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A Midseason Review of the NEWHA

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Finishing this year’s midseason review with the newest conference playing NCAA DI Women’s hockey, the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance.

Lake Louise Pond Hockey Classic Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Last year six independent teams banded together to form a pseudo conference. This was to ensure that the teams played the minimal twenty games against DI/DII opponents to qualify for DI NCAA tournament eligibility. Prior to this the teams’ schedules typically consisted primarily of DIII opponents and they were only able to play in DIII open conference tournaments at best—as DI/DII programs, are barred from competing in any DIII NCAA tournaments. While one of those teams, Holy Cross, officially joined the Hockey East conference, the other five schools have banded together to form the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance (NWHA), a brand new conference with the intent to compete at the DI level, though most of the involved programs are DII.

Currently the NEWHA does not have an auto-bid for the DI NCAA tournament. It is assumed that they plan obtain one once they become eligible, as the conference is planning to expand membership in the near future. Also of note, all of the current NEWHA schools have agreed to follow DI recruiting rules and provide additional monetary aid to their women’s hockey teams, which should help the programs going forward. The Ice Garden wrote a bit more about the formation of the NEWHA in September.

However, they have yet to get an auto-bid and if any member of the NEWHA wishes to reach the NCAA tournament this year they will have to do it on the strength of their season record alone. Since the last teams in the conference started their midseason break on December 8th and the first resume play on January 3rd, this is an excellent time to look at team standings. A brief glance at team history and prior program successes would not be amiss either.

The NEWHA standings are as follows:

Franklin Pierce Ravens

Franklin Pierce has had a women’s hockey team since the 2012-13 season. Beginning as an independent DII program, they then played a season in the ECAC DIII East conference before bouncing to the NEHC conference. Last year Franklin Pierce helped found the pseudo conference that eventually became the NEWHA. The Ravens remain a DII program. Since they started joining conferences Franklin Pierce has had a postseason every year—reaching the 2015 ECAC DIII tournament championship, while only getting to the semifinals in the NEHC and the NEWHA tournaments. David Stockdale has been head coach since the program’s start.

Franklin Pierce’s record of 4-5 (8-7-0 overall) puts them second in the NEWHA. This doesn’t seem like the greatest of records, especially since their nonconference wins came from DIII teams, but few teams in the NEWHA have been particularly successful this season. Franklin Pierce has yet to win against Saint Anselm this season, but they’ve finished three of their four games against them, which means the second half of their season will be an easier one. Of course, most of those matches will still be against DIII teams. Franklin Pierce will make the NEWHA tournaments again, but their season will end there as they clearly aren’t ready for the national stage. The Ravens are back in action on January 4th when they face SUNY Potsdam. Franklin Pierce’s record of 4-5 (8-7-0 overall) puts them second in the NEWHA. This doesn’t seem like the greatest of records, especially since their nonconference wins came from DIII teams, but few teams in the NEWHA have been particularly successful this season. Franklin Pierce has yet to win against Saint Anselm this season, but they’ve finished three of their four games against them, which means the second half of their season will be an easier one. Of course, most of those matches will still be against DIII teams. Franklin Pierce will make the NEWHA tournaments again, but their season will end there as they clearly aren’t ready for the national stage. The Ravens are back in action on January 4th when they face SUNY Potsdam.

Post University Eagles

Post University probably has the newest women’s hockey program that competes at the DI level in the country, as it was only started in the 2016-17 season. The Eagles spent their first season as an independent DII team before helping form the pseudo conference that would become the NEWHA this season. They remain a DII program. The program has had an uphill battle getting established, as they went 0-23-0 their first season before improving the next year with a record of 2-27-2. More importantly, Post also recently welcomed their first recruits who signed National Letters of Intent. Head coach Heath Isaacson has been with the program since its inaugural season.

Post may be at the bottom of the weakest conference that participates in DI women’s hockey, but this is still their best season ever. They are 1-7 (4-11-0 overall) this season, which means they already have more wins as of the midseason break than the rest of program history combined. Admittedly, that would be more impressive if the program was more than three years old, but this is a fantastic start for the Eagles. Their 2-1 victory over Saint Michael’s on October 19th is also incredibly important because this was their first conference win and their first DII victory. Obviously, they’ll want to pick up more wins, but Post has made so much progress this season.

As they were able to participate in the NEWHA tournament last year on a worse record, there’s no reason to think they would miss it this season. However, that’s as far as the Eagles go and they won’t be taking any championships home. If they keep on the course the program seems to be setting, Post will hopefully have some NEWHA hardware within a few years. The university seems interested in investing in their women’s hockey team. Post faces their first nonconference DI opponent, as Holy Cross was still part of the NEWHA last season when they previously faced them, on January 5th when they visit Lindenwood.

Sacred Heart Pioneers

Sacred Heart first iced a women’s hockey team for the 1996-97 season. Initially starting as a DIII program in ECAC East, they switched to DI play as an independent program in the 2003-04 season. Instead of joining a conference the Pioneers retained their independence for over a decade and only consented to joining a conference last season when they helped found what would become the NEWHA this season. The Pioneers participated in various postseason tournaments over the years and last season won the first NEWHA tournament championship along with obtain a record of 27-6-2, which was arguably their most successful ever. Sacred Heart had a series of head coaches until finally settling on Tom O’Malley, who is in his sixteenth season with the team.

This season Sacred Heart has a record of 3-2-1 (12-4-2), which ranks them third in the NEWHA. They may not match last year’s record, but they should end with a similarly decent record if they can keep their momentum going. Perhaps most impressively they managed to tie Saint Anselm 4-4 in October, which is the best any conference team has performed against that program this season. They are also absolutely cleaning up against DIII teams this year. The Pioneers are expanding their horizons by facing established DI programs, like Maine and eventually Quinnipiac; even if they can’t beat these teams the experience will be absolutely essential to their growth as a program.

The second half of their season will be harder than the first. Primarily because it consists mostly of conference play and one assumes that NEWHA teams are more difficult opponents than DIII programs—they’re certainly more important for postseason aspirations. Sacred Heart also has a couple games in hand over the higher ranked teams, conference play could give them a chance to move up in ranking. In any case they will make the conference tournament and have a reasonable chance of winning again, but that’s as far as their postseason will go. Sacred Heart continues their season on January 4th when they visit Neumann, a DIII program.

Saint Anselm Hawks

Saint Anselm began their women’s hockey program in the 2004-05 season. It was initially a DII program playing as part of the ECAC DIII East conference and then switched to the NEHC in the 2015-16 season. The Hawks were another DII team that helped found the pseudo conference in the 2017-18 season that would become the NEWHA the following year. Saint Anselm was a highly successful DII program, as they played in eleven ECAC/NEHC Open tournament championship games, winning seven titles. They also picked up two regular season championships when they were still in ECAC DIII East. Last season the Hawks finished the season ranked first in their conference and reached the NEWHA tournament championship game, but ultimately lost to Sacred Heart. Kerstin Matthews has been head coach at Saint Anselm for eleven seasons.

As of the midseason break Saint Anselm leads the NEWHA thanks to a record of 8-0-1 (11-1-1 overall). Their only loss of the season came from Williams College, a DIII program, and their in conference tie came from Sacred Heart on what also happened to be their first game of the season. From the way they have performed in conference the second half of the season should be no sweat for this team, since it consists of opponents similarly powered to what they faced in the first half. In fact, the Hawks are well on their way to finishing the season ranked first in their conference and are favored to take the conference tournament.

Looking solely at their DI/DII performance, which is the only part of their record that matters to the DI NCAA tournament, they could potentially make the tournament on the strength of their record alone. This is because they don’t play any DI teams from the other conferences this season and the other NEWHA barely play any inter conference games as well. This means that the RPI cannot accurately determine the strength of the NEWHA in comparison to the other conferences and therefore must treat it as being equal, which could launch Saint Anselm into the NCAA tournament. This concern was proposed last season when the pseudo conference that became the NEWHA was proposed, but it is unknown to the author if this issue was ever addressed. Saint Anselm next plays on January 3rd against Hamline University, a DIII team, at the TRIA Rink.

Saint Michael’s Purple Knights

Saint Michael’s women’s hockey team dropped the puck for their first game during the 2000-01 season. They were a DII team from the start and played in the ECAC DIII East conference for fourteen years before spending two seasons in the NEHC. In the 2017-18 season the Purple Knights helped form the conference that would eventually become NEWHA, but still remain a DII program. The program has never had a lot of success at any level they have played for, possibly in part due to the limitations placed on DII programs in women’s hockey. However they continue to push forward and will hopefully improve as the school invests more in their women’s hockey program. Chris Donovan has been head coach for the team since the start.

Saint Michael’s record so far is 2-4 (3-7-0 overall), placing them fourth in the NEWHA. The good news for the Purple Knights is that they traded wins with Post and Franklin Pierce plus they have at least two games in hand over the rest of their conference opponents, save Sacred Heart. However, they aren’t performing as well as they would want against DIII teams. In any case, the second half of their season will be several games longer than the first and it definitely includes more in conference games.

That will be Saint Michael’s chance to move up in the rankings, but a lot of that will depend on how they perform against Sacred Heart this season, who they have yet to face. The Purple Knights will play in the conference tournament because everyone gets to play in the conference tournament, but they’re going to have to have an amazing second half to truly be in title contention. This is not a team destined for the NCAA tournament this year. Saint Michael’s second half starts on January 4th when they play Southern Maine, a DIII team.

Edit: Four of the programs, Franklin Pierce, Post, Saint Anselm, and Saint Michael’s, were erroneously described as recently becoming DI programs when they are in fact still DII programs. This is a major error on the author’s part that should have been caught and has now been corrected within the article. Josh Kessler, Saint Michael’s Athletic Communications Director, kindly pointed this out along with the fact that DII programs are barred from participating in various DIII postseason tournaments.