Syracuse University Magazine

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Orange defender Christina LaCombe (18) passes the puck against Boston College at Tennity Ice Pavilion. The Orange lost the early season contest, 5-2.

Photo courtesy of SU Athletics



Building from Scratch to Success

Paul Flanagan chuckles when asked what possessed him to leave the comfort zone of a women’s ice hockey program he had guided to five NCAA Frozen Fours to start a program from scratch at Syracuse University three seasons ago. “It had to be a mid-life crisis,’’ jokes Flanagan, who established himself as one of the nation’s premier coaches during his 20 seasons at St. Lawrence University. “Normally, you have a year to set things up before you hit the ice with a new program. I had 3 1/2 months. It’s like having two weeks to get that final 50-page paper done when everybody else has had the entire semester. I had to hire assistants, find players, and fill out a schedule. It was absolutely insane at times, but it also was very gratifying building something from nothing.”

Cobbling together a team that included eight student-athlete transfers and several players with limited hockey experience, the Orange women posted a respectable 9-16-3 record in their first season. “While scrambling to put that team together I remember receiving a phone call from a senior who hadn’t played since high school,” Flanagan says. “I told her, ‘As long as you can skate, you’ll make the team.’ That’s where we were back then. But I give that group an awful lot of credit for where we are today. They laid the groundwork.”

Last season, aided by an influx of scholarship players, SU improved to 18-17-1 and made it to the quarterfinal round of the College Hockey America (CHA) tournament. That dramatic progress resulted in Flanagan being named CHA’s Coach of the Year and forward Isabel Menard ’13 earning league rookie-of-the-year honors. “It was really tough when we started because other coaches were telling recruits, ‘Why would you want to play for a team that’s going to be lucky to win a handful of games?’” recalls Flanagan, who played hockey at St. Lawrence in the late 1970s. “But I tried to sell the recruits on some of the same things that sold me on Syracuse. You could come to a mid-sized university that has a big-time reputation in academics and athletics, and you’d be able to play right away instead of being on the fourth line riding the bench at an established program.”

Syracuse and Flanagan’s reputation were enough to convince forward Stefanie Marty ’11 to transfer from the University of New Hampshire. “It’s always a challenge building a new program, but that really appealed to me, too,’’ says Marty, who has competed in two Winter Olympics with the Swiss women’s hockey team. “It was a struggle at first. We had a tiny locker room where you tripped over each other’s equipment. And there were a lot of girls on the team who tried their best, but didn’t really have Division I hockey skills.”

Three seasons later, the hockey players have a spacious, state-of-the-art locker room, a roster filled with scholarship players, and packed crowds for home games at Tennity Ice Pavilion. “They stuff about 500 to 600 people in there for games and there’s a band that plays,” says Marty, a team co-captain. “It’s really awesome. I’d rather have that kind of atmosphere in a small arena than the atmosphere we have at a lot of places we play at where there are 200 people in a 5,000-seat arena.”

Thanks to Marty’s leadership, the Orange women got off to a solid 5-5-1 start this season. Flanagan believes the team is bolstered by another strong recruiting class that includes outstanding freshman goaltender Kallie Billadeau. The coach who made a career move that may have seemed crazy hopes to have the Orange women contending for a national title. For now, though, he and his players are encouraged by the progress they’ve made in such a short time. “I hope years from now I can look back with pride that I was part of the teams that helped launch Syracuse to the top of women’s college hockey,” Marty says. —Scott Pitoniak