LIU laying the groundwork ahead of its inaugural season

The Sharks will begin NCAA Division I play this fall, joining the NEWHA

Rob Morgan has coached numerous teams at the Division I and Division III levels, programs nestled in sleepy New England towns or a few shouts away from the shores of Lake Michigan. Now at the helm of the latest addition to the NCAA women’s hockey field, he’s in a completely new environment, and he’s already had some new challenges to face.

“I had no idea how to do the subway,” Morgan said. “I remember being pretty overwhelmed by all of that.”

Morgan is now the head coach of Long Island University’s women’s hockey team, which will play its inaugural season in 2019-20 and bring Division I women’s ice hockey to the outskirts of New York City.

He’s spent the past year recruiting players, setting the schedule, and getting all of the logistics and operations of the program set up and running. Before getting started with any of that, Morgan knew he had to set the vision for where the Sharks’ program is going to go.

“Before you can really communicate with anybody about what you’re trying to do, the vision has to be really clear of what’s going on, because then you’ve got a story to tell,” he said.

This is not Morgan’s first experience with building a team from the ground up. Most recently, he coached the Vanke Rays, an expansion team based out of China in the CWHL, in their first and only season in 2017-18. He was also the first head coach at St. Norbert College (DIII), where he spent five seasons.

Morgan said the one thing that stuck with him from that first try at building up a college team was the approach of focusing on the current roster, and trusting that everything else will fall into place. That’s a philosophy he’s embracing once again at LIU.

“Ultimately, everyone that’s coming here, the founding members, we want to be with us from start to finish,” Morgan said. “It’s just focusing on the present and making sure that our founding members have an amazing experience throughout the year.”

A lot of Morgan’s time this past year has been spent recruiting those founding members. The result of his efforts is a roster made of a mix of players from all over the world, from as far away as Sweden and as close as Staten Island.

That gives this inaugural LIU squad a certain amount of international flair. Defenders Alva Johnsson and Paula Bergström and forward Matilda af Bjur have played for Sweden’s Under-18 team, and defender Linn Thomsen has played for the Danish national team. All four of them will be key players for the Sharks.

“The exciting thing about [these players] is they have goals to play in the Olympics in 2022, so they’re automatically coming in with a really high set of goals that they know that they need to be putting the work in every day to get there,” Morgan said. “They’re going to raise the benchmark for how hard we need to push in the weight room and how hard we need to go on the ice.”

Morgan expects that some of his players will have a little bit more of an adjustment to make to college hockey, like forward Carrigan Umpherville and defender Saige McKay. The pair will be the first players from the small Cree community of Cross Lake, Man., to play NCAA Division I hockey. However, they are both highly skilled players who, once they’ve had some time to develop, Morgan sees as difference makers for LIU.

Among the other Sharks players to watch for this season are forwards Abby Latorella, out of Belle Tire, and Megan Bouveur, out of Shawnigan Lake, along with defender Lauren Spino and forward Stella Scott, both NAHA alums. Morgan also named local product Julia Hoffmann, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., as a player with potential on the blue line.

“I definitely recruited players to fit in with the type of culture and style that we want to play,” he said. “They’re all amazing people, they’re great character kids. They’re going to compete incredibly hard, and they’ll have a no-quit mentality.”

As for what that style of game entails, Morgan is looking for them to embrace being a hard-working team that plays fast, and is responsible in all three zones.

“I’m a big believer that we have to play with speed, and we want our D to get involved and be a part of the offensive side of things,” he said. “People who are watching us play won’t be surprised to see a D that might be up on the rush, the second or third player in on the attack. We want to play a solid, fast 200-foot game, and grind it out hard, be strong defensively, and we’ll find a way to win games.”

Hammering out the team’s own culture is a process that Morgan wants all of his players to be a part of as well. This inaugural group of players will lay the groundwork for future LIU teams to build upon, and he wants them to enjoy taking part in that experience.

“I’m not going to give them our identity. We’re going to spend some time as part of our team building process, shaping who we are and who we want to be,” he said. “What’s that legacy going to look like that, four years down the road, what will people say about you as a team, as a program? How will you be remembered as a player?

“We’ll go through a lot of things to really cement that bond and come up with who it is that we want to be every day. And then live that way.”

LIU will compete in the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance, which announced its intent to be recognized as an NCAA National Collegiate women’s ice hockey conference last fall. The Sharks join Franklin Pierce University, Post University (Conn.), Sacred Heart University, Saint Anselm College, and Saint Michael’s College as the league’s sixth member.

That puts the NEWHA on track to receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament in 2021-22. Morgan wants his squad to be in position to compete for that bid in three years, and he knows that begins with the work they’ll do in this first season.

“We have to set the goal right in the beginning to work towards becoming a conference champion, if we’re going to position ourselves so we’re playing our best hockey come playoff time,” he said. “By year three, people [might] say, ‘Well, this is pretty lofty stuff here,’ but you might as well set the bar high.”

As a newcomer to the NCAA, LIU faces quite the test in its non-conference schedule. The Sharks will waste no time getting acclimated to Division I play; they open the season with home series against UConn and defending national champion Wisconsin. They’ll also play at Yale and RIT.

“We’re going to use these games against these established Division I programs to learn from,” Morgan said. “If we happen to be on a lopsided loss, that’s not something that we can’t find positives in, because we’re going to be able to learn from every game that we play.”