Women’s hockey gearing up
Coach Erin Whitten Hamlen and assistant Brent Hill had their first four skaters out on Lawler Rink taking shots on net one afternoon in September. The crack of sticks on pucks and booming sound of missed shots against the boards echoed through the empty arena, which seemed to swallow the few players on the ice during practice.
But the ice, and the seats, will be filled soon enough by a new breed of Warrior.
The Merrimack College women’s ice hockey team will play its inaugural Division I season during the 2015-16 academic year. Hamlen plans a team of 20 to 22 players. Seventeen, including the four already on campus, have committed to play for the college. Assistant Coach Kacey Bellamy recently joined the staff as well.
This is the second time Hamlen has started a women’s hockey program from the ice up. She played for perennial powerhouse University of New Hampshire during her own collegiate days, from 1989 to 1993. She returned to coach the team from 2000-2010. She left Durham, N.H., to start up a Division III program for the University of New England in Maine. Merrimack recruited her in July 2013.
Hamlen brought Hill from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute shortly after she arrived in North Andover. Bellamy had played for Hamlen at UNH before skating on the U.S. Olympic team; she was a volunteer assistant coach at UNH for a year before Hamlen recruited her for Merrimack.
Hill said he couldn’t resist the chance to join the start-up program. “It’s a once-in-a-liftetime opportunity to start a program from scratch, that’s the number one reason,” he said. “Merrimack has a tremendous amount of potential to be successful.”
Hamlen wants to start winning right away. “I’m slightly competitive,” she said with tongue in cheek. The goal is to finish above .500 the first season. It’s a lofty goal given the pressures of building a new program and playing in Division II’s powerful Hockey East. The growing process will test Hamlen’s patience.
“It’s going to take time,” she said. “It’s like everything else, you don’t build a business overnight.”
Building a team
Since the team isn’t playing yet, Hamlen and Hill have to sell recruits on the college community and their opportunity to get good coaching so they can also play for national or Olympic teams.
“The best thing I can say about Merrimack College and our program is the cohesiveness of our college,” Hamlen said.
It’s a small community in which everybody on campus is pushing each other to succeed, she said; the school is also in a great location with easy access to Boston for players who enjoy access to urban excitement but are leery of living in a large city.
The first recruits on campus include Jackie Pieper, 18, of Edina, Minn.; Marie Delarbre, 20, of Fuessen, Germany; Jillian Battista, 18, of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Chaislyn Burgio, 18, of Quincy, Mass.
The coaching staff is recruiting hard workers with high-compete levels who have already shown they will fight to reach their goals, said the coach.
“These are players who understand the need to get mentally strong, physically strong and understand they are getting guidance from us,” Hamlen said.
The core four players understand the chance they are getting for tutorial coaching and the coaches are counting on them providing leadership when the other players begin arriving.
The players are hard workers and soaking in the coaching, Bellamy said.
“They are spoiled right now because we can do skills (work) one-on-one,” she said. “Next year they are going to be leaders so this is a building year for them.”
Hamlen’s quartet on campus this year all said they want the year to work on the weaknesses in their games. The four will also play vital roles in helping the athletes arriving next year. Every freshman struggles to understand the commitment needed to win at the collegiate level, said the coach.
Players and coaches have their own reasons for loving their sport, and sometimes wax poetic in their descriptions of the game.
Hamlen said she loves being able to mentor players, loves the way the sport can bring people with different talents and goals together to create something bigger than themselves. “Primarily, it brings a group of people together who, other than that, may not have that connection,” she said.
Pieper loves the sharp, cold air of an ice rink and the sound of skates cutting across the ice. Hockey is a perfect fit for her because of its physical nature.
“I love the intensity and it has a lot of contact, which I love,” she said.
Delarbre is a sports management major and loves the cerebral part of the game that goes with the physical.
“Just that you have to use your feet, hands and head at the same time,” she said. “It’s a quick game, you can score in a couple seconds; it changes quickly, so you have to be ready for anything.”
Delarbre was in a unique position to join the Warriors. She’s a transfer student from the University of Minnesota at Duluth and needed to find a home right away.
She had been playing for Germany’s Under-18 world team when Duluth recruited her. An older friend was already playing for Duluth, and Delarbre has an aunt living in Minnesota so she thought it would be a good fit. But she didn’t like playing in Duluth and when she started looking for another team, Hamlen invited her for a visit.
She likes the nearby beaches — and North Andover, if you can believe it, is warmer than Duluth in the winter — so Delarbre made the change.
Like the other four players she’s redshirting this year so she won’t lose a year on the ice. It’s a bonus to know she’s a pioneer in helping build the team, Delarbre said. “I’m really excited, happy to be here, just to know you are the first to do something,” she said.
Battista is majoring in education. “I love the Catholic setting, the small classes,” she said.
She looked at many schools but likes the opportunity she’s getting at Merrimack to spend a year working to improve before the collegiate games begin. “I think that is really crucial,” she said. “Especially at Division I level.” There are one-on-one meetings with the coaches in which they break down her game and encourage her in academics.
Battista said she enjoys the game so much because it’s so peaceful on the ice even in the heat of competition. “It sounds cliché, but as soon as you step on the ice, everything goes away,” she said. “Nothing else matters.”
Burgio comes from a hockey family. Both her parents played youth hockey, so when she was just 4 or 5 years old they asked her if she wanted to hit the ice. All the children playing in her house league had to take turns playing goalie. “My very first game as goalie I had a shutout until 29 seconds left in the game and there was a breakaway,” Burgio said. The other team scored on her and Burgio couldn’t stand the taste that left in her mouth — so she kept going back to play goalie. “I’m not going to let that one go,” she said.
Pieper, is an education major around human development with the goal of being a child life specialist or elementary school teacher. Her mother was a figure skater and started teaching Pieper when she was 3 years old, but she was a stubborn student. “I refused to wear figure skates when my mom put me in a figure skating show,” she said.
When she was 5, she decided to follow her older brother into hockey. His career was cut short by an off-ice injury but she blossomed into an all-conference and all-state player before Hill began to recruit her and she visited Merrimack’s campus. “I fell in love right away,” Pieper said.