When you look across the landscape of Division II/III hockey in the East, you note the preponderance of teams in New England and New York with a smaller representation in Pennsylvania.
The concentration of locations is the hallmark of a traditionally Northern winter sport that has a collective group of 55 teams spread across six conferences. But, oh, how that will all change for the 2016-17 season as D-III hockey will go below the Mason-Dixon line when Stevenson University enters the fray as the southernmost member of the ECAC West.
Located just 12 miles from the city of Baltimore, Stevenson will become the seventh team in the ECAC West and instantly becomes the furthest south any team will have to travel to play a D-III hockey game next season. None of this is lost on Mustangs head coach Dominick Dawes, who left his coaching position at Neumann to take on a labor of love in creating a new competitive program in a very competitive conference.
“It is a very exciting time and at the same time very frustrating because I miss the in season activities with a team so much,” stated Dawes. “Having coached for so long, there is that regular cadence of activities leading into the season and this year, it is weird to be on the sidelines as a very interested bystander. The waiting and watching is challenging, but there is much here to keep us very busy starting with getting the right players that will fit in here at Stevenson, so we are working the recruiting stuff pretty hard, so we can be very competitive next season.”
To help in the process, Dawes has added a graduate assistant coach to the staff. Just back in the states after playing in the French professional league, former Geneseo player and SUNYAC Player of the Year Zachary Vit has come onboard to build the inaugural team and has the full support from his head coach in playing a key role in the filling of a roster.
“Zach was a big part of the Geneseo team that made a Frozen Four run just a couple of seasons ago,” noted Dawes. “He is a huge asset to all that we need to do to prepare the program to play next season and clearly knows what it takes to compete against the very best in D-III from his experience in the SUNYAC conference, as well as in nonconference action across the region.”
Dawes knows the enormity of doing everything on an extensive list to prepare a program for entry into the ECAC West next season. Recruiting is just part of the total equation and there so many other things to cover the bases on.
But things are being accomplished and one of the biggest is the schedule the Mustangs are playing in Year 1, which has the coach very excited.
“We have finalized the schedule for next season already,” noted Dawes. “One of the concerns from where we are located is the amount of travel we will have to play other teams as well as their coming to play us. I am thrilled that in the very first year we have balance in our schedule between home and away games. That is something that I don’t think I ever had at Neumann, so it was great to see that come together. While we do not have any tournaments scheduled in year one, we do have one lined up for the following season. Also, all our nonconference games are in New York state, which will help us with limiting the travel next year.”
While some coaches may see the outlying location as a negative in consideration of things like costs and travel, Dawes actually sees a great opportunity for the Mustangs, who will play out of the Reisterstown Sportsplex.
“We are in an area that isn’t a traditional hockey hotbed,” Dawes said. “While the women’s team has already started, we have a great opportunity to expand the fan base and interest in ice hockey locally and look forward to bring ambassadors to growing the sport in Maryland in the upcoming years. The school and administration have been immensely supportive of the creation of the program and all involved are looking forward to the day in October when our players can first take the ice and prepare for the 2016-17 season.”
There are just 278 days to that day in October and if the speed with which this season has already passed by is any indication of how quickly it will arrive, Dawes knows that there is still much to prepare for and important stuff yet to happen in defining league and the national championship chases this season.
“Of course, I keep track of what is going on in D-III during the season,” said Dawes, who won a national title at Neumann. “I follow the conference and of course, my former program at Neumann. Matt [Tendler] is doing a great job coaching there and we speak fairly often during the season. While it continues to be difficult to not be playing this year, it only motivates the staff here more to be ready and part of the action next season when we can establish a new level of excitement for hockey here in Maryland and at Stevenson.”