Women's Hockey: New coach Witt is up to the challenge

Bret Belden

By Max Sullivan, Contributing writer

Ten years ago, Hilary Witt coached the Yale women’s hockey team to its first winning season in 19 years.

This year, she’s come to Durham to clean up another mess — four seasons of losing hockey and a locker room disheartened by a fired coach.

On Sunday, Witt’s Wildcats still looked far from a contender against No. 4 Boston College. They lost, 4-0, and were outshot, 42-21.

A first step toward change at UNH, Witt said, might be learning how to play with confidence.

“I think one of the challenges for them is learning how to win,” Witt said. “I think, if you look at this group, maybe (co-captain and senior Hannah Armstrong) here her freshman year, but other than that, nobody else has been in a winning season here that’s on the team currently, so I think a lot of it is being confident and learning how to win.”

Witt succeeded Brian McCloskey, whose 12-year tenure as women’s head coach ended last winter. He was fired on Dec. 5 for an “incident of inappropriate physical contact with a player on the bench,” UNH Athletics reported that day.

The incident led two players to transfer. In July, McCloskey was indicted on three charges of simple assault and one charge of criminal threatening as a result of the incident, it was reported.

With eight years of head coaching experience with Yale, as well as assistant coaching stints with Northeastern and the U.S. national team, Witt’s career as bench boss is highlighted by a 2002-2003 ECAC Coach of the Year honor. Two years after receiving that award, she led the team to its first winning season since 1985-86 with a record of 16-15-1. The Bulldogs didn’t break single digits after 1986 until she arrived there.

Much like she did with Yale, she hopes to turn things around in Durham.

But Witt is not delusional. She knows that such a flip can’t be made “overnight,” as she said Sunday. The Eagles, a standard of excellence in collegiate women’s hockey, passed pucks with ease through the slot in front of UNH goalie Vilma Vaattovaara.

The Wildcats put up a fight in their own end, killing five of BC’s six penalties, but 2014 Sochi Olympian Alex Carpenter dealt a devastating blow in the third period when she one-timed a shot from the right faceoff circle past Vaattovaara to make the score 3-0 with 10:50 remaining. Haley McLean added a fourth goal 61 seconds later to further distance the Eagles from UNH.

Armstrong, who sat beside Witt at Sunday’s postgame press conference, agreed with her coach in regards to confidence. 

“I think it’s coming into the game thinking that we could win,” Armstrong said. “We came into today expecting to lose and none of us had confidence in winning.”

Salem’s Katie King-Crowley, BC head coach and former teammate of Witt’s on the USA national team at the 2001 IIHF world championships, said she understands the challenge that comes with taking a new head coaching position. She became BC’s head coach in 2007 and has led the Eagles to the NCAA tournament twice.

“You’re trying to figure out who your players are, what you have and how you can make your team the best that you can make it,” King-Crowley said. “Yeah, it’s so early in the season that it’s hard to say, but I’m sure Hilary will do a great job. She’s got so much experience.”

The Eagles coach said she saw fight in the Wildcats Sunday despite the shutout and the shot difference of 21. In particular, King-Crowley commended Vaattovaara for keeping the game close.

“I thought (Vaatovaara) played great. She made some stops that could have made the game six-nothing, seven-nothing,” King-Crowley said.

Witt agreed that the junior goalie from Finland is a strong point for UNH.

“Vilma’s been playing great, she’s done a great job, she’s made some big saves and I think the team’s confident in front of her and I think she’s confident in net…”

When asked if 2014-15 was a rebuilding year for a program that has taken a dive since its days as Hockey East Tournament Champions (2006, ’07 and ’08), Witt said the term “rebuild” wasn’t fair to apply, even to her new team.

“Anybody can beat anybody,” Witt said. “You can’t just give away a season based on a rebuild. We’re going to continue to always get better, we’re always going to recruit to get the best players we can, but we’re going to be confident in the ones we have as well.”