The Decision to Transition
This past hockey season, the RIT Women’s Hockey team transitioned from playing in Division III, a less competitive group of schools, to Division I, made up of the top college teams in the nation. RIT Athletic Director Lou Spiotti said this transition was intended to complement the transition of the Men’s team to Division I in 2005, since “both of them deserve to be there.” He said having both teams at the Division I level “was about gender equity, and some of it was about positioning RIT, our athletics and our hockey programs for bigger and better things.” But not the whole transition went according to RIT’s original plan.
Ordinarily, when a team transitions to a higher division, there is a year of independent play, where the team belongs to neither division. However, when Niagara University disbanded their women’s hockey program last year, a spot opened in the College Hockey America (CHA) conference. The Tigers, who were looking to join this conference after a year of independent play, had an opportunity to move into the CHA immediately.
The Tigers jumped feet first into a new, tougher division with more competitive teams that they had never played against before. They played Niagara’s planned games, a more grueling schedule than the team was used to in Division III. But the quick move did have its advantages: “It actually worked out in our favor,” said RIT Women’s Hockey Head Coach Scott McDonald. “We were eligible for playoffs right away. That was a huge bonus for us.” Usually, an independent, transitioning team would not participate in conference playoffs. The
only question was: Would the Tigers make it that far?
Growth During the Season
Flanagan did not know what to expect when facing the Tigers, but he was sure of one thing: “First and foremost, I felt that RIT had a real good sense of how to win — because that’s about all they did the previous two or three years. Whether that’s DI or DIII, if you know how to win and you have that culture in your locker room, that’s a huge bonus.” The RIT players were not initially sure what to expect, either. Ali Binnington, second year Finance major and Tigers goaltender, said, “I was definitely nervous that I didn’t really know what to expect. We all knew we were transitioning and everything, but we weren’t really sure how different it would be.” For the fans that watched the Tigers’ first minutes in Division I, the scene is a painful memory: two goals scored against RIT in just 18 seconds. Tigers forward and first year University Studies major Katie Hubert recalled, “It was a huge wake-up call with our first game against Mercyhurst. The speed was just crazy.”
The Tigers had tapes of Division I opponents to help them prepare for the season, but they had never experienced the size, speed or intensity of Division I play firsthand. The players took this as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
Fourth year Biology major and former captain Tenecia Hiller watched her team rise to a higher level of play this past season. “Especially as a captain, you can see that the girls are growing, the team is growing. As the year went on, our chemistry just got so much better, especially with us getting used to the speed and all of that too. I think we got a lot stronger.”
Along the way, RIT gathered some big wins. In January, the Lady Tigers traveled to Moon Township, Pa. to face Robert Morris University, the defending CHA champions. RIT proceeded to sweep the weekend series, winning both games 2-1. Binnington said, “I think that was the first time I really realized that we did belong at this level, and we were starting to develop to play with those teams.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — the unique challenge of the season, RIT’s coaches and players alike enjoyed the experience of learning how to play against new teams. “Throughout the entire season, there wasn’t a point really where we were upset with our play,” said Hubert. “That really helped us continue to grow, knowing that we’re moving in a positive direction.” The Tigers ended the season with a record of 16-16-1.
To the Playoffs and Beyond
After the regular season had finished, the Lady Tigers won their first two playoff games against the newly-formed Penn State team. They then lost narrowly to Syracuse in the semifinal game. The Tigers did not win the tournament, but they definitely exceeded expectations. Hiller said, “We knew people thought of us as the underdog. But it’s kind of fun coming in as the underdog, because then you can prove everyone wrong. I feel like we did that, too.”
The other coaches in the league are looking forward to the battles that RIT will have for them next season. Mercyhurst Women’s Hockey Head Coach Michael Sisti said, “I know just from the men’s side, our team has had some great rivalries with RIT and with the proximity of the team and the schools, it’s just nice to have [the RIT Women’s Hockey team] added to the league. It should be a real good, healthy rivalry over the years.” Despite not losing to RIT once, Sisti added, “I think they did a great job, we’re glad to have them in the league, and we look forward to some great competition down the road.”
Many RIT players also have high expectations for next season. Second year University Studies major and captain-elect Celeste Brown expects big things from her team next year: “I definitely think we have the ability to win our conference. I think we shouldn’t set our goals any lower than that.”