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Sisti keeps Mercyhurst women’s hockey among elite

ERIE, Pa. — At first glance, it’s easy to explain the success. Mercyhurst, the small Catholic college that primarily competes as a Division II school, has grown into a perennial national power in Division I women’s hockey.

The explanation? It must be Meghan Agosta.

When she arrived on campus as a freshman, she already was a gold medal winner, having been the youngest member of Team Canada in the Turin Olympics. She took a year off from school for the Vancouver Olympics, where she won another gold medal and took Most Valuable Player honors.

Three years after graduation her name is still revered on the campus in Erie, Pa., and her legend intertwined with Mercyhurst College.

But while she was in Sochi winning her third Olympic gold medal with Canada, her alma mater was busy spinning a new tale of success.

With a 22-7-4 overall record and the No. 8 spot in the national polls, Mercyhurst is positioning itself for its 10th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The nine straight turns at the dance are already a record for Division I women’s hockey.

And that doesn’t happen solely on the strength of Agosta.

The architect of the program is Michael Sisti, a Buffalo native and former player and assistant coach at Canisius College. He was working as an assistant on the Mercyhurst men’s hockey staff when the college began women’s hockey in the 1999-2000 season. Sisti took the head coaching job and has quietly built a national contender.

“I think we spoil people because of our success,” Sisti said. “We’ve been one of the most successful teams in the country over the 15 years of our program. I think some people think it just happens, but I never take any wins for granted or any successful seasons. We’ve averaged over 25 wins a year. We’ve done it all different ways, with young teams, with quote unquote no-name players and with the biggest stars of the game who have played here.”

The biggest stars include Agosta, who played for Mercyhurst from 2007-09, then took a year off to train with the Canadian national team for the Vancouver Olympics. She returned for the 2010-11 season and finished her career as the NCAA career leader in points (303), goals (157), power-play goals (55), short-handed goals (20) and game-winning goals (39).

Her Olympic success, including a gold medal last week in Sochi, was felt back on campus.

“I mean, I never played with her, but it’s exciting,” said sophomore Emily Janiga, a native of East Aurora. “I know some girls on our team have played with her. For them it’s really exciting but just being in the same program is really an honor. It’s amazing just seeing her work hard and come back with a gold medal.”

Janiga played two years at Nichols and is one of three players with Western New York ties on the current Mercyhurst roster along with junior goaltender Julia DiTondo (Kenmore) and senior forward Kaleigh Chippy, who transferred from Niagara when the school eliminated the program.

Janiga has helped to pace the Lakers’ offense that took a while to grow into its own this season. She ranks second on the team in scoring with 40 points (15 goals, 25 assists) after scoring 41 her freshman year and ranking fifth in the country in rookie points-per-game (1.11).

“She’s been a great recruit for us,” Sisti said. “We took her last year, and we promised her that we were going to throw her right in the fire, give her a lot of responsibility. She had a phenomenal freshman year, was one of the highest points scorers for freshmen in the country. Now, even though she’s only a sophomore, we expect her to be a leader on a team that’s really young, and she’s done that. She’s played in every situation for us, penalty kill, power play, five-on-five, she’s putting together another good season for us.”

Throwing young players right into the game is the way Sisti tends to structure his program. Come to Mercyhurst and you will have a chance to lead, to make an impact, immediately. Actually, the success of the program relies on recruits figuring it all out. Quickly.

Sisti looks to recruit “the best of the best,” which includes mining Western New York, and in his 15 years as Mercyhurst’s women’s coach, he’s seen the starts and stops that come with the evolution of the women’s game. While the sheer number of girls playing hockey continues to increase, Sisti would like to see more elite opportunities to accelerate the development of the next generation of players.

“I think more people are playing, which is nice, you know, but I think you’re still seeing the same number of people you’d consider the blue chip kids,” Sisti said. “I think it’d be nice to see that grow, if there was a way to just keep them in highly competitive environments.

“A lot of players are on teams where they might be a couple of real good ones and then there’s a drop off. If ever you can get leagues where all the players on the team are pretty much at the same level, that will force growth. … It’s not there yet, but it’s getting better all the time. A lot of coaches are working hard to get more ice time, more knowledge and girls are putting more time and effort into the game.”

Slowly those efforts get rewarded. The women’s NCAA field has grown from four to eight. Schools have added or elevated their women’s hockey programs, and next year College Hockey America is scheduled to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. With a steady six-team membership – Mercyhurst, Robert Morris, RIT, Syracuse, Lindenwood and Penn State – they have reached the criteria for the all-important automatic qualifier.

As for the Lakers, they wrapped up the regular season College Hockey America title and earned a bye into the conference semifinals. They will host the CHA tournament March 7-8 and wait to see if they gain their 10th straight at-large bid into the NCAA field.

“We’ve been able to rebuild without rebuilding in the sense that no matter who’s here we expect to win,” Sisti said. “We understand how hard you have to work to do that. We throw our young kids into the fire, and the truth is either we’re going to get great leadership and the new kids are going to get it done for us, or we’re going to flop. We haven’t flopped yet. We don’t want to. So we keep getting ingredients that have worked well for us.”