Buffalo native Michael Sisti has taken a set of Legos and turned it into a skyscraper at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa.
His Lakers have been the top-ranked women's hockey team in the country since mid-November. His roster, which includes players from the United States, Canada, Sweden and Finland, features some of the planet's premier talent. His star freshman, Meghan Agosta, helped Canada to the Olympic gold medal in Turin, scoring a hat trick against Russia on her 19th birthday. Some say she's on her way to becoming the female version of Sidney Crosby.
Sisti has done everything at Mercyhurst short of winning a national championship, a feat that could be forthcoming. The Lakers were beaten in the NCAA quarterfinals two years ago, by Harvard, in triple overtime. They were ousted in the quarterfinals again last year, by eventual champ Wisconsin, in double overtime. The door's bound to open so long as the Lakers keep knocking, which has become the norm under Sisti's guiding hand.
And to think it all began in the spring of 1999, when administrators at the private Catholic liberal arts institution, home to some 3,000 students, decided that hockey could become their transcendent sport. They'd upgrade their men's program to Division I. They'd start a women's team that also would compete at the highest collegiate level. And for that they turned to Sisti, associate head coach of the men's team, asking if he'd be the architect.
Sisti called Brian Cavanaugh, who'd been his hockey coach at Canisius College, and sought out advice. Cavanaugh told him it could be the opportunity of a lifetime. Women's hockey was taking off. Cavanaugh, now the athletics director at D'Youville, flashed the green light. He said, "Mike, take the job because you could be the next U.S. Olympic women's hockey coach."
"I really felt if I could get support from the administration and if we could prove ourselves and get the character kids we would be able to compete with the best schools and the best athletic programs in the country in women's hockey, and someday we'd be able to attract the top athletes in the game," Sisti said by phone last week. "Some might have thought it was an overzealous goal, but I just never swayed from that."
Sisti, a St. Joe's Collegiate Institute alum, had his career plans in order upon graduating college in 1990. He'd try to hook on with a minor-league hockey team, extend a stellar playing career that had led to his induction into the Canisius Hall of Fame. Once his playing days were over he'd put his marketing degree to use in the business world. And that life blueprint lasted, oh, about a week.
Cavanaugh convinced Sisti to help him coach at Canisius until he found a spot in the minors. Sisti was putting in 50-to-60-hour weeks, earning hardly anything, and loving every bit of it.
"Really, as soon as I started doing it I got hooked," he said.
Sisti's career plans weren't laid totally to waste by his newfound affinity for coaching. That marketing degree sure came in handy.
It was April of '99 when Mercyhurst handed him the keys to its nascent women's program. There were no uniforms. There was no schedule. All Sisti had was a desk and a chair and the knowledge the program's inaugural game would be played in less than nine months. Now sell it.
"Basically the toughest thing was . . . not many people knew or heard of Mercyhurst College," he said. "That was the biggest thing, just kind of getting an awareness of our program out there. And what made it super tough was we really didn't make this decision until April and they wanted a team in September. Usually in April recruiting is pretty much over. And I was starting a whole team from scratch in that period of time."
His record that first season (23-6-0) gave the program instant legitimacy, fueled its meteoric rise. The Lakers are 21-1-2 this season. Sisti's career record is 184-60-19, with 16 of those losses coming in his second season. Women's hockey has put Mercyhurst on the map, given the school the name recognition it had craved.
"There's no question," said Pete Russo, the Mercyhurst athletics director. "It's affecting the school. It's affecting the community. It's affecting the general enrollment. It's really done wonders across the big picture."
Cavanaugh could be right. Maybe Sisti will someday be selected to coach the U.S. Olympic Team. And if it happens one thing's for certain. He won't be intimidated by the challenge.