RIT Still With More to Prove
by Jillian Saftel/CHN Reporter
BURLINGTON, Vt. Rochester Institute of Technology isn't quite a household name in college hockey. They aren't Boston College or Minnesota, but watching their level of play, you might think they belong in that league.
Head coach Wayne Wilson and the RIT Tigers are looking to advance a program that made it to the Frozen Four in the 2009-10 season and sits tied for second in a conference that has no shortage of competition, but isn't revered among college hockey's best.
"Our team in particular and our league are always fighting for believability. Our league has come a long way, and we still have a long way to go," Wilson said. "We understand that, and the coaches are working very hard."
The Tigers had a chance to work hard and make their presence known to non-conference opponents last week at the Catamount Cup hosted by Vermont, and that they did, defeating two CCHA contenders, first Ferris State and then Lake Superior State to win the tournament. Both the Bulldogs and Lakers entered the week in prime position in the CCHA and national picture.
The back-to-back wins came at a good time for the growing RIT team, which had taken a 4-0 beating against conference opponent Robert Morris in a battle for first place in their last game before the break.
"We had six one-game weekends in the first half, and it never seemed like we got going. We were really frustrated with some of the losses we had. We finished [the first half] in second place, but we're still somewhat frustrated. I think this weekend, going back to back, we had really good wins against really good teams," Wilson said.
"It's a good way to end 2011, as we continue the second half into the new year."
RIT faces non-conference opponent Wisconsin Jan. 6, and Wilson said he had hoped his Tigers would get a chance to play UVM at their Gutterson Fieldhouse during the Catamount Cup in preparation for the hostile environment Wisconsin will surely present.
"We were hoping to get a chance to play Vermont here for no other reason other than to experience playing in front of crowds and adverse conditions. When we go off to Wisconsin we'll be battling the crowd as much as we'll be battling Wisconsin and they don't need any help. So it's just good to put our teams in those situations that help us on the road."
Regardless of the opponent, the tournament presented Wilson with the opportunity to evaluate his team's growth over the first half of the season, and see where they need to go entering the second half of play.
The Tigers will enter the second half of play with a 7-4-2 conference record (10-6-2 overall) tied for second in Atlantic Hockey with Mercyhurst and Robert Morris, led only by Air Force.
"For us it's just gauging our team. ... It's really an evaluation because for our league, you have to win the playoffs [for an NCAA tournament bid] so we're not caught up in all of that 'gotta win all of them.' But we want to win all our games, there's no question on non-conference, but it gives us the time to further evaluate our team and prepare for our own league play."
Even though the Tigers' two weekend wins don't count toward their conference record, for a program looking to become a national contender and improve its league's reputation, non-conference wins certainly carry some significant weight.
"It gives us more credibility, not only for our team but our league," Wilson said. "I think our league has improved leaps and bounds. ...We're building things, we want to continue doing that, and we've got a ways to go. But it's small steps, and it’s a year at a time."
The big question for RIT is whether they can become a national college hockey powerhouse while in the Atlantic Hockey conference. With conferences being shaken up, it seems a given that Wilson might be looking to make a move.
Notre Dame's move to Hockey East left the conference with 11 teams, and both Connecticut and Holy Cross have explored their options in making a move. The conference that's home to BC and Boston University seems like a viable option for the Tigers, but Wilson said he's pleased with his team right where they are.
"We like Atlantic Hockey, and we're just trying to make our league better. There's the big four, and we want to make Atlantic Hockey one of the big five. We're working hard, as college hockey changes, I think the respect is coming our way — for the league and our team. The fact that we went to the Frozen Four and Air Force has played against Vermont in the NCAA Tournament, I think has shown that we're growing," Wilson said.
"But we know we have to be better, and we will."