Nov. 21, 2004
By Elliot Olshansky
It's a pretty good bet that a few players on the Yale women's hockey team have taken a course or two on Shakespeare in their time, and are familiar with the phrase "Brevity is the soul of wit" (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, in case you were wondering). The words likely take a new meaning for the Bulldogs when applied to their coach, Hilary Witt, whose brief transition from player to head coach has helped the Bulldogs make some serious noise in the ECACHL.
Now in her third season behind the bench in Ingalls Rink, Witt will celebrate her 27th birthday on Christmas Day, making her one of the youngest Division I head coaches in any sport. Her tenure in New Haven has been a successful one thus far, as she has guided the Elis to their first double-digit win season since 1985-86 (a 12-16-3 mark last year) and their first win over national powerhouse Harvard since 1984 (a 3-2 win on Nov. 12 at Ingalls Rink). According to Yale captain Erin Duggan, Witt's youth, and her ability to guide the Bulldogs to success, are hardly unrelated.
"It wasn't too long ago that she was playing and she was a student athlete just like us," Duggan said. "She has experienced everything we are experiencing, so her advice and her guidance and leadership for this team are much more respected."
A native of Canton, Mass., Witt played her college hockey at Northeastern, where she set Huskies records with 113 goals and 208 points in four years. Witt graduated from Northeastern in 2001, and spent time with the U.S. National Team before signing on at Yale as an assistant under then-coach John Marchetti.
"I came to Yale because I wanted to make a difference here," Witt said. "I wanted to help move the program along in the right direction."
In June 2002, after Witt's first season in New Haven, the Yale administration decided it was time for a change in direction. Marchetti, who went 30-104-11 in five seasons, was out, and Witt, at the tender age of 24, was in. She was named interim head coach, with a national search scheduled to take place after the 2002-03 season.
That proved not to be necessary. While Witt's 9-20-2 record that year may be unimpressive at first glance, the Bulldogs recorded their first Ivy League win in two years when they beat Cornell that November. Witt's team pulled off a more impressive feat the following February, when Yale beat Princeton -- then the No. 8 team in the country. When the season ended, Witt won the ECAC Coach of the Year award. Perhaps more importantly, she had made her case where the Yale administration was concerned. "They asked me to stay on," Witt said, "and I happily accepted that offer."
That first season went a long way toward helping Witt prove herself, which was helpful, since Witt already had plenty to prove as a young coach. "When you're a young coach, there's a lot to prove," Witt said, "but we've been playing as an underdog for my first few years. When you do things well, there's more stress as you get better, because you're expected to do better."
Witt continued helping the Bulldogs "get better" in her second season. The Bulldogs' 12-16-3 record included three more Ivy wins (including another upset of Princeton), not to mention a head-turning 1-0 loss at Harvard and a hard-fought ECAC playoff series at Dartmouth, where the Bulldogs pushed the national powerhouse Big Green until the final buzzer.
Those late season games against the perennial powers of the ECACHL served notice that there was something big happening in New Haven, and for Witt, it started with her current senior class. "Erin Duggan, Nicole Symington and Ali Turney, they're the ones that decided they wanted to come in here and make a difference," Witt said, "and that's what it takes.
"It takes a class that says, `Hey, I want to go there, I want to turn a program around. Then it moved on to the next few classes after that one. Kids wanted to take that chance."
The "next few classes" have brought several highly-regarded players to New Haven, including sophomore forward Kristin Savard, freshman defenseman Helen Resor and junior goalkeeper Sarah Love. Love, in particular, has had a major role in turning the Bulldog program around. A preseason All-USCHO Second Team selection this year, Love stopped 45 of 46 shots in last March's loss at Harvard, and earned a standing ovation from the fans at the Bright Hockey Center. She followed that up with two solid playoff efforts against Dartmouth, making 82 saves and giving up five goals in the series. With Love now in her junior year, a sense of urgency has set in for Yale to make a statement.
"When Sarah Love was a freshman, we thought, `Oh, we have four years with this kid.' Then she was a sophomore, and now, all of a sudden, she's a junior, and we're going, `Wow, we only have a year and a half or so left with this goalie.' She's done a tremendous job for us."
Love did a tremendous job again in this month's win over Harvard, stopping 48 of 50 shots en route to a monumental win in the history of the program.
"For our kids to go out there and win that game," Witt said, "it was monumental for this program. It's a big win for us, it's a big win for our school, and anybody involved in Yale or Harvard athletics knows that.
"A win like that breeds confidence. Our kids know they can win games. We've been playing very well for the last two years, losing by a goal, losing by two goals, games you can win. That type of win puts you over the top where you get the confidence and you know you can win those one-goal, two-goal games."
Indeed, Witt has helped instill a higher level of confidence in her Bulldogs, and Duggan credits part of that to the narrow age gap between the coach and her players. "She has experienced everything we are experiencing," Duggan said, "so her advice and her guidance and leadership for this team is much more respected."
"I know where they're going with hockey," Witt said. "I know where they've been, and I know what they're thinking. It's certainly easy when you played not that long ago and you understand when kids are stressed out about a class or something away from the rink, and you can deal with those things a bit better, because you've been there and you understand."
Another benefit of the coach's youth, according to Duggan, is that it makes her a more effective teacher on the ice in practice. "Hilary still has her skills from college," Duggan said. "It is nice to see a coach demonstrate a drill, maybe a 1-on-1 drill and burn the defenseman, or make a great shot to beat a goaltender. It just gives her ideas and philosophies more credibility when she is trying to get it across to the team."
So, what's Witt's most important philosophy in guiding the Bulldogs? "All I want from them is just to work hard every time," Witt said. "Even if the day is not going well, just keep working hard. If you do that, usually things turn out well."
With Witt behind the bench, things are, indeed, turning out well for the Bulldogs, and if the young coach has her way about things, they'll get even better in the future.
"We've come a long way over the last three years," Witt said. We've had big wins every year since I've been here. Now we just have to tie them all together and put them in a group in one season. Everybody's going to have a good day, and everybody's going to have a bad day. You just hope you have more good days than bad days."
Elliot Olshansky is an assistant editor for CollegeSports.com.
Read Elliot's Last Women's Hockey Article: Dynamic Ivy Duo Debuts At Four Nations Cup