Women's Hockey: UNH hires head coach

Former NU player, Yale head coach Hilary Witt takes the helm of women’s hockey

By Max Sullivan
On April 25, 2014

The University of New Hampshire's athletic department held a press conference Wednesday for newly hired women's hockey coach Hilary Witt, the fourth head coach in the team's 37-year history.

 "We are very excited to welcome Hilary to the UNH family," UNH athletic director Marty Scarano said in a press release. "She is one of the brightest young coaches in the nation, has a fabulous understanding of the game and her recruiting ties will have an immediate impact on our program. Furthermore Hilary is one of the all-time great players in women's hockey and knows exactly what it takes to succeed at this level. We look forward to her leadership in rebuilding UNH into once again a national contender."

Witt, a native of Canton, Mass., played women's hockey at Northeastern from 1997-2000 and with the U.S. national team. Witt said she was not only was she excited to be working in Hockey East again, but also that she had been set on chasing the job in Durham this year.

"I wanted the job before I interviewed," Witt said. "I didn't come up here to interview just to have a new job. I came here because I wanted this job ... because of the history and because I feel like it has the bones to be fantastic every year."

Witt has 14 years of coaching experience, including being an assistant coach and team scout for USA Hockey since 2012. She became head coach of the Yale women's hockey team in 2003 after just one year as an assistant, followed by assistant coaching jobs at her alma mater and USA Hockey. That first year at the helm, Witt was named ECAC Coach of the Year. By 2005, she had taken a team with a 9-19-3 record and helped them win 16 games.

Witt cited her time at Yale when asked if she'd ever been faced with a challenge like the one handed to her with the Wildcats. UNH had a record of 9-23-2 this past year.

"I worked at Yale for nine years and took over a program there that really struggled, and we had more success there than they had ever had," Witt said. "The great part about this program is it's only had a couple years where it's kind of gone off track a little bit."

After the controversial departure of former head coach Brian McCloskey this past December, the UNH players are relieved that the team has finally found a coach to move forward with.

"I think we've been waiting for this day for a very long time," junior forward Hannah Armstrong said. "We're all in there celebrating in the dressing room right now. It's a great, heavy burden lifted off of our shoulders."

Armstrong said it seemed like the right time to introduce a new coaching system. The Wildcats won 19 games the year before Armstrong arrived. Since she's arrived to Durham, the team has been below .500 every year, the worst of them being last year's nine win season. She said she's ready to help implement a new system to turn the team around.

"This is going to be my fifth year ... and I think from my freshman to my senior year, it's just been the same thing and the same struggle from the four years that I've been here," Armstrong said.  "This past last half [of the season] really went downhill, and I think honestly a new coach, a new coaching philosophy, the start of a new program is just what we needed."

An unknown number of women's hockey players have been rumored to be transferring out of UNH after this year. Armstrong said she and the other players do not hold any animosity towards those leaving the team.

"People, I think, are leaving just based on that uncertainty that we didn't know who our coach was going to be," Armstrong said. "I think people left just knowing a certain future of going everywhere else, and we don't have anything against that. We love every single one of our teammates and they still are our teammates."

Armstrong and freshman Cassandra Vilgrain, who was also present at the press conference, said that they never thought about leaving.

"It never really crossed my mind [to leave] until I had heard rumors about other people leaving, really," Vilgrain said. "I think it's a pretty big honor to be able to be a part of a program that you can turn around, be in the building process. I think that would be a great feeling to be successful from that, so no, not really, I wasn't going to leave at all."

"Neither was I," Armstrong said. "I love UNH, and I've never not loved UNH, so I'm sticking for five years, and I want more, so no, it's never crossed my mind to ever leave."

Witt said she sees strong character in her new players based on what they went through last season with the loss of their coach.

"I know the passion the kids played with, and I know that they had a really hard year," Witt said. "To do what they did, it's almost amazing."

Witt recalled her time as a player with the Huskies and how intimidating playing in Durham could be. There were the tough Wildcat players, the Durham home crowd that could be less than friendly, and, of course, the Whittemore Center's Olympic-sized rink. The Whitt features the only Olympic-sized hockey rink in Hockey East. 

"Well, the corners have changed in the building a little bit," Witt said, "but when I first came up here, the corners were huge, and it felt like you were playing on a lake, not a hockey rink."

The new coach said she is passionate about bringing UNH back to the national stage in part because the school's history. They began their existence with a 73-0-1 record, won a national championship in 1998, have produced incredible players and, until recently, have been perennial contenders.

 

"The amount of championships here, the national championship in 1998, you know, those were the teams that were amazing here," Witt said. "They had teams to go onto the NCAA championships, to the Frozen four, and that's what we want going to the future."


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