Young CHA struggles to make its mark on women’s hockey
Emily Steinberger | Design Editor
Last season, Syracuse women’s ice hockey won its first-ever College Hockey America Championship. With it came its first appearance in the NCAA tournament, an appearance that was quickly ended by a 4-0 loss to Wisconsin.
Syracuse’s defeat in the national tournament wasn’t a surprise. In the 15-year history of the CHA, the conference champion has advanced past the first round only five times. In 2008, Syracuse became the fifth team to join the smallest conference in women’s college hockey, and have yet to win an NCAA tournament game. Unable to consistently beat teams outside of their conference or recruit at the level of the dominant midwest teams, Syracuse’s struggles in the CHA appear to have no definitive end in sight.
“A lot of people might see the CHA as a weaker conference,” associate head coach Brendon Knight said. “We always like to talk more about the positives.”
The CHA now fields six teams, still the fewest in the sport. The conference’s small size forces teams to play more non-conference games and encourages competitiveness and rivalries. This season Syracuse has already played every team in the conference. They have won against all of their CHA opponents, but have also lost against all but Lindenwood—who at the time did not have a goalie to play against the Orange.
“I would say the CHA as a conference from top to bottom is probably the most competitive within itself,” Knight said. “If you don’t show up for a particular game, you’re not going to win.”
While only five points separate the first and fourth seeds in the CHA, one team has dominated the conference since its inception in 2003. Mercyhurst has won the CHA tournament, and the bid to NCAAs that comes with it, 12 times, including nine consecutive years from 2003 to 2011. The Lakers have appeared in 70% of all CHA championship games, they are also the only team to win a game at the NCAA tournament. Last year, Syracuse avoided the Lakers in the conference tournament, beating Robert Morris 6-2 in the final.
A lot of people might see the CHA as a weaker conference — we always like to talk more about the positives.-Assistant coach Brendon Knight
Like almost every CHA team before them, Syracuse was unable to win a game at the NCAA tournament. They fell to Wisconsin, one of the mid-western powerhouses that has dominated women’s collegiate hockey. Only four teams over 19 years have won the championship: Minnesota (6), Wisconsin (5), Minnesota-Duluth (5) and Clarkson (3).
“When you have Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Knight said. “Who were basically number one and number two year in and year out, that elevates your conference.”
Since 2017, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association—home to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth— has had a combined 10 top-five recruiting classes. During that same time, the CHA has had just one (Penn State ‘20).
Part of the CHA’s problem is paradoxical — the best recruits commit to successful programs, yet they’re also what makes programs succeed. The CHA is guaranteed only one representative at nationals, the winner of the CHA tournament. Until 2005, the CHA champion wasn’t even guaranteed an NCAA tournament appearance. A CHA team has never made nationals as an at-large bid.
“We cannot get a second team at this point in time because of our winning record, or lack of a winning record, against non-conference teams,” CHA commissioner Robert DeGregorio said. “The other thing that would help is if we could grow our conference and reduce the number of non-league games.”
In the 2019-2020 season, Syracuse had its worst start in program history, going 0-9-0. The first five of those losses were against top-10, non-conference opponents. For the CHA, and Syracuse by extension, to succeed, it needs to start beating non-conference opponents.
The last five CHA champions have all been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They scored a combined three goals. Regardless of who finishes atop the CHA this year, the true test of talent will be if they can, like only Mercyhurst has before, go further.
“To bring the team to another (CHA) championship and NCAA tournament,” Lindsay Eastwood said at the beginning of the season. “To go even further … That’s my goal.”
Published on January 29, 2020 at 12:08 am
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