The landscape of NCAA Division III men’s hockey in the West just got a lot more interesting.
After months of conference uncertainty, St. Norbert College and the College of St. Scholastica announced their decision Tuesday to join the MCHA, which will expand to 10 men’s programs beginning during the 2013-14 season.
The announcement comes in the wake of the five University of Wisconsin schools’ decision to withdraw their men’s and women’s hockey teams from the NCHA in February to operate under the auspices of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which sponsors a majority of the schools’ other sports.
The move left St. Norbert and St. Scholastica as the lone remaining members of the NCHA men’s conference with the realignment set to take place following the 2013-14 season, before both sides agreed in April to move up to after the 2012-13 season.
Immediately after the UW schools’ decision, MCHA commissioner Dr. G. Steve Larson reached out to both St. Norbert and Scholastica with standing offers to join the conference after all current eight members voted unanimously to invite them.
The Green Knights didn’t start discussing conference possibilities until after finishing their run to back-to-back national titles, but eventually settled on the MCHA because of the growth the conference has shown in recent years.
“When you get the opportunity to sit back and reflect, and look at where we’re headed, all of the positive growth has been in the group of coaches behind us in the last 10 years,” St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin said.
“We were tied up with playoffs and what not, but when you get a chance to sit back and reflect on who you want to be associated with, and like institutions and members that are on board for all the right reasons, this is a great group to be a part of.”
When Coghlin met with the media for the first time after the UW schools’ decision in February, he was hesitant about a possible move to the MCHA, given St. Norbert’s 55-0-2 all-time record against the conference.
After performing their due diligence, however, both St. Norbert and St. Scholastica were sold on how competition has improved in recent years, with Adrian (Mich.) College finishing as the national runner-up two years ago and Milwaukee School of Engineering making its first NCAA tournament appearance last season.
The Green Knights have played in the NCHA since Coghlin’s second year in De Pere, Wis., during the 1994-95 season. During that span, St. Norbert has won the conference’s regular-season title 13 times in those 18 years, including 10 of the last 11, and captured the league’s Peters Cup postseason tournament on 10 occasions.
As the months passed after the five UW schools — Eau Claire, River Falls, Stevens Point, Stout and Superior — pulled out of the NCHA, St. Norbert and St. Scholastica maintained contact, but never made any definitive plans to stay together.
In the end, however, it turned out to be the best decision for both sides.
“I think that would be our primary goal if we could work it out, but again we had to look individually and collectively,” St. Scholastica coach Mark Wick said. “St. Norbert had to do what’s best for them, and we had to look at what’s best for us, and if we could do it together, I think that’s a positive thing.”
The MCHA, which is entering its 15th season, not only was the first to offer St. Norbert and St. Scholastica a new home, but apparently the only one.
Although the WIAC said it would be open to St. Norbert and St. Scholastica applying for the conference, no official invite was ever presented to the Green Knights, according to Coghlin.
Still, the MCHA already has started talks with both the WIAC and Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference about scheduling nonconference games, which both Coghlin and Wick were in favor of.
The addition of two teams requires a bit of restructuring in terms of the MCHA playoffs, but it allows the Knights and Saints to remain in the NCAA tournament picture for an automatic qualifier, which the MCHA became eligible for over the last few years.
In order to garner an automatic bid, the WIAC will need to add at least two teams, and then will have to wait two years to be eligible. Larson said the WIAC made “overtures” toward a couple of MCHA schools about joining, but its member schools weren’t interested.
The WIAC has no interest in adding teams solely to get to the minimum number of schools required for a Pool A automatic qualifier, commissioner Gary Karner said Tuesday.
“If you start making your membership decisions based on AQ factors, you’re really barking up the wrong tree,” Karner said.
Conferences need seven schools to be eligible for an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III men’s tournament, and the WIAC falls two short under the setup that is in place for the 2013-14 season. The WIAC has affiliate members from outside the Wisconsin state school system in men’s soccer and women’s gymnastics, so there is precedent for adding members, but Karner said his league will not be the one originating any contact.
“We’re always open to exploring options with people that approach us and want to consider membership, but we’re not going to be pursuing anybody,” Karner said.
In the immediate, the move costs the West one of its three automatic NCAA Tournament qualifiers with the NCHA’s dissolution, but the MCHA is hoping its newest additions move the conference closer to garnering an at-large bid.
Either way, it’s a big step forward for a league that originally assembled under the vision of MSOE athletic director and conference architect Dan Harris as a league for upstart programs and misfits in the West.
“With how we have improved and having Adrian College in the national championship two seasons ago, this brings us to a whole other level,” Larson said. “I think it’s bringing us to being one of the premier Division III conferences, not just in the West region, but in the entire country.”
The conference switch shouldn’t change travel costs too much for either St. Norbert or St. Scholastica, with St. Norbert athletic director Tim Bald even suggesting it might lighten the costs for the Green Knights.
For St. Norbert, the move to the MCHA also will see Coghlin match up against his former assistant, A.J. Aitken, who earlier this spring accepted the head-coaching position at Marian after nine years with the Green Knights.
With only one year to blueprint the league’s expansion, there are still plenty of questions to be answered, but all parties involved are excited about the outlook.
“Everywhere we’re looking, we’re seeing positive growth,” Coghlin said. “I think it’s something we’re very excited to be a part of. I know it’s going to be a challenge when it comes to putting the schedule together, but I know we have to have the right people in place.”
On the women’s hockey side, the NCHA still has seven women’s hockey teams even after the WIAC schools decision to withdraw from the conference, which is enough to meet the requirement for automatic entry to the NCAA tournament.