and Scandinavian countries.

“Everyone is extremely comfortable and learning from each other on and off the ice,” said Colontino. “We don’t look at upperclassmen or lower classmen. We put all ranks and all ages aside and focus on hockey.”

Hockey is the only Division I sport in the Division II school, so with that distinction, the Lakers have the opportunity to draw a crowd. Sisti was hired in April of 1999 and given very little time to get a team together for Division I play.

“We had to start from scratch to have a team for the fall,” he said. Through hard work and a little luck, he assembled a great bunch of players that he said took a chance on him. “[The program] immediately made its presence known. From day one, this was going to be a competitive team that earned respect on campus and among fans.”

This they did with a 23-6-0 record, mostly against D-III competition. The following season the team fell to 14-16-3, the only losing season Sisti has had. But they were beating established programs – UNH and Providence – that had been around for decades – and that was a more indicative sign of what was to come. “Those early years helped build the program to what it is now,” he said.

And what it is now is a balanced hockey team that can dominate teams offensively as in a 8-1 win over Maine, or hold the line on defensively, as in a 1-0 over a Dartmouth team stacked with Olympians. In the first game against Dartmouth, they came from two goals down to win.

“The big thing is we’re getting better each week,” Sisti said. “The team showed they are resilient and can play hard. Even when we were down, they stayed confident and focused. They never got rattled.”

There was a time when such a comeback would not have been probable. Last season, they were 3-5 heading into conference play with a four straight losses to perennial Frozen Four qualifiers Minnesota and St. Lawrence. When it came to one or two goal games, they were usually on the losing end.

With the addition of Agosta, the Lakers are stronger at forward than they have ever been. “In the past sometimes goals have come a little tough for us,” he said. This week, the Lakers are third in the nation in scoring offense with an average 4.50 goals in 6.

“That’s a lot tougher to do, when you work hard and still come up short-handed,” Sisti said. “Monday mornings we sure feel better about ourselves than we did last season.”

Among the team leaders is senior Julia Colizza, from Saulte Ste. Marie in Ontario, whose nine points are second highest on the team along with three other players, including Agosta. Sophomore Valerie Chouinard, who is from Matane, Quebec, leads a team with a balanced attack with 10 points

Mercyhurst plays in the CHA– the only one of the four women’s hockey conferences without an automatic bid. Sisti has no problem with that even though they have been regular season and tournament champs for the past four seasons.

“We have to play hard every night,” he said. “We have to earn our wins. We don’t want to lose 15 and 16 games and win an automatic bid.”

Since the 2005 NCAA tournament expansion, there are five at-large bids and eight total, whereas in earlier years there were only four bids total. Mercyhurst often hovered in the middle of the top 10 and wasn’t ever chosen to go to the post-season tournament.

Like most coaches, Sisti is cautious about March, although he acknowledges that even though there are 8 to 10 teams out there that are good enough for the Frozen Four, the Lakers are among them. “We need some luck and to stay on a roll and improve week to week,” he said.

All Laker teams have worked hard, but it is Agosta’s skills and leadership that may finally turn the tide and get Mercyhurst that first Frozen Four berth.

Sisti said he is surprised at how polished she is at handling so much in her life — hockey, school and the media pressure resulting from her Olympic status. “She’s busier than most players, but she’s mature and handles it well,” he said.

On the ice, she continues to impress him. “She’s the kind of player who may fly under the radar for eight minutes, and then in one minute can change the game.”