Right Back Where We Started From: PSU to Re-Join Division 1, ECWHL

It's often said that fashion is cyclical. But so, apparently, are conference affiliations.

The Penn State Women's Ice Hockey Club will elevate to ACHA Division 1, from Division 2, for the 2014-15 season. As part of the move, the WIHC will also leave its D2 conference, College Hockey East, to join D1's Eastern Collegiate Women's Hockey League. The ECWHL consists of the University of Massachusetts, the University of Rhode Island, Northeastern University and the University of Vermont, in addition to PSU and fellow newcomer Navy.

That formidable collection of new league rivals includes the 2012 ACHA Division 1 national champion in Northeastern (the Huskies also won at the D2 level in 2010), as well as perennial powers UMass, last season's national runners-up, and URI, the defending league playoff titlist (the Rams' nine conference playoff banners lead all teams) and a 2014 semifinalist at nationals. Counting the WIHC's Katie Vaughan, nine players from current ECWHL teams were among the 22 members of the U.S. Women's National University Team that won a historic bronze medal at the World University Games last December.

In the bigger picture and outside of the conference, Division 1 includes current national title holders Miami, as well as schools that are Big Ten foes for Penn State in most sports like Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State. The Spartans (2003 and 2011), Badgers (2002 and 2004) and Gophers (2013) have all claimed national championships as well. In other words, the division offers most of the best non-varsity women's programs in the U.S., as Penn State has already seen.

The former Lady Icers program had a long history in both Division 1 and the ECWHL. PSU was a founding member of what was then the ACHA's sole women's division in the 2000-01 season and, in 2003-04, similarly helped launch the ECWHL. Both runs ended following 2011-12 when the Lady Icers became the Nittany Lions and elevated to NCAA Division I status, although Penn State managed to win the league's regular season championship in its final year of membership - the team's only ECWHL conference title. Current WIHC seniors Ashton Schaffer, Mary Kate Tonetti and Sarah Eisenhut, as well as recent alumnae Vaughan, Carly Szyszko, Elizabeth Denis and Allie Rothman were all a part of that ECWHL crown.

Through its nine-year tenure in the league, the Lady Icers developed several intense rivalries, particularly with fellow inaugural members Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Heated contests with the latter often took on heightened importance, as the teams met in four of PSU's six ECWHL playoff appearances - and it would have been five of seven if not for a weather-related cancellation in 2010. Overall, Penn State went 10-15-1 against the Minutewomen.

WIHC standouts like 2014 alumna Allie Rothman have done battle in the ECWHL before

URI quickly became characterized by measuring stick status, as the powerhouse Rams frequently victimized a struggling Lady Icers program during much of the last decade, including at PSU's last D1 nationals appearance in 2010. However, coach Mo Stroemel's rebuilding project led to a 4-3 Lady Icers road result on October 23, 2010 (featuring an assist by then-freshman and future WIHC captain Szyszko on the 3-3 goal), the first Penn State win in the series during its entire time in the ECWHL. That victory represented a key turning point en route to the regular season title in 2011-12, an accomplishment that involved PSU besting URI for a second consecutive year.

The Lady Icers had limited exposure to the rest of the league, going 2-3-1 against Northeastern (which joined in 2010), and 2-0-0 against Vermont (which joined in 2011) while other schools like Connecticut, North Country Community College, Buffalo and Bates College have filtered in and out of the ECWHL during its eleven seasons. In addition to Penn State, Boston University, Norwich and SUNY-Canton have also used the conference as a springboard to varsity status over the last decade.

Since the Women's Ice Hockey Club's 2012 founding as the Lady Icers' ACHA replacement, its only game against a current ECWHL team was a 9-1 thumping of Navy in Annapolis on January 13, 2013 featuring four Mandy Mortach tallies and a goal with two assists by Taylor Nyman in her debut with the team.

In its previous Division 1 era PSU qualified for the ACHA National Tournament six times, highlighted by a third-place finish in 2002 that stood as the best-ever national finish by a Penn State women's hockey team until the WIHC's second-place runs in 2013 and 2014.

On top of all of the other changes, the program will have to adapt to some new rules in ACHA Division 1, mostly relating to player eligibility. Players have a maximum of five years in D1, compared to six in Division 2 (although the number reduces to four in both divisions for players with NCAA or CIS experience), and must be degree-seeking students with courseloads generally in excess of the six-credit minimum in D2 (precise requirements are based on class standing).

In Division 1, teams must schedule at least 12 games against six other D1 teams to be eligible for nationals, compared to six and three in D2. Finally, 20-minute periods are the order in the new division, up from 17 in the previous one.

PSU's move is just one of many either announced or anticipated in the ACHA women's divisions for the coming season. The new Western Women's Collegiate Hockey League will join the ECWHL and Central Collegiate Women's Hockey Association as a D1 league and include Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado and Colorado State, as well as division newcomers Denver, Lindenwood-Belleville and Midland. The CCWHA will also add a D2 conference including Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Loyola (IL), Michigan State, Northern Michigan and Notre Dame, with all teams but MSU new to the division as well.

Penn State's 2014-15 schedule in its new conference and division is still in progress, but be sure to follow the team on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for the latest as an eventful offseason winds down.

Penn State's ACHA Conference History
Mid-Atlantic Women's Collegiate Hockey Association
Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference
Eastern Collegiate Women's Hockey League
College Hockey East
Eastern Collegiate Women's Hockey League

Penn State's ACHA Division History
Women's Division 1
Women's Division 2
Women's Division 1