A year ago, Dominick Dawes was in the process of acclimating nearly 40 hockey players from as far away as Sweden to a new college, preparing them for NCAA Division III hockey and trying to figure out which of them would represent Stevenson University as its first NCAA Division III hockey team.
It was hectic, chaotic and stressful, but such was life for a Division III hockey head coach who was starting a program from scratch. Other coaches in similar situations would have set modest goals for their teams, but that's not Dawes' style.
A veteran head coach who previously led Neumann University in Pennsylvania to seven straight postseason appearances and the 2009 Division III national championship, Dawes, 36, wanted his team to make the playoffs and earn the highest GPA of any varsity team on campus.
The Mustangs concluded their inaugural season 10-14-2 and advanced to the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference West quarterfinals before falling to sixth-ranked Hobart. And they did record the highest team GPA on campus. Mission accomplished.
It's a new year, though, and as practice begins with eight new faces, Dawes has set the bar higher.
"We need to be ready to compete with the top teams in the league," he said. "Last year we started better than I probably expected, and then I thought it kind of caught up with us after Christmas with the schedule and having to play the top teams in the country week in and week out."
Expectations aren't the only thing that's changed for Stevenson hockey. This year, the Mustangs will compete in a new league, the United Collegiate Hockey Conference, which will include six teams that used to be in the ECAC West, along with three additional "expansion" teams.
Along with Stevenson, for the 2017-18 season the UCHC will include Chatham, Elmira, King's College, Lebanon Valley, Manhattanville, Neumann, Utica and Nazareth. Wilkes will be added for 2018-19.
"It's exciting to be playing in one of the top Division III leagues in the country," Dawes said. "Last year we proved we could compete against teams of the highest level, but we had to be perfect to do it. Now I think we are ready to compete against the better teams on a regular basis."
The UCHC title is not the only championship Stevenson will compete for this year. The Middle Atlantic Conference, which Stevenson's other teams compete in, announced it will sponsor men's and women's hockey this year as well.
"Only a few college hockey programs get to compete in two conferences," Dawes said. "It should really generate interest and maybe help us develop some strong, more local rivalries."
While Maryland isn't considered a traditional hockey market, the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia) is one of the fastest-growing areas for youth hockey participation in the country. Dawes and his players are happy with the support they have received from the campus and local communities as the southern-most Division III hockey program.
"Last year, there were always a group of kids from the Baltimore Stars youth program at our games," said Mustang goalie Jacob Caffrey of Bethesda, one of two Maryland-born players on the Stevenson roster.
Caffrey also credits promotional videos and game streams on Stevenson's athletics website with generating interest on campus.
"Our students also really got behind us," Caffrey said. "We have a huge video program on campus, and I think some of what they did helped people see that that we provide a pretty good hockey experience here."
Dawes has made it a priority to be visible in the local hockey community. His team works regularly with young players as part of the Washington Capitals' Learn to Play Hockey program, and Dawes has offered his time to local players to provide advice about the various paths to college hockey and by running skills clinics.
"We really want to give local kids access," Dawes said. "There are only like 130 teams that play college hockey, so it's good for them to see the level of play and what our players had to do to get here."
A diligent recruiter who brings in players from around the globe to be part of what he calls his "melting pot," Dawes said the school's academic reputation, its strong athletic program and a growing campus of sparkling new buildings does much of the selling for him. This year's roster includes players from Sweden, British Columbia and California.
"The campus is beautiful," said Aaron Murray, a 21-year-old defenseman from Chino, Calif. "You really can't beat it with the great stadium and with everything on campus being pretty much brand new. It's a really nice, small school where you can get to know everyone. The classes are small and the teachers can be much more hands on, which gives you a better chance to succeed in college."
So far Dawes and his team have succeeded both in class and on the ice, but the goal always is to keep the program moving forward.
"The ultimate goal in the next two or three years is for us to be in the top 10 or 15 consistently," he said. "We have a ways to go before we get there, but we just want to take strides in that direction every day and continue to try to get better."
Issue 238: October 2017
Originally published Oct. 16, 2017