RIT Fitting In
An NCAA Tournament Berth May Not Be Far Off, But It Can't Be This Year
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
The name "Rochester Institute of Technology" is likely to evoke excellence of the engineering program; the excellence of the hockey program is not the first thing on people's minds — at least for those who only watch Division I hockey.
The Tigers are attempting to change that this season, and come March could have the entire college hockey world talking about the second-year D-I program.
Last season, playing as an independent, the Tigers made the jump from Division III to Division I and hardly made any noise. Playing a schedule that was comprised of some D-I and some D-III opponents, RIT managed just a 7-21-2 record.
This season, RIT joined Atlantic Hockey. But NCAA rules state that RIT is not considered a full member of D-I until next season — when the two-year grace period expires — so it is ineligible for postseason play in this, its first year of AHA competition. Normally that does not matter to a second year D-I team, but RIT is different.
After the lackluster first season, the Tigers are 13-7-2 through 19 games. Even more astonishing, they are 12-3-1 in Atlantic Hockey play and are atop the conference.
The Tigers could win their regular season conference championship, yet be unable to play for the tournament title in March.
"Our recruits and everyone around our program knew when we were admitted that we weren't eligible until next season, so every player that decided to come here knew what the process was," said eighth-year head coach Wayne Wilson. "It's not like it was something that was taken away from us. We were aware of it.
"Our goal at the start of the year was to win the league. If you spoke to some of our seniors they may speak differently, but the experience in D-I as opposed to D-III is rewarding to them."
Without anything else to play for, the Tigers have no other choice than to play for pride.
"Particularly in the first half of the season, our guys had an underdog approach to every game," Wilson said. "We are still a team that is trying to prove ourselves on a nightly basis and that is a motivating force. We think we are a pretty good team; we want to prove that to ourselves, so that is a factor that keeps us going. We know we can compete but we need to prove to the country that we can compete."
Going Division I is something that Wilson has had experience with. Both Wilson and one of his assistants, Brian Hill, played Division I at Bowling Green in the mid-'80s.
"Myself and Brian knew what it would take at the D-I level coming into this, and our feeling is that anyone can beat anyone and you need to put your best foot forward every game no matter who you are playing," Wilson said. "There are not many games at this level that I consider upsets because everyone needs to have great players to compete at the D-I level."
The Tigers didn't go D-I just to play better teams. They made the move to beat better teams. Success is something that Wilson feels RIT needs to have at the D-I level to make the transition worth it.
"Before we made the move, I needed to know that we are going to be competitive at the D-I level," Wilson said. "I didn't want to go to the D-I level and finish last and still say, 'Well we are D-I.' I'd rather be a successful Division III team than a losing Division I team. I wouldn't have been comfortable making the move if I didn't think that we could succeed at this level."
The hockey program is currently the only Division I team at RIT, which means that the Tigers cannot offer athletic scholarships to their players. Most see this as a disadvantage, but Wilson sees it as an opportunity to land players others might be forced to pass on.
"Sure it puts us at a bit of a disadvantage, but it isn't as big as you'd think," Wilson said. "There are some advantages of being a financial aid school and our goaltender, Jocelyn Guimond, is a perfect example of how not having scholarships is an advantage."
Guimond, who has put in some eye-popping performances over the past two seasons, came to RIT after having spent time in the Quebec Major Junior League. He would have had to sit out a year at a scholarship school.
"If we were a scholarship school he wouldn't be here because I wouldn't invest one of my 18 scholarships in a kid who couldn't play for a season," Wilson said. "When he decided to come here, he was going to get the financial aid whether he played hockey or not, so it was a great fit for him and us. There were a lot of scholarship schools that liked him and wanted him but didn't give him the scholarship because he would have to sit.
"We consider all 26 players our blue-chip players. Maybe we'll never have a first line like a BC or Wisconsin, but we hope to have 26 second-line players. We have great balance through our entire roster. We have three good goalies. Maybe we have more balance and that makes for better chemistry. All of our guys are on equal footing. No one is saying to themselves, 'Well, I am better than this kid and he is getting a scholarship and I'm not.'"
If the Tigers go on to claim the regular-season title, they have the right to think the NCAA tournament berth that goes to the winner of the conference tournament could belong to them. For a team in just its second season at the D-I level, having a claim at an NCAA berth is a great accomplishment.
With an NCAA regional in Rochester this season, what a story that would have made.
But soon enough.