Let’s play word association.
Go up to a college sports fan and mention Hobart.
Most likely, the response will be “lacrosse”.
That would be very logical. After all, Hobart lacrosse has been insanely successful. They have won 16 national championships (one USILA title before the NCAA awarded the trophy, two in Division II, and 13 in Division III). They won ever national title in the 1980s. That’s every single one. During that time, they were national champs 12 years in a row from 1980 through 1991. That makes Middlebury’s success in hockey seem like child’s play. The Statesmen lost in the semifinals in 1992, came back to win it all the following year, and lost in the finals in ’94.
At that point, Hobart elevated their lacrosse program to Division I. It certainly made sense, and not just because they pounded the Div. III field into submission. They had already been playing many Division I programs, including Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Hofstra, and almighty Syracuse, and at times beat those teams including the Orangemen.
There have been other sports at Hobart that have met some success. The football team has made it the NCAAs in recent years, and the basketball program has been doing better. The women’s side of the twin colleges has had some successful programs as well. William Smith College has won three national titles in field hockey and one in soccer.
However, one sport you have never heard mentioned at Hobart in the same breath as winning tradition is hockey.
“Since I got here, Hobart sports from the tradition of the past has an attachment to lacrosse,” Hobart hockey coach Mark Taylor said. “Since I’ve been here, football has done a lot as well as basketball. It’s nice to have hockey in that category.”
Before Mark Taylor got there, Hobart had only four winning seasons in a program that dates back to 1978-79. After two more losing seasons after Taylor arrived, Hobart has been above .500 the past four years. They’ve been a .652 club (63-31-11) during that time period which includes an ECAC West title, two trips to the NCAA, and their first ever trip to the championship weekend after defeating national favorites, Norwich, 3-1,
in the quarterfinals.
“It’s wonderful,” Hobart Athletic Director Michael Hanna said. “A great tribute to Mark Taylor, the student athletes on the team, and the student athletes on the previous teams.”
There is a good reason why the hockey team has languished at the bottom of the pecking order. They play in an outdoor rink. The rink has been slowly closing up, as only one side is now bare to the outside elements. A few years ago the school spent $800,000 to build a varsity house behind one goal. But, an outdoor rink it still is, and with it comes extreme recruiting challenges.
“Mark is a half full guy,” Hanna said. “He turns what some people would regard as negatives into positives. It was Mark that coined the phrase The Cooler. The kids have embraced that. We have made the best of the situation.”
Taylor explains where he learned to make the best of such a situation: “I played in Sweden before coming here, and we played a team that was winning our division that played in a place with open ends. They kicked us all around the ice. After the game, I walked around and saw the pictures of the top national players on the walls. That’s when I learned it’s not about the aesthetics of a facility, it’s about the culture.
“If you believe and you go after it, and people see it’s working, they start buying into the culture.”
That culture has allowed Hobart to have a home ice advantage of 9-2-0 this year, and 33-10-4 the past four years.
There is a slight link between lacrosse and hockey, Hanna explains: “Interesting comparison between hockey and lacrosse is they are both regional sports. At the time we started the string of lacrosse championships, we were playing that sport for a long time. Hockey is relatively new. Only had it since the 70s. Different in that regard.”
(Here’s an interesting tidbit about the lacrosse program. Their first game was a 2-1 victory over Cornell in 1898. Their 126th meeting against Cornell will occur this May, making it one of the oldest rivalries in intercollegiate athletics.)
There’s also something else different about the hockey team competing for a national championship-freshness.
“When we [lacrosse] made it to the quarterfinals or semifinals, people got used to it,” Hanna said. “This is so fresh. When you get into the tournament for a second time, and make it to the frozen four in the second time, it’s terrific.”
There is talk about finally enclosing the Geneva Recreation Center, thus eliminating the last open rink in the NCAA, and putting Hobart on equal footing with other teams in the recruiting wars.
In the meantime, Hobart and the town of Geneva are enjoying the success of a hockey team that sometimes plays in subzero weather.
“Anytime one of our teams is successful, the community gets very excited,” Hanna said.
“We were really happy with the year that we had,” Taylor said. “Going into our league, you don’t have an automatic bid, so you have to win as many games as possible.”
Can they do what the lacrosse team has done 16 times?
“We don’t want to lose the last game,” Taylor said.
If they don’t lose their last game, the next time you play word association using Hobart, the response just might be hockey instead of lacrosse.