When the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance was approved for active Division I membership on Aug. 1, the stakes were immediately raised for Saint Anselm College, Franklin Pierce University and its four other members.
Starting this season, NEWHA teams will be eligible for a bid in the NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey championship.
“The New England Women’s Hockey Alliance has been in the planning stages for several years, and now to be recognized by the NCAA as a Division I women’s ice hockey conference allows us to compete with the other four conferences at the same level,” NEWHA Commissioner Robert DeGregorio Jr. said through a press release. “In addition to the NEWHA conference regular season championship, NEWHA postseason tournament, the NEWHA teams are now eligible to qualify for the Division I NCAA Women’s Frozen Four.”
Since the conference champion won’t receive an automatic bid until the 2021-22 season due to an NCAA rule that states conferences must play at least two seasons with its same members before an automatic bid is granted, NEWHA teams hoping to compete for a national title this year and next will have to finish in the top eight of the NCAA rankings in order to earn that right.
It’s a particularly interesting development for the Hawks. Over the past two seasons, the Hawks have reached the top eight in the rankings — determined using the PairWise system that takes factors like strength of schedule and opponent strength of schedule, among others, into account — at various points. The Hawks finished 25-3-1 last year, winning the conference championship and likely helping the conference make a case for approval.
Head coach Kerstin Matthews has been a huge advocate for the move, as well, preparing in January of this year to add more non-conference Division I opponents to the Hawks’ schedule each year in an effort to boost the program’s strength of schedule. Now that Matthews has the ability to hand out an undisclosed amount of scholarships, the slate should only get tougher.
“We sort of want to build that up,” she told the Union Leader in January. “We have the ability to play 14 non-conference teams. We hope every year to add more Division I teams to make our strength of schedule more attractive.”
Some non-conference opponents on the Hawks’ schedule this year include Brown and Princeton.
The addition of scholarships and now NCAA tournament eligibility will also help to attract more talent when it’s time to hit the recruiting trail.
“I think (scholarships) will definitely draw better players (to Saint Anselm) over time,” Hawks tri-captain Amanda Conger told the Union Leader in January. “It’s something the program can definitely look forward to.”
“This has created another opportunity for more women’s ice hockey student-athletes to participate in this emerging sport for women,” DeGregorio said. “I know that the NEWHA student-athletes and coaches are excited and are thankful for this opportunity.”
The NEWHA season begins on Sunday, Sept. 29 with Franklin Pierce playing the University of New Hampshire. Saint Anselm will begin its season Oct. 4 at Post University.