Monday, March 19, 2012

Big CHAnges


Last year's offseason was substantially about major changes in the NCAA conference landscape on the men's side. While this offseason is still extremely young, the women asserted that it's their turn on Monday.

First came some long-speculated, but still still surprising news.
The women’s hockey team at Rochester Institute of Technology will announce Tuesday morning that it has applied for membership in NCAA Division I.

The Tigers won the Division III championship Saturday night after losing in the national final last year. They would join the RIT men’s hockey team as the only Division I programs in Rochester.

RIT would join College Hockey America, a growing conference founded in 2002. The CHA currently includes just four teams — Syracuse, Niagara, Robert Morris and Mercyhurst. But Penn State University and Lindenwood University of St. Charles, Mo., also will become members for the 2012-13 season.
The news later became official on Tuesday morning, with the important added detail that the school will essentially be full CHA members starting in 2012-2013. They'll still have to deal with the two-year NCAA probationary period for all new Division I programs that will bar them from the NCAA tournament, but since the CHA doesn't have an autobid, it's largely a moot point (only Mercyhurst has proven able to qualify on an at-large basis in conference history).
“We are very excited to make the move to Division I,” says RIT Head Coach Scott McDonald, the active Division III all-time leader in winning percentage, who recently completed his sixth season behind the bench. “We see the success the men have had at this level and want to mirror that. We are excited to play new teams and foster new rivalries. The support we receive from the university is second to none.”
The Tigers have a long and successful history in Division III. Starting in 1975-1976 - ancient by women's program standards - they have an all-time winning percentage of .614 (402-244-46). That success has boosted to a new level under McDonald, who has led RIT to three NCAA tournament appearances in his six seasons. Included in those appearances, as mentioned, are this past year's national championship as well as a runner-up finish in 2011. Notably, the Lady Icers played eight games against Cortland, Chatham, Neumann and Potsdam in 2011-2012. Each of those schools are present conference rivals of RIT in the ECAC West.

So College Hockey America is up to a magnificent seven (Penn State, Lindenwood, RIT, Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, Niagara and Syracuse), right? Not so fast. The RIT news was just the first of two shoes to drop Monday, as Niagara is discontinuing their program, effective immediately. NU is seeking to "restructure" its athletic program to be more in line with peer institutions both in the MAAC (their conference for all non-hockey sports) and nationally. While women's hockey will get the axe, the school will add women's track and field and increase investment in women's lacrosse. Here's a canned quote from Niagara chairman of the board Jeff Holzschuh:
"Niagara University has a proud history of competition in the NCAA, and any change to our programs are taken very seriously and reviewed completely. Today’s announcement is no exception. We understand the disappointment for these young ladies, their families, the coaches and the fans of women’s ice hockey. We will always be very proud of all of the young women who have competed as Purple Eagles on the ice for Niagara University."
As is customary with a folding program, NU will immediately grant release to all student-athletes seeking to transfer - possible recruiting alert - and will honor the scholarships of those wishing to stay. The Purple Eagles depart with a rather nondescript 15-year history, although they did make a Frozen Four appearance in 2002. They also become the second CHA team to fold in the last two years, joining Wayne State in oblivion.

So, to summarize, here's a snapshot of the membership of PSU's highly-volatile conference. This latest program swap keeps the CHA at six teams and eligible for eventual NCAA tournament autobid consideration.

2010-2011: Mercyhurst, Niagara, Robert Morris, Syracuse, Wayne State
2011-2012: Mercyhurst, Niagara, Robert Morris, Syracuse
2012-2013: Penn State, Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, Syracuse, Lindenwood, RIT

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