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(L-R) Jessica Bonfe, Paige Voight, Marie Delarbre, and Dominique Kremer celebrate a goal against St. Cloud State on Oct. 2, 2015 (Mike Gridley/Photo: Mike Gridley)
(L-R) Jessica Bonfe, Paige Voight, Marie Delarbre, and Dominique Kremer celebrate a goal against St. Cloud State on Oct. 2, 2015 (Mike Gridley/Photo: Mike Gridley)

Division I women’s hockey has seen the addition of four teams in the past six seasons — Lindenwood in 2011, Penn State and RIT in 2012, and Merrimack in 2015. Lindenwood and RIT has been playing Division III hockey before making their teams Division I. Penn State added men’s and women’s hockey Division I hockey at the same time, but it was facilitated on the women’s side by the fact that the school had one of the best women’s club teams in the country — they’d won five national championships.

Merrimack, which earned its first postseason berth last week in the final game of the regular season when the Warriors beat Vermont and Boston University beat Maine, has shown incredible growth in just two seasons at the top level after building a program from scratch.

In their second season, the Warriors doubled both overall and conference win totals. They improved their penalty kill by nearly 20 percent, scored 29 more goals, scored nearly a goal more per game overall, and more than a goal per game more in conference play.

The finished with a better record than any of the other three newest programs and with a better second-year record than both Lindenwood and Penn State had when they joined.

Not only does it speak to the talent, coaching, and growth at Merrimack, but it says great things about the future potential of programs that are considering adding the sport.

One of the most important parts of the program’s early success is that they were given a two-year lead time before officially joining Division I, said coach Erin Hamlen. That extra year of recruiting, experience, and ice-time was absolutely crucial for the Warriors to be up to speed and ready to compete so early in their D-I career.

Hamlen credits the support she and her program received from Merrimack. Not only did they provide the necessary financial support, but the university as a whole provided resources of every sort to help get the program off the ground and ensure early success.

“Merrimack gave me an opportunity to build this program with a two-year lead.  This allowed me to hire staff early, and be competitive in the recruiting world early.  We were able to use scholarship dollars immediately, and set out with a specific plan to be competitive right away,” she said.

The Warriors will graduate the program’s first-ever seniors this season. Hamlen and her squad set a goal of reaching the Hockey East tournament for them before the season began. Having it come to fruition is like giving the best possible graduation gift to the women who helped build the program and believed in it from the very beginning.

Though the university provided all the necessary off-ice help the team would need, none of that would ultimately change what happened on the ice among the players. There’s a team culture that’s been built, fostered, and passed on by the players that first came to Merrimack to create the program, and Hamlen said it’s been pivotal in ensuring their ongoing growth and achievement.

“The team culture that we are building is a big part of our success; Merrimack women’s hockey is being built on a culture of hard work, accountability, and ‘no quit’ attitude,” she said.

It’s still early, and if the other newest programs are anything to go by, there will still plenty of challenges for the Warriors to overcome as they work to establish themselves among the rest of the Division I squads.

Programs often have to look for things other than wins and losses to gauge development over the course for a season, but for now, the scoreboard, the standings, and the statistics all bear out nothing but positive things for both the current squad and the future teams to don the Merrimack sweater.

“(We’ll) have our challenges along the way while we make our transition from ‘new’ to ‘established’ program,” said Hamlen. “Going from nonexistence to a second-year program has been a positive experience. We’ve had some growing pains along the way and are still very young, but are excited about our upcoming classes and the direction that we feel we can take this group.”
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While the other three conferences begin their postseason tournaments, the CHA will wrap up with one final weekend of regular-season play. The conference changed their tournament to a one-weekend format, allowing them to play this extra slate of games.

Robert Morris has never finished higher than second in the regular-season CHA standings. They head into the final season two points ahead of Syracuse atop that standings. The Colonials travel to Lindenwood for the regular season finale, while the Orange travel to Penn State. It’s not a short road trip for either team.

Syracuse had struggled on the road this season, amassing just a 6-7-3 away record. Robert Morris has fared better, going 8-2-2 away from Pittsburgh.

The puck will drop for the Colonials pretty much as Syracuse’s first game ends. If they choose to scoreboard watch, Robert Morris could head into their first game of the weekend with a slightly clearer picture of what they need to accomplish. The teams face off at the same time on Saturday, meaning the conference title could go down to the very final whistle.

In addition to fighting for the regular-season crown and first seed in the conference tournament, Robert Morris is fighting to be able to control its own NCAA tournament destiny. The winner of the conference tournament will receive an auto-bid, but the Colonials are also currently in the conversation to win an at-large bid, should it be necessary. The teams currently ranked seventh through 11th in the PairWise are separated by mere hundredths — and in some cases thousandths — of a point.

Even if they earn the auto-bid, the PairWise helps determine NCAA tournament seeding, and should the Colonials earn a bid, through whatever means, avoiding the eight seed would mean avoiding Wisconsin, something every team in the nation hopes they can do for as long as possible.

If the Colonials earn a win this weekend, they will also set program history with the most conference wins in a season.