Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who is Neumann?

What most people think of when you mention "Neumann" and "hockey" in the same sentence. Preferably a spoken sentence, since "Neumann" and "Newman" are spelled differently.

A fair question, to be sure. Because if you're excited enough about the upcoming Icers game at Citizens Bank Park, it's going to come up.

You: I am soooooo pumped!!! THE ICERS ARE PLAYING OUTSIDE!!!
Guy or girl who doesn't care as much as you: That's cool. Who you guys playing?
You: Neumann!
Guy or girl who doesn't care as much as you: Who is Neumann?

Sure, you could finish that one off with "I don't know, some DIII school. I think they're pretty good." But are you really doing justice to what you consider a monumental occasion by doing that? In hockey (all sports, really), you're defined in a lot of ways by your opponent. The guy you're trying to beat is a vital part of big games and big moments within games. Think about it. Who are last year's Bruins without Alex Burrows? Who are the 1996-2002 Red Wings without the Avalanche? Sidney Crosby without concussions? Like it or not, this isn't the same event if PSU's playing Drexel.

Stop for a second to give thanks that we're not playing Drexel.

Back with me? Good, let's go. First, the basics on the Catholic school located in Aston, PA. Help me, Wikipedia.
Neumann was founded as Our Lady of Angels College with 115 female students in 1965 by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. The name was changed to Neumann College in 1980 in honor of Saint John Neumann, a former Bishop of Philadelphia. Neumann achieved 'university status' from the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2009. Today, there are over 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at Neumann.
Aston is about 22 miles down I-95 from Philadelphia, which means it's 25 miles up I-95 from Newark, DE, home of the UD Fightin' Blue Hens. So there's a decent reference point (Neumann tried their best to make things confusing by adopting blue and gold colors nearly identical to Delaware). Academically, NU is best known for nursing - literally more than one sixth of its undergrads (547 of 3,087) are in that particular program.

Also of note: Neumann has 10,415 total alumni, 10,170 of whom aren't dead. Basically, don't expect a massive throng of people sporting Delaware colors at the game. If there's any information that I missed before I move on, try this exercise before asking me something in the comments: answer your question in terms of Penn State, then take the opposite of that. Because really, the two schools could not be less similar. Well, both schools do have a nice looking campus, I suppose, although on a completely different scale.

Yeah, that's pretty much all of it.

As mentioned, NU is an NCAA Division III school, sponsoring 21 sports at that level. Their athletic teams are called the Knights. One of those 21 forms of Knights is men's hockey. Incidentally, another is women's hockey, and the Citizens Bank Park game will not be the first time PSU has played NU in hockey this season - the Knights beat the Lady Icers 2-1 and 5-0 on December 9th and 10th. PSU assistant Gina Kearns was an assistant at Neumann from 2009-2011, so I suppose you could probably ask her about the school if the opposite game doesn't answer your question.

The Knights' men's program is relatively new, starting up in 1998. It had extremely limited success under initial coach Nick Russo, going 20-113-4 in its first six years of existence (the first three as a DIII independent, the last three in the ECAC West - their present conference). Dennis Williams took over for Russo and got things turned around in relatively short order, delivering NU's first winning season in 2005-2006. They haven't had anything but since then. Williams gave way to one year of Phil Roy in 2007-2008. Current coach Domenick Dawes, who would lead the Knights to even greater heights, stepped in for the following campaign.

In late February, 2008-2009 didn't look to be substantially different than the three previous seasons at Neumann. Following a road split against Hobart, the Knights sat in their usual solid-but-unspectacular station at 12-9-2. Then a funny thing happened: they didn't lose the rest of the year. Beginning with their final regular season games against Lebanon Valley (yes that Lebanon Valley, remember, they used to be DIII), NU went on a nine-game winning streak through the ECAC West and NCAA tournaments. It didn't end until the Knights, to that point rather irrelevant in hockey, stunned several titans of DIII and won a national championship.

While the core of the 2009 champs rested in its 14-player senior class heavy on Canadian transfers, five players remain from that team. They weren't insignificant to the title run either. One is forward Marlon Gardner, third on NU in goals and fourth in points in 2008-2009. Another is forward Bill Foster, who scored the overtime goal against No. 1 Plattsburgh in the NCAA quarterfinals to boost the Knights to the Frozen Four. But the name that looms largest of all is Ross MacKinnon, the goalie who surrendered just one goal on 61 shots to take home Frozen Four MVP honors in 2009.

Individual players come and go to be sure, but Dawes and the culture established by that championship remain to this day. Largely driven by a new generation, NU made a return trip to the NCAA tournament last season, but fell to Bowdoin in the first round.

This year appears to be more of the same, thanks in part to 25 returning players. Neumann lost to Division I Princeton 5-1 in an exhibition opener - an impressive result for a DIII team - and has gone 7-3-0 since then as MacKinnon has split the starts with Matt Tendler, his backup on the 2008-2009 team. In front of goal, the defense duo of Buffalo State transfer William Lacasse (a third-team All-American last season) and Ottawa native Scott Farrell provides plenty of punch while Cory Park, another former Buff State Bengal, leads the team in scoring.

On January 4th, the tiny, newly-minted DIII power and the ascendant-to-DI behemoth may find they have something in common beyond "nice campus" after all - the two opponents will join forces to provide us with a fantastic hockey game.

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