Women’s ice hockey’s Sisti tied No. 2 for wins

Marco Cicchino, Staff writer

Don’t look now, but Mercyhurst women’s ice hockey Head Coach Michael Sisti is back and ready to compete.  But that’s the way he’s always been, and now he has the data to prove it.

In what is expected to be a back-and-forth battle for one of the top records in women’s college hockey, the trajectory just so had it that a win in Syracuse on Oct. 13 tied Sisti with Harvard’s Katey Stone and Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson for the career wins record by a coach (464).  But after sweeping the Lakers in Erie three weeks ago, Johnson took it back the following day when the then-No. 2 Badgers defeated Minnesota-Duluth and was poised to capitalize two weeks later on a 5-1 Robert Morris win in Erie on Oct. 20. This past Saturday, Oct. 27, he was upset at home by third-ranked Minnesota, ending a 35-game winning streak at LaBahn Arena in Madison and keeping Sisti in record contention.

Meanwhile, Stone picked up win 465 over Dartmouth on Oct. 19, but fell in Ithaca to No. 7 Cornell and Hamilton to No. 9 Colgate this past weekend.  “Both Katey (Stone) and Mark (Johnson) have had remarkable careers in our sport and are regarded as outstanding coaches,” Sisti said. “I feel very proud to have led such a successful program and work with so many great student athletes, coaches and administrators. We have been fortunate to attract so many motivated and talented people over the years.”

Now in his 28th season coaching college hockey, Sisti started behind the bench in 1990 at Canisius College after scoring 74 goals and 163 points in four years at his alma mater, becoming captain as a senior.  He left after three years to join the then-Division II men’s program at Mercyhurst, reaching the national title game in 1995 while assistant and later associate coach under Rick Gotkin.

In 1999, Sisti was appointed head coach of the new women’s ice hockey program, and to this day he is the only head coach the program has ever known.  Sisti guided the Lakers to an unprecedented streak of 10 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament between 2004 and 2013, including a national title game appearance in 2009 and three more Frozen Four appearances in 2010, 2012 and 2013.  He was named Coach of the Year in 2005 by the NCAA and 2007 by USCHO.com.  He has graduated some of the best names the game has ever seen, including three-time Olympic gold medalist Meghan Agosta-Marciano, the all-time leading scorer in women’s college hockey, and 2010 Kazmaier Award winner Vicki Bendus.

However, the last four years have been trying times for the program, with youth leadership and new faces both on the ice and behind the bench.  In 2014, Sisti went 23-9-3 and captured the CHA regular season title, but the postseason streak was halted with a home loss to RIT in the CHA semifinal.  Over the next three seasons, he graduated several of the top names in program history, including Shelby Bram and Amanda Makela in 2015; Emily Janiga, Jenna Dingeldein and Jaclyn Arbour in 2016; and Taylor Accursi and Jillian Skinner in 2017.

The Lakers returned to the postseason in 2016, finishing the regular season and tournament championship double for the 10th time in the CHA and 11th overall. Over the following two years, the team fell victim to quickly improving Robert Morris, Syracuse and Penn State programs and last season recorded the worst start in program history.  The Lakers did rebound, however, finishing second in the regular season and knocking off Robert Morris in the CHA title game before taking eventual national champion Clarkson to overtime in the NCAA quarterfinals.

“As a coach and a person, I think all of us are always evolving and trying to find new ways to better ourselves,” Sisti said. “I think players today are more educated on nutrition and fitness than in the past. Regardless who is in our program, we stress the importance of education and graduating as well as striving to improve in all areas of their lives”.

This season represents another key challenge for the program. Brooke Hartwick graduated in 2017 after four impressive seasons on the Hill. The impassable goaltending combination of Kennedy Blair and Sarah McDonnell, respective CHA Goaltending trophy winners last year and in 2016.  This coincided with Emma Nuutinen’s first full season after guiding Finland to bronze in Pyeong-Chang and returning stars Maggie Knott, Sarah Hine, Vilma Tanskanen, and Summer-Rae Dobson, have this team poised to make another deep postseason run.

“As we embark on our 20th women’s season, it has been a very rewarding experience,” Sisti said. “I hope (the current players) are proud to be part of a program with a successful tradition and realize they presently are carrying the torch for us and are a key part of molding our future.”