When Stevenson University decided it would start an NCAA Division III women's ice hockey program, no one thought it would be easy.
As the southernmost Division III hockey program, the challenges of building a nationally competitive team in a non-traditional hockey market were clear as the Mustangs entered their first season in November 2012. Now, after opening its sixth season with a challenging early schedule that included four of the nation's top six teams, Stevenson seems to be on the verge of vaulting into the national conversation.
Buoyed by the senior leadership of fifth-year head coach Tracy Johnson's first full recruiting class and lessons learned from competing against the nation's best, the Mustangs are in the midst of a six-game unbeaten streak and are 7-1-2 since starting the season 0-6-1.
"We want to play the best competition we can, and of course want the program to get to a national-caliber level," said Johnson, who took over the program for its second season in 2013. "We played those teams hoping the players would know it was a difficult stretch, be able to keep their morale up, plug away and play to our strengths. I hoped that what we would take away from those games would be transferable to the games we are playing now. I'm very proud of what we've done this semester."
While the recent stretch of success might have caught some off guard, Johnson had a good feeling after watching her players tackle the difficult early schedule.
"Even though we were playing really good teams, the players stuck together, and what I saw was a lot of heart from the team," Johnson said. "We have come a long way. A team that is willing to work hard and might have less talent can achieve more than a team with more talent that won't work as hard. It sounds cliché, but I never doubted our willingness to work hard and work for each other."
Natalie Rosendahl, a captain and senior defender from the Chicago area, is one of eight seniors who make up Johnson's first full recruiting class. That group has seen the program improve from eight to 16 wins in its freshman year, then earn 23 victories and a conference championship in 2015-16. The Mustangs beat their first ranked opponent during the 2014-15 campaign, and this year the seniors have helped provide veteran leadership as the team has faced its most challenging schedule.
"We talk about integrity, positivity, appreciation and respect," Rosendahl said. "Coach goes over that with all of us in a meeting before the season, but the upper class really puts it on ourselves to show the younger players what it's all about and talk about the type of culture we want so that they really understand what it means and what is expected."
Cierra Siemasko, a junior forward from Fallston, Md., is one of two local players on the Stevenson roster, along with junior Laura Brezinski of Ellicott City, Md. Siemasko said the guidance provided by this year's senior class has proven invaluable and has the program poised to continue on its path toward more national recognition.
"Coming here, this year's seniors really made us feel like we were a part of a team and part of something bigger and representing something bigger," Siemasko said. "They really helped us understand those core values and how they apply to us as individuals and work within the framework of the team."
That guidance has helped Siemasko evolve from a role player into one of the team's offensive leaders.
"Cierra is a great example of a player really sticking with it and working hard," Johnson said. "It's really paying off for her this year. Her first year she might have played three games and now she's on our top line and leads us in power-play goals. She worked her butt off, and it has paid off. She's really stepped up into a key role and done a lot for us."
The Mustangs' seniors have begun to establish records and milestones indicative of a program on the rise. High-scoring forward Chelsea Blackburn recorded her seventh career hat trick against King's College Dec. 1 and became the first Stevenson player to reach 100 career points against Buffalo State Dec. 8. The team tied a program record with four power-play goals against King's Dec. 2.
Mustang players have received player of the week awards from either the United Collegiate Hockey Conference (UCHC) or the Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) on 10 occasions this season. Blackburn, junior goalie Caitie Darosa, sophomore goalie Annie Smyth-Hammond and senior forward Kellen Wittman have all been honored.
Stevenson competes in both the UCHC, which is composed of nine schools, including third-ranked Elmira, as well as the MAC, which was established with the intent of creating more localized and traditional rivalries among hockey schools that also compete against each other in other sports. Manhattanville, Lebanon Valley and King's also compete in the MAC.
The big prize is the UCHC championship. In addition to Elmira, the UCHC consists of Neumann, William Smith, Manhattanville, Utica, Lebanon Valley, King's and Chatham. The top six teams advance to the postseason tournament, with the top four hosting. The Mustangs are in fifth place at 4-3-1 in conference play. They have eight games remaining, including a pair to conclude the season at fourth-place Manhattanville.
"We want to put ourselves in the best possible position in the standings so that we can potentially have a home playoff game," Johnson said. "I'm not sure how it will all shake out, but you can't look too far out in front of you, otherwise you may not play your best. What I'm most excited for is to see this senior class have a great ending to their hockey careers and graduate. That's what it's all about – making sure they are set up for the next step in their lives."
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/Stevenson Athletics