By Mike Zhe
It’s one thing to win a conference championship. It’s another to win one the way Fitchburg State did last season.
The Falcons (18-9-1) finished regular-season play in the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference just one game over .500. But it was enough to get them into the league tournament, and they’d go on to stun top-seeded UMass-Dartmouth in double-overtime, 4-3, to reach the title game.
Against host Salem State in the final, the Falcons pushed the game into overtime again and won it, 6-5, on a goal a minute into sudden death — and one off the stick of hometown product Trevor Lawler (Fitchburg, Mass.), no less.
All that was left was to take their surging momentum into the NCAAs. But the NCAA had no obligation to invite them, and didn’t.
“I knew the numbers didn’t look too favorable,” longtime Fitchburg State coach Dean Fuller said on the eve of a new campaign, “but we were the champions of the conference, and I thought we should have gotten a better look. But then you look at Castleton (State, of the ECAC East), who won 22 games, and they didn’t even get in. So it’s tough.”
This year, no worries.
For the first time, the MASCAC tournament champion will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and there are seven programs taking the ice for their first games this month that are salivating over the possibilities.
The auto bid will give the MASCAC an opportunity to dispel its “little brother” persona, that it isn’t regarded to be collectively as strong as leagues such the NESCAC, the ECACs (East, West and Northeast) and SUNYAC. No MASCAC team has played in the NCAAs since UMass-Dartmouth did as a member of the ECAC Northeast in 2008.
“When you have a new conference, I don’t think you’re going to get the benefit of the doubt unless you have an unbelievable regular-season record,” said Fuller, a longtime Fitchburg, Mass., resident.
There were moments last season. Salem State took out Babson, which would reach the ECAC East final, and also Colby of the NESCAC. Fitchburg State won the Codfish Bowl in December. But there weren’t many opportunities to take on the region’s best; there won’t be this year, either.
“When I was first coaching in the 1980s,” longtime UMass-Dartmouth coach John Rolli said, “we went a year-and-a-half with 38 straight wins and couldn’t get a bid to the NCAAs.”
Rolli and his contemporary counterpart at Salem State, Bill O’Neill, have gotten tastes in recent years. Dartmouth, as a member of the ECAC Northeast, went to the NCAAs in 2006, ’07 and ’08, beating Geneseo the first year and earning the No. 1 seed in the East in 2007.
Longtime Salem State coach O’Neill (Lynn, Mass.), meanwhile, has guided his program to six NCAA bids and two trips to the Frozen Four.
But in this new era of the MASCAC, which was reborn in 2009-10 when Westfield State’s program brought the number of league schools to five, and Dartmouth and Plymouth State were welcomed as affiliate members, the NCAAs were a hope, not a guarantee. By rule, it would be two seasons before the league champion was awarded an NCAA bid.
Last season, the only New England schools to reach the 11-team NCAAs were perennial ECAC East champion Norwich, which went 22-6-3 and advanced to its third Frozen Four in four years; NESCAC champion Bowdoin (19-8-1), whose league title was later vacated after an investigation by the college that discovered hazing-related violations of the school’s social code; and Curry (16-9-3), regular-season and tournament champion of the ECAC Northeast.
But the MASCAC looks to be progressing, and not just at the top. Plymouth State is playing in a beautiful, $16.4 million arena that opened last year. Westfield State is regarded as having one of the region’s top recruiting classes.
So, for now, teams will battle one another three times during the regular season, qualify six for their tournament and let the chips fall where they may.
“It’s difficult to beat one team twice in a
season,” said Plymouth State coach Craig Russell (Northfield,
Vt.), “never mind three or four times.”
“It’s a real battle in our league,” Rolli said. “Any of the top five teams the past two years has a shot to be left standing when all is said and done.”
And this season, after all is said and done, more will be said and done — on a national stage, at last.
“Repeating is always tough,” said Fuller, who’s guided Fitchburg as the head coach since 1984, “but with the NCAA bid out there, it’s an enormous incentive.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Mike Zhe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.