Over her 11 years leading the Saint Anselm College women’s hockey team, Kerstin Matthews has been “banging on that door” to create the opportunity for her program to qualify for the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship.
That door swung wide open this past September, when the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance announced its intent to be recognized as an NCAA National Collegiate conference.
The NEWHA, which formed during the 2017-18 season as a scheduling alliance, currently consists of Division II programs Saint Anselm, Franklin Pierce University, Post (Conn.) University, Saint Michael’s College and Division I Sacred Heart University. Division I Long Island University Brooklyn, which announced the addition of women’s hockey as a varsity sport last September, will join the league next season in its inaugural campaign.
All NEWHA schools will adhere to Division I recruiting rules and will begin offering athletic scholarships beginning next school year.
“I think it will definitely draw better players (to Saint Anselm) over time,” Hawks junior tri-captain Amanda Conger said of the changes to the NEWHA. “It’s something the program can definitely look forward to.”
Any Division I or Division II program that plays at least 20 games against D-I or D-II competition is eligible for the National Collegiate Women’s Ice Hockey Championship.
The NEWHA hopes to have an automatic qualifying bid for the national tournament within two years, Matthews said.
“I’ve been here for 11 years and a big goal of mine was to be able to have a postseason for these girls on top of our (conference) tournament,” Matthews said. “I feel we’ve reached that by getting to this next step.”
The Hawks are 16-2-1 after Friday's 10-0 victory over Post University. They are 9-0-1 in NEWHA competition, including a tie and a win against Sacred Heart to open the season. Sacred Heart is the only Division I team St. Anselm has played this season.
Matthews is working to build Saint Anselm’s strength of schedule going forward by adding more non-conference games against Division I teams. Matthews, who owns a 211-59-17 career record leading the Hawks, wants to add two to three games against non-conference Division I teams next year and continue to build that number going forward.
For now, the Hawks will still play Division III teams, Matthews said. As Saint Anselm’s scholarships get implemented, though, Matthews expects Division III programs will move away from scheduling Saint Anselm and the Hawks will attract more Division I opponents.
“We sort of want to build that up,” Matthews said. “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.”
Matthews would not reveal how many scholarships she has to give.
Matthews said she thinks the NEWHA members are on a unified front where no team can currently give out full funding.
“It’s a very significant direction because that’s where we’re heading — competing against colleges with 18 full rides,” Matthews said of her program’s athletic scholarships. “We want to make sure we’re able to attract those (players) in the landscape of the Division I model. We want to make sure we’re able to compete in that arena.”
Matthews said she is “living in a four- to- five-year bubble at the moment” in regards to her future plans for the program, which do not currently include Saint Anselm becoming a Division I team. She is taking a slow-build approach as Saint Anselm moves into the national-tournament landscape so the program can sustain the growth it experiences.
Matthews noted North Dakota cut its women’s hockey team in 2017 after its 15th Division I season. North Dakota twice reached the WCHA title game and qualified for the national tournament two times.
Like anything, Matthews said, there will be growing pains but she is enjoying the new challenges this step has brought.
“It’s an exciting venture into a different direction,” Matthews said. “It’s a little like I have a new job with the same desk. I’m learning new things, navigating new waters and trying to make sure the boat is going in the direction I want it to go in.”