College Hockey America, the little conference that could, has certainly endured its share of struggles. Starting in 2002 with just four teams, it has somehow persevered through program cuts at three of those founding programs – Findlay in 2004, Wayne State in 2011 and Niagara in 2012 – to come out stronger on the other side. The CHA picked up Robert Morris and Syracuse in the middle of the last decade before scoring Penn State, RIT and Lindenwood for 2012-13. It’s even been subject to rumors of further expansion in the form of St. Anselm, Rhode Island or Navy.
Through the wave of growth, it has finally maintained the six required teams for an NCAA Tournament automatic bid through a two-year probationary period (although the autobid has yet to be officially awarded for 2014-15). While powerhouse Mercyhurst hasn’t had much issue qualifying for NCAAs without it, the autobid would provide a boost to schools like Robert Morris and RIT, both of whom have won the CHA tournament in the last three years, but were rendered unable to play for a national title. Unprecedented depth has also developed within the compact circuit, with four of six teams making it to the playoff final since 2012.
Here’s how we think things will shake out in the new season, possibly the most intriguing in CHA history.
1. Mercyhurst Lakers
Head Coach: Michael Sisti (Sixteenth Year)
2013-14 Record: 24-9-4 (15-3-2/First Place CHA, defeated by RIT in final)
NCAA Tournament: Seventh Seed; Advanced to Frozen Four with win over Cornell, defeated by Clarkson in semifinals
Key Departures: F Christine Bestland, F Kayleigh Chippy, F Christie Cicero
Key Returners: F Shelby Bram, F Jenna Dingeldein, F Emily Janiga, D Molly Byrne
Key Additions: F Brooke Hartwick, F Kirsten Miller, D Callie Paddock, F Jennifer MacAskill
Up until a 2012 CHA championship game loss to Robert Morris, the Lakers boasted the distinction of winning every conference regular season and playoff championship in history (they still stand as the only CHA team to ever qualify for the NCAA Tournament, doing so ten times). Mercyhurst’s hegemony was challenged a second time in the title game this past spring, by upstart RIT. As a result, for possibly the first time ever, Sisti’s program has to turn its sights inward and concern itself with winning the league, as opposed to focusing almost exclusively on toppling national powers like Cornell and Boston University in March.
The good news in Erie is that MU has more than enough capability to do both. Despite the graduations of two-time CHA Player of the Year Bestland (226 points in 143 career games) and highly-productive classmates Cicero and Chippy, the Lakers were a pretty young squad last season, rostering 13 freshmen and sophomores against a total of 20.
Replacing a Bestland isn’t something accomplished with a Sisti finger snap and increased production from supporting players, but it’s still difficult to think that Hurst will fall short of what’s become its routine: the top spot in the standings, the tournament championship game and an NCAA bid. Towering Dingeldein, along with Bram and Janiga are well established, with others like power play specialist Kathy Donohue possibly taking on a bigger role.
Leading a typically strong and Canadian group of freshmen is Hartwick, who comes from the Bluewater Jr. Hawks and has received plenty of consideration for Canadian U18 teams. Paddock should have an easy time transitioning to college under the wings of a bevy of returning defensemen, including Byrne, J’nai Mahadeo and Jillian Skinner.
Amanda Makela is expected to once again eat the bulk of the goaltending minutes, and while she’s overshadowed by a few others around the league, the Thunder Bay, ON native is more than capable of going toe to toe with any of them.
Pivotal Series: October 31-November 1 vs. Robert Morris. Mercyhurst is always looking to make a national statement, and a December 1st NCAA Tournament rematch with Cornell stands out in that regard, but the Lakers’ opening their CHA slate with a top contender at home represents an opportunity for a more local statement. Undoubtedly, RMU sees it the same way.
MERCYHURST UNIVERSITY LAKERS pic.twitter.com/GrLPszRct9
— Hurst W. Hockey (@HurstWHockey) September 23, 2013
2. Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers
Head Coach: Scott McDonald (Ninth Year)
2013-14 Record: 20-15-3 (11-7-2/Third Place CHA, Won league championship)
Key Departures: F Erin Zach, F Kourtney Kunichika, D Melissa Bromley
Key Returners: G Ali Binnington, F Marissa Maugeri, D Lindsay Grigg, F Kolbee McCrea
Key Additions: D Haley Northcote, D Lauren Carroll, D Maddie Grisko, F Victoria Pitawanakwat
It would be tough to find a program anywhere in the country with more positive momentum at the moment than RIT, as the Tigers have enjoyed a storybook transition from NCAA Division III after winning the 2012 national title.
From there, RIT posted a .500 debut in DI, then got hot at the perfect time a year ago, ultimately stunning Mercyhurst 2-1 in double overtime to take the CHA championship. The league’s lack of an autobid and RIT’s status as a transitional program (since lifted) conspired to keep the Tigers out of the NCAA Tournament, although that reality did afford the ability to join national champ Clarkson as the only DI teams winning their final 2013-14 contest.
To top it all off, this season will see RIT move into college hockey’s newest arena, the $38 million, 4,300-seat Gene Polisseni Center. An exhibition against Pursuit of Excellence on September 29th will serve as a dry run ahead of the official home opener versus Union on October 3rd.
While Mercyhurst, Robert Morris and Syracuse have every intention of preventing a CHA repeat from the Tigers, RIT certainly has the ability to push back.
Many freshmen were key contributors on the DIII title team, and they now constitute a robust senior class on a veteran team, notably including conference tourney MVP Binnington – whose 62 saves were instrumental to upsetting the Lakers – along with leading point producer Maugeri, top goal scorers McCrea and Celeste Brown, and steady defenders Grigg and Morgan Scoyne.
Elsewhere, sophomore defenseman Taylor Thurston is an emerging star, while Minnesota State transfer Northcote – an every-night player in the brutally-tough WCHA last year – arrives to further bolster the blue line. Forward/defenseman Caiti Wallace will try to parlay an outstanding CHA playoff run into a good sophomore season, and defenseman Carroll, plucked from the Oakville Jr. Hornets, headlines a class of five freshmen that will attempt to continue what’s quickly turning into a championship-rich tradition.
Pivotal Series: November 21-22 at Mercyhurst. Obviously, the Polisseni Center’s debut will grab headlines, but in terms of the team on the ice, the logical next step for the Tigers is to compete at the top of the league from wire to wire. Nothing can show a team’s ability to do that quite like a trip to play the revenge-minded Lakers.
— RIT Womens Hockey (@RITWHKY) August 21, 2014
3. Robert Morris Colonials
Head Coach: Paul Colontino (Fourth Year)
2013-14 Record: 24-8-3 (13-5-2/Second Place CHA, Defeated by RIT in semifinals)
Key Departures: F Kristen Richards, F Thea Imbrogno, D Anneline Lauziere, D Kylie St. Louis
Key Returners: F Rebecca Vint, F Brittany Howard, G Jessica Dodds, F Maeve Garvey
Key Additions: D Leah Carey, F Katherine Murphy, D Natalie Fraser, F Jessica Gazzola
The Colonials very nearly made history last season by becoming the first non-Mercyhurst CHA team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, while also giving the conference two teams of the final eight for the first time ever. RMU lingered just inside the cutoff according to the PairWise Rankings (and in the top ten of the polls) late into the season before a decisive loss to RIT in the CHA semifinals formally squashed the dream.
Make no mistake, the Colonials have as much raw talent as any team in the CHA, and most of it is young. Now-sophomore Dodds emerged as an elite goaltender in her rookie year and was voted all-conference first team after finishing in the top ten nationally in every major statistic, including goals against average (1.66) and save percentage (0.932). Classmate Howard, along with more established star Vint, went on to share the team lead with 41 points apiece, or 1.21 per game to tie for 14th in the country. Howard and Vint meshed as linemates, but can also be separated to create an elite 1-2 punch down the middle.
A good crop of freshmen is led by Madison Capitols product Carey and the North American Hockey Academy’s Murphy.
RMU’s biggest question mark lies around its trademark depth in the wake of the departures of standouts Richards, Imbrogno, Lauziere, St. Louis and defenseman Brandi Pollock, which has generally allowed the Colonials to dismantle opponents with wave after wave of machine-like efficiency in the past.
All five of those players did plenty of heavy lifting, with forwards Richards and Imbrogno frequently taking matchup pressure away from Vint and Howard, and the others representing the top half of what is now an untested defense. The sort of flexibility the Colonials have enjoyed has helped them consistently stand as the only team able to challenge Mercyhurst through the long grind of the regular season, twice coming within four points of the crown in the last three years (and owning a 7-6-1 head-to-head against the Lakers during that span).
There’s enough in Moon Township, PA to stay at that level – a CHA title and an NCAA Tournament bid are both well within RMU’s grasp – but those goals may prove slightly tougher this year.
Pivotal Series: Febuary 13-14 vs. RIT. It’s hard to believe that conference placement in the form of a first-round bye, or even more, won’t be a consideration when Robert Morris hosts the Tigers on the penultimate weekend of the regular season.
4. Syracuse Orange
Head Coach: Paul Flanagan (Seventh Season)
2013-14 Record: 20-14-3 (9-8-3/Fourth Place CHA, Defeated by Mercyhurst in semifinals)
Key Departures: G Kallie Billadeau, G Jenesica Drinkwater, F Margot Scharfe, D Caitlin Roach
Key Returners: D Akane Hosoyamada, D Nicole Renault, F Melissa Piacentini, F Jessica Sibley
Key Additions: G Jenn Gilligan, F Alysha Burriss, F Stephanie Grossi, F Emily Costales
A couple years ago, the Orange had the best case as the second strongest program in the CHA. While never an out-and-out powerhouse, they entered the league (and the NCAA) in 2008-09 and quickly gained respectability with solid won-lost records, big upsets (both Cornell and Providence in year two) and notable alumni like Swiss Olympian Stefanie Marty. Syracuse has made three trips to the CHA championship game, most recently during their first-ever 20-win campaign in 2012-13. Even early last year, they made ripples nationally by besting top ten-ranked squads Northeastern and Boston College.
At the moment though, SU looks like significant evidence pointing towards the league’s overall improvement. Emerging teams RIT and RMU bumped the Orange down to fourth place last season, and although some signs point towards more of the same, Syracuse still undoubtedly has the horses to compete for a bye in the conference tournament.
Graduation blasted the team in a few places, but especially between the pipes, as both Billadeau (70 saves against Northeastern and BC) and Drinkwater have moved on. The tandem limited Orange opponents to 2.01 goals per game, tenth best nationally. On the plus side, much of the defense, including Hosoyamada, Renault and Larissa Martyniuk – all of whom have earned all-CHA recognition over the past two seasons – is back to help break in new netminders Gilligan, a transfer from New Hampshire who put up a 2.29 goals against average for the Wildcats two years ago, and freshman Abbey Miller, who arrives from Minnesota powerhouse Benilde-St. Margaret’s. The ability of those two to fill some rather large goalie skates will go a long way towards determining the Orange’s success this year.
Rookie influence will be felt in the forward ranks as well, including Burris, who carries a particularly strong set of credentials as a former silver medalist at Canada’s national U18 championships. However, that group will have the benefit of playing alongside plenty of returning firepower in the form of Piacentini (team-highs of 17 goals and 30 points), Sibley, a breakout rookie last season and Allie LaCombe (11 goals).
Pivotal Series: October 24-25 vs. Clarkson. While not a conference matchup – games with RIT, RMU and Mercyhurst will obviously be more important for positioning in the CHA – it’s tough to beat a home-and-home with the defending national champs. Syracuse played the Golden Knights tough in the home half of last year’s version, surviving a massive Clarkson shooting advantage to hold the score to 2-1.
The Orange are lined up and ready to go! pic.twitter.com/DNLSstyNYr
— SU Ice Hockey (@CuseIce) January 17, 2014
5. Penn State Nittany Lions
Head Coach: Josh Brandwene (Fourth Year)
2013-14 Record: 4-29-3 (1-18-1/Sixth Place CHA, Defeated by RIT in first round)
Key Departures: F Taylor Gross, F Jenna Welch, G Nicole Paniccia, D Lindsay Reihl
Key Returners: F Shannon Yoxheimer, F Hannah Hoenshell, F Laura Bowman, D Jordin Pardoski
Key Additions: F Christi Vetter, F Caitlin Reilly, G Hannah Ehresmann, D Bella Sutton
Few expected the Nittany Lions to be an immediate winner upon the most publicized entry to NCAA Division I in history back in 2012, but heading into season three, Brandwene and his program are under an unprecedented amount of scrutiny. Shortly after the conclusion of the four-win 2013-14 season, a reported 13 players met with Penn State associate athletic director Charmelle Green to express concern about the direction of the team. Seven of that group were subsequently cut, including one-time top-line center Jessica Desorcie and Madison Smiddy, PSU’s leading blueliner in points per game over the school’s first two NCAA campaigns. The student-athlete departures were joined by several others, including assistant coach Casey McCullion and equipment manager Graham Pepperman.
Brandwene survived the revolt, but not without a new degree of accountability. The disgruntled players and holdovers from PSU’s days as an ACHA club team are now gone, and he is now surrounded entirely by the people he wants in the program, with nowhere left to point the finger if the Nittany Lions don’t progress and become a team worthy of sparkling Pegula Ice Arena.
The news is not all bleak, however. Penn State was, at times, more competitive than their record indicates (five losses came in overtime, six others were by one goal), and they have done a superb job recruiting the Minnesota high school scene.
Minnetonka alumni Bowman and Amy Petersen – three-time state champs in high school – anchored what was PSU’s best forward line as freshmen by the end of last season, while incomers Vetter (Lakeville North), Ehresmann (Minnetonka), Reilly (Benilde-St. Margaret’s) and Sutton (Mounds View) are expected to be in heavy rotation immediately. Most of PSU’s best players, including sniper Yoxheimer, dynamic Hoenshell, hard-nosed Pardoski and heavy-lifting goalie Celine Whitlinger are back, and it’s hoped that Minnesota-Duluth transfer Hannah Bramm will provide the same steadying leadership graduated Connecticut transfers Gross, Paniccia and Welch did from 2012 through 2014.
Continued improvement from a maturing team and key contributions from freshmen could mean Brandwene’s vindication, while stagnation could prove his demise at a school that prioritizes success in women’s sports.
Pivotal Series: November 21-22 vs. Lindenwood. While an early-season trip to Minnesota will certainly show how the Nittany Lions stack up against the nation’s dominant program in recent years, Penn State’s first concern is finally escaping the CHA cellar. That struggle has been fed largely by its struggle against the team immediately above them possessing, arguably, less talent (PSU is 2-5-1 against the Lions in its two varsity seasons). If the first struggle is to change, the second needs to as well.
— Penn State WHKY (@PennStateWHKY) May 27, 2014
6. Lindenwood Lions
Head Coach: Scott Spencer (First Year)
2013-14 Record: 5-26-3 (5-13-2/Fifth Place CHA, Defeated by Syracuse in first round)
Key Departures: F Jocelyn Slattery, D Chelsea Witwicke
Key Returners: G Nicole Hensley, F Kendra Broad, F Lyndsey Kirkham, D Katie Erickson
Key Additions: F Sarah Bobrowski, D Xilly Lang, F Darby Dodds
If RIT has the sunniest outlook of the CHA’s three 2012 entrants and Penn State is teetering somewhere in the middle, then Lindenwood occupies the other end of the spectrum.
The Lions pounded the reset button after a 20-73-6 record over their first three NCAA seasons, dismissing coach Vince O’Mara who, in addition to heading the varsity transition, helped found LU’s ACHA program in 2003 and guide it to four club national championships. Well-regarded Spencer, previously of the Pursuit of Excellence Hockey Academy and assistant coaching jobs at Robert Morris and Ohio State, will attempt to give Lindenwood a fresh start.
While LU is undoubtedly taking a long view with the hire, hopes of a short-term reversal of fortune rest almost entirely with Spencer and his staff, as the Lions turn over very little from last season’s roster – transfers Slattery (Connecticut) and Witwicke (Niagara) were the team’s only seniors.
The best news in that department is that junior goaltender Hensley, fresh off of a stint with the U.S. Under-22 Select Team that swept a series with Canada in August, remains one of the nation’s best kept secrets and gives the Lions a chance to win on most nights. The frequently-under-siege Colorado native has led NCAA Division I in saves for each of the last two seasons, with her 1,198 last year standing as the third-highest total of all time.
Lindenwood averaged an anemic 1.28 goals per game in support of Hensley in 2013-14, although with per-game shot counts of 21.68 for and 41.97 against, the lack of offense was clearly an issue involving all three zones of the ice. Leading scorer Broad (nine goals, 20 points) is back, as are Kirkham (six goals, 16 points) and underrated Erickson, who scored five times on the power play from her blue line spot a year ago.
Like PSU, Lindenwood has chosen to comb Minnesota high schools for reinforcements, adding Bobrowski (Hill Murray), Lang (Roseville) and Dodds (Dodge County).
Pivotal Series: February 6-7 vs. Penn State. With the Lions unlikely to challenge for a spot in the CHA’s top four, their ability to stay above Penn State, and therefore grab a more favorable draw in the playoffs, becomes paramount.
— LindenwoodHockey (@LULionsHockey) August 27, 2014
Preseason All-Conference Honors
F: Emily Janiga, Mercyhurst
F: Rebecca Vint, Robert Morris
F: Brittany Howard, Robert Morris
D: Molly Byrne, Mercyhurst
D: Nicole Renault, Syracuse
G: Ali Binnington, RIT
F: Jenna Dingeldein, Mercyhurst
F: Melissa Piacentini, Syracuse
F: Laura Bowman, Penn State
D: Akane Hosoyamada, Syracuse
D: Lindsay Grigg, RIT
G: Nicole Hensley, Lindenwood
Player of the Year: Rebecca Vint, Robert Morris
Rookie of the Year: Caitlin Reilly, Penn State