New coach, same expectations at Amherst

When Amherst hits the ice this weekend to open up its 2012-13 season with a home-and-home against Hamilton, the Lord Jeffs will be doing so without the signature fedora hat donned by Jim Plumer.

Over the last nine seasons, Plumer took the Amherst women’s hockey program from a below .500 team to a national powerhouse, culminating with back-to-back national championships in 2009 and 2010.

After missing the NCAA tournament in 2011, Plumer guided the Lord Jeffs back into the NCAAs in 2012 before bowing out to Norwich, 5-0, in the quarterfinal round in early March.

Two months later, Plumer left the program he built from the ground up to take the head job at the University of Vermont, replacing Tim Bothwell after six seasons.

Plumer accumulated a 158-69-19 record during his tenure at Amherst, including an impressive 127-30-14 record over the last six seasons for a .784 winning percentage. He was also named the 2009 American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) National Coach of the Year.

Amherst named Plumer’s assistant coach Tracy Johnson the interim head coach on July 17, but Johnson resigned from the position just a few weeks prior to official practices starting on Nov. 1. In stepped Jeff Matthews, who had interviewed for the position the first time around.

“My goal from the onset of my coaching career was to end up in an institution like this that allows you to work with impressive student-athletes that not only excel on the ice, but also off the ice as well,” Matthews said. “I’m very fortunate to be walking into a situation with a great culture that has already been established.”

Matthews spent the last six seasons as the head coach of the Northwood School boys’ junior team in Lake Placid, N.Y., amassing a 174-59-17 overall record.

“I’m not trying to change too much, just trying to be myself and keep a good thing going that we have here,” Matthews said. “I’ve been looking to get into the women’s game for the last few years. My wife played college hockey, and when I was an assistant men’s coach at RPI, she was the women’s assistant.”

With Matthews’ late start, he noted it has been a bit hectic over the last month getting settled, as well as taking over a team that consistently ranks in the top 10 in the country year in and year out.

“Things have been going well and it’s been fun,” Matthews said. “Obviously it’s been hectic coming in under the circumstances I did, and I’ve been playing catch up. I came in during recruiting crunch time, and a lot stuff happens in the NESCAC by way of early decision. We’re trying to get a lot of stuff done in a short period of a time, but this is a program that knows what it takes to be a good team.”

Amherst graduated four of its top seven scorers from last season, including the leading two goal scorers in Ellen Swiontkowski and Emily Vitale. The Lord Jeffs also lost Josie Fisher and Erin Babineau, who were all important cogs in Amherst’s back-to-back title run.

“We did lose some top scorers from last year,” Matthews said. “But we do have a nice corps still returning though, led by Geneva Lloyd and Ashley Salerno. Tori Salmon and Emily Flom also are returning after strong freshmen seasons.”

Lloyd was the NESCAC Player of the Year a year ago after being a dominant force at both ends of the ice, scoring nine goals and adding 15 assists for 24 points from the blue line.

Salerno (2-14-16), Tori Salmon (6-11-17), and Flom (7-3-10) also had strong seasons for the Lord Jeffs, and will be counted on to be leaders for a 2012-13 squad that will have just 16 skaters and two goalies on it to start the season.

“We have a nice corps, but the challenge will be that our roster is a little small this year,” Matthews said. “I don’t carry a thick roster in general, but we also had a girl retire because of a handful of injuries. We’re going to need every single person on the roster to carry out the success we’ve experienced in the past.”

The Lord Jeffs add four newcomers to the mix this season in Erin Martin, Eileen Harris, Caroline Bomstein, and Kasia Henley.

“Our four freshmen have fit perfectly into the culture so far, and we’re hoping and expecting them to contribute right away,” Matthews said. “We don’t want them viewing themselves as freshmen. We want them stepping right in with confidence. I’ve been impressed with all of them, and I think they have great potential.”

In between the pipes, Henley will look to battle with junior Kerri Stuart for time in the net.

“Kerri has had some game experience,” Matthews said. “At the end of the day, she had a little bit more of a backup role last year. This is her chance, and she’s excited to take another step up in her game.”

Matthews said he is looking forward to finally get going with the NESCAC opener this weekend against Hamilton, who also will have a first-year coach behind the bench in Emily McNamara, who takes over after spending four years at Middlebury as an assistant coach under Bill Mandigo.

“I think in this league you have to be ready on every night,” Matthews said. “Friday night, we are fortunate enough to be opening at home. The girls are excited about that. We’ve just got to go out there and play our game and control what we can control.”

The following weekend, sixth-ranked Amherst and Matthews will be thrown into the thick of things when they travel to Middlebury to partake in the prestigious Panther-Cardinal Classic along with No. 2 Plattsburgh, No. 4 Elmira, and No. 5 Middlebury.

“It will give us an idea of where we are at early in the season playing nationally ranked teams like that,” Matthews said. “We have high expectations for ourselves, so to find out where you are you have to play in tournaments like that and teams like that. We feel fortunate being a part of that tournament for the past few years.”