by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. With only seven minutes to play in Saturday night's ECAC Championship contest, it looked like the team who was a member of the Atlantic Hockey conference only two years ago was going to take home the Whitelaw Trophy.
In the end, it was Clarkson which scored four goals in the third period to take the title away from the Bobcats, who ran out of gas by essentially playing with only four defensemen.
But in the larger picture, Rand Pecknold's Bobcats have come along way in the past 13 years, since Pecknold joined the team as its coach. In fact, when he began his tenure, Quinnipiac was a struggling Division II program, having suffered through six consecutive losing seasons.
And maybe a reason for that was that their practices were held at midnight.
Said Pecknold, "I basically went from the basement to maybe not the penthouse yet, but I've seen an amazing amount of transition during my tenure there. My first season, I won one game out of my first 14. I was 1-12-1. I wasn't even full-time."
Nevertheless, Pecknold was a quick learner as a coach. That Bobcats team in 1995 won five of its last nine games, added 11 wins the following season, and from then on, they have reeled off 10 consecutive winning seasons.
Eight of them have included at least 20 wins.
"We ended up making a lot of progress and then jumped to Division I," said Pecknold. "And now we've moved up again, and in our second year [in the ECAC], we've proven we're a top 10, top 20 program. I don't think you can even measure the progress that we've made. It's really incredible."
Quinnipiac joined the ECAC prior to the 2005-2006 season, and with cat-like quickness, they have already proven themselves a legitimate contender for the league title. As the fifth overall seed in the ECAC tournament, they defeated fourth-seeded Cornell and top-seeded St. Lawrence en route to the championship game.
"We're the new kid on the block," said Pecknold. "Nobody, other than us, other than the kids on my team and my coaching staff, thought we could beat Cornell up [at Lynah Rink], let alone sweep them. And probably even less people thought we've beat St. Lawrence yesterday. It's something that we have to overcome and build our tradition, our reputation."
Their reputation now is as a program committed to its hockey program. Arguably no team in the nation has made the strides Quinnipiac has over the past three years. And that includes a brand new facility that opened in January.
A big reason for the ardent commitment to the Bobcats hockey program? Athletic Director Jack McDonald — who didn't stop being a pioneer in the college hockey world after leaving the AD position at Denver — has been a motivating force behind the scenes for Quinnipiac.
Said Pecknold, "I think Jack has definitely helped a lot. The biggest thing he did was get our school to go Division I nine years ago, and then make sure that we had the resources to compete. He's really got a hands-off approach as far as me coaching the team and recruiting. We're really lucky to have him."
And the ECAC is clearly lucky to have Quinnipiac, which has made itself a top team in the league already. Of course, as Pecknold points out, the Bobcat are used to success, having played in league championship games now five of the last seven seasons. They have also made trips to the NCAA tournament, the last of which was in 2002.
Of course, yet another berth in the NCAA tournament was up for grabs on Saturday night. And although Quinnipiac came up a bit short, Pecknold can still hold this game, and this season, in perspective, especially considering how far they've come.
Said Pecknold, "I don't know if you ever learn to come back from losses like this. The only thing you try to do is you try not to get too high on the wins or two low on the losses. It's part of hockey. Today was a disappointing loss, but at the same time, we had a great season.
"I don't want to say that we put ourselves on the map because I think we already were on the map. But I think we made a statement in the college hockey community and moved up the food chain pretty quickly."