At a young age, Maryland-native Jacob Caffrey decided he would go anywhere necessary to pursue his dream of playing college hockey. Little did he know, he wouldn't have to travel all that far.
Caffery, a senior goalie for the Stevenson men's ice hockey team, is preparing to lead the Mustangs toward a potential first-round bye in the United Collegiate Hockey Conference Tournament.
After chasing his dream from his hometown of Bethesda, Md., to New Hampshire, New Jersey, Philadelphia and then back to the DMV before stints in Ohio and Massachusetts, Caffrey was presented an opportunity to play college hockey less than an hour from where he began his career with the Montgomery Youth Hockey Association.
The opportunity came as a pleasant surprise for Caffrey, who had spent two years playing at the NCAA Division I level for American International College in Springfield, Mass., and didn't even know that Stevenson was starting a Division III program under head coach Dominick Dawes.
"I had two great years at AIC, but the coach retired and moved on, so I was looking for a new place to go," Caffrey said. "Luckily, one of Coach Dawes' former teammates from college was involved with the program at AIC and got me down here. I couldn't believe it when I heard there was going to be a college program in Maryland. So it was a pretty wild summer. When I got here there were like 50 freshmen, and I had no idea what to expect and just kind of had to find my way."
Two years ago, Dawes was tasked with starting a Division III program from scratch in a non-traditional hockey market. Every team needs a goalie, but Dawes was more focused on assembling a complete roster of the best hockey players he could find and not really looking for Caffrey when fate intervened.
"That's how it happens sometimes," Dawes said. "Starting out, I was just trying to find 25 or 30 of the best players I could get realistically. I didn't know much about him, because he hadn't played much. But what I did hear was nothing but good things about him working and practicing hard and keeping himself prepared to play."
Caffrey appeared in 10 games for AIC over two seasons from 2014-16. Dawes made no guarantees, but did provide a fair opportunity for Caffrey to earn a spot on what would be a young team. Caffrey had faced challenges every step of the way and relished the opportunity to come home and compete for a job.
"It wasn't like he said, 'Hey, Jacob, it's going to be you and me and here we go,'" Caffrey said. "It was more like, 'I hope you can make the team and contribute.' And I kind of felt that way, too. I made it clear to him that I was ready to come in and work for a spot and try win the job."
Dawes has a similar recollection of the recruiting process and wasn't sure Caffrey would be the No. 1 goalie even as the team began its inaugural 2016-17 season.
"He didn't start that first game for us," Dawes said. "I've been trying to create a culture where the guys all come to work and compete every day. Jacob did that and over time made his mark and has done his job consistently enough to be the top guy for the last two years."
Despite not starting opening night, Caffrey quickly earned the nod as the No. 1 goalie and started 21 of the remaining 25 games as the team posted a respectable first-year record of 10-14-2. For the season, Caffrey posted a 7-12-2 record, a 3.56 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.
"We started the season pretty strong," Caffrey said, "We made some mistakes, but as a team we didn't stop working. Things didn't go our way toward the end of the season, but we got into the playoffs and had a tough draw against [nationally ranked] Hobart. It was a good first year."
Caffrey's first year was good enough for the senior to enter the 2017-18 campaign as the top guy in goal from the start. And he has proven to be up to the challenge, appearing in all 21 games and improving in every statistical category to lead the Mustangs to a 9-6-6 overall record, the inaugural Middle Atlantic Conference title and a 7-2-3 UCHC mark.
In addition to his 9-6-6 record, Caffrey sports a 2.33 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and one shutout. He twice has been named MAC Defensive Player of the Week and was named UCHC Goaltender of the Week after making 34 saves during a 1-0 shutout of Manhattanville Nov. 11.
"The guys have tremendous confidence in him," Dawes said. "That's the most important thing. His job is to stop the puck, and no doubt he's stolen some games for us. ... Every time he puts the gear on he gives us a chance to compete to win, whether we are playing a top-five team or a new program."
Stevenson has more than competed this year. With four regular-season games remaining, the Mustangs sit atop the UCHC standings, a point ahead of Lebanon Valley and three points ahead of 10th-ranked Utica. The top two teams receive a bye for the first round of the conference tournament.
Caffrey has been a big part of the team's success, but he knows the Mustangs have more work ahead.
"We feel really good about winning the MAC," Caffrey said. "We are happy with what we've done, but that was just one of our goals. We have been better this year, but still need to be more consistent if we want to reach the next goal and get a bye in the first round of the playoffs."
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