The following story appeared in Accent, the Neumann College alumni magazine, in March 2006, one month before the roller hockey club won the 2006 Division II national championship.
The Buffalo Bills don't have anything on the Neumann College Roller Hockey Club. The Bills are known by professional football fans across the country as the team that lost four straight Super Bowls from 1991to 1994. The Neumann Knights rollerbladers empathize with that big-game frustration. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, the Knights have played in the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (NCRHA) Division II championship game, losing all three title tilts.
Sixteen Division II clubs are invited to the national championship tournament each year. After winning three games in each playoff, the Knights fell in the finals to SUNY Binghamton, 6-3, in 2003; to the University of Missouri at St. Louis, 4-3, in 2004; and to the University of Nevada at Reno, 4-2, in 2005.
Almost lost in the agony of three consecutive second-place finishes is the real story of the roller hockey club. The players have made Neumann College a nationally respected powerhouse in a sport that pits them against clubs from much larger universities. In the last three seasons, they have beaten Army, Ball State, Bucknell, Cornell, Hofstra, Maine, Millersville, Penn, Pittsburgh, Shippensburg, St. John's, Syracuse, the University of Texas at Dallas, Vermont, West Chester, and many other household-name institutions.
NCRHA guidelines place most colleges and universities with an enrollment of less than 18,000 in Division II. Many of the Knights' opponents have the benefit of an undergraduate population that is at least five to six times larger than Neumann's 1,749. Despite this disparity in size, the Knights have established themselves as a dominant force in collegiate roller hockey. Since the start of the 2002-03 campaign, counting regular season and tournament playoff games, Neumann's record is 74-10-3. The slate for the last two years is even more impressive - an amazing 53-5-2.
Basics of the game
Modeled after ice hockey, roller hockey boasts more non-stop action than its frozen cousin and relies more on finesse than sheer power. Icing and off-sides rules, which tend to interrupt the flow of an ice hockey match, don't exist in roller hockey. Neither does checking, a nuance that diminishes physical contact and encourages skill and strategy.
Games are played in a rink with four skaters and a goalie on each side (ice hockey is five-on-five plus goalies). The playing surface is a plastic compound called SportCourt. The uniforms, equipment and arena make the game familiar to ice hockey fans. So does the flow of the game, with line changes occurring every 45-60 seconds in an up-tempo contest, every 60-90 seconds in a slower paced match. A typical squad includes eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies. There are three 12-minute periods in a game, with one-minute breaks in between.
More than 170 roller hockey clubs belong to the NCRHA, which has seven member organizations that govern the sport in different areas of the country. Neumann belongs to the Eastern Collegiate Roller Hockey Association (ECRHA), which includes 34 clubs. Collegiate groups are called clubs rather than teams because roller hockey is not yet an officially sanctioned NCAA sport.
Though the crowds at roller hockey games are small and despite the fact that many Neumann students don't realize the magnitude of the club's accomplishment, the Knights have earned the respect of their rivals. According to defenseman Sean White, a junior communication arts major, "We know we're a target. We're the game that other teams circle on their schedule."
Blueprint for dominance
How did this happen? How did a small Catholic college in suburban Philadelphia become a Mecca for some of the best roller hockey players in the East? Current players attribute the success to two factors. First, they recognize former players Mike Post '04 and Chris Colosi '04 as the founding fathers of Neumann roller hockey. The two worked tirelessly to make the club a reality and to find talented and committed players. White goes so far as to call Colosi "a legend," adding, "We are where we're at today because of him." The second factor is aggressive word-of-mouth recruiting, especially in New Jersey.
"Three parts of the country are real hotbeds for roller hockey," explains forward Dan Sangiorgio, a junior criminal justice major. "Those are the Northeast, California and Missouri." In the East, New Jersey and Long Island are especially fertile ground for skilled and experienced roller hockey players, and Neumann has attracted students from New Jersey for years. Three current stars -White, Sangiorgio and forward Vic Scotto, a junior sport management major - all attended Red Bank Catholic High School in New Jersey and played ice hockey there. In fact, nine members of the 16-man roster are from the Garden State. Founding fathers Colosi and Post, of course, are Jersey guys.
Part of the Knights' success stems from experience. Sangiorgio, Scotto and White have been playing some form of hockey together since they were eight years old. "During a game," says playmaker Scotto, "Dan is always right there. He knows exactly what I'll do and where I'll be." For these 16 young men, however, the team concept extends well beyond the rink. "The chemistry just comes," explains White, "because we're a close-knit group of guys. If we're not really playing hockey, we're hanging out together, probably playing hockey on Play Station."
There's more than experience and friendship at work here, however. This is an exceptionally talented roller hockey club. Three years of astounding success in the regular season and national playoffs speaks for itself. John Scotto, Vic's father and coach of the club, believes that the Knights are among the best in the country, regardless of Division. "I'd put these guys up against anybody," he says with an obvious sense of pride.
In addition to the achievement of the club, there are individual honors that support the coach's faith. Last year, two Neumann skaters finished among the top ten scorers in the country. Vic Scotto tied for sixth in the nation in scoring with 42 points (22 goals, 20 assists), and Dan Sangiorgio finished tenth in the country with 40 points (24 goals, 16 assists). In the three years that the NCRHA has hosted a national championship tournament, Neumann has had more players named to the All-Tournament teams than any other Division II school. Kris Moore (2003), Jeff Brooks (2003) and Vic Scotto (2004, 2005) have been first-team selections. Making the second team were Gary Todd (2003, 2004), John Holmes (2004) and Corey Cramer (2005).
Such prolonged excellence by a small, upstart college in Aston has generated some bitter feelings from Neumann's roller hockey rivals. "Lots of other clubs root against us," admits forward Ryan Sanford, a senior communication arts major. Sean White uses a baseball metaphor to explain the animosity. "People hate the powerhouse," he growls. "We're the Yankees without the payroll."
After three straight years of finishing one game shy of a national championship, any sense of frustration among club members is surprisingly absent. "We've expected to win it the past couple years," Sanford confesses. "This year, we have no expectations. We're going to have fun, playing up-tempo, in-your-face hockey."
The relaxed approach seems to be working for the Knights, who opened the 2005-06 campaign by beating the University of Maryland, a Division I club, 9-4. On November 5-6, they played a weekend tournament in Fredericksburg, VA, and whitewashed three opponents, beating Millersville University, 13-0, Drexel University, 8-0, and Temple University, 12-0. The national rankings, released several days after that tournament, placed the Knights at the top of the heap - the #1 club in Division II. Rounding out the top five were Long Beach State, Emory, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and West Chester. For more recent scores and statistics, visit the NCRHA website at www.ncrha.org.
Whatever 2005-06 holds for the Knights, don't expect this season to be their swan song. Of the 16 club members, only three (Jeff Brooks, Ryan Sanford and Bill Verdecchio) are seniors. Goalie Corey Cramer, a junior accounting major, Sangiorgio, Scotto and White return next year, and there are five hotshot freshmen on the club - two from New Jersey.