By JOSEPH MILBANK
In the fall semester of 2017, three freshmen came up with the idea to start an ice hockey club at the University of Mary Washington. Two years later, they now compete in the Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League (ACCHL), host regular practices with a coach and carry a strong roster.
This rapid growth is largely due to team captain Nathan Mitchell. One of the three freshmen from the original interest group, the now-junior strived hard to raise interest for and grow his team.
“It’s really gratifying to see all the work come together. Last year I was struggling to get two or three people to come to practice, we now regularly have at least ten guys showing up, and we have a coach to run it,” said Mitchell.
One of the reasons for Mitchell struggling to get people to come to practice was the early morning start times. “We didn’t really have any funds at that point so the only ice times we could get were at 5 a.m.”
While the team didn’t see success in the competition that year, the groundwork was set for the team to thrive.
“We didn’t have any backup players during games our first year, so we were exhausted at the end of every game,” said Matthew McNulty, another of the three original freshmen. “We had some good games though. We had all eight players for our game against NOVA (Northern Virginia Community College) and we almost won.”
Mitchell spent a lot of time that year working on recruiting players and boosting funds for the team.
“I would go onto different high school hockey pages and look at the stats of different players. If I thought any would be a good fit for the team, I would reach out over social media and invite them to come to visit the school,” said Mitchell.
One of those players is freshman Chase Shiring, who now goes to Mary Washington and plays on the team.
“Nathan reached out to me and told me about the team and how it’s been growing,” said Shiring. “I came to visit the school and he showed me around. We’ve had a couple of practices this year, and the team is really starting to play well together.”
The addition of a coach has also helped the team to run efficient practices.
“I went to play golf with a friend of mine and he introduced me to the head of the range, John Sims. By chance we got onto the topic of ice hockey, and I asked him if he would consider volunteering as a coach for the team, and he accepted,” said Mitchell. “It’s made it a lot easier having a coach because it means practices can still happen if I can’t make it.”
In addition to gaining a coach and new recruits, one impactful event allowed the team to rapidly expand. In an effort to increase funds, Mitchell reached out to various companies in Fredericksburg to see if they would consider sponsoring the team.
“Getting ice time at decent hours is expensive, and we were having to deal with that on top of all the costs that come with games and equipment,” said Mitchell. “I reached out to places asking them to sponsor us hoping that we could get some funds to lighten the load.”
Sheehy Toyota of Fredericksburg agreed and gave the team $5,000.
“I was honestly shocked when they told me,” said Mitchell. “That money has allowed us to have the resources to really compete with other teams. We can now get ice time at a decent hour, and we’ve been able to get jersey’s, equipment and cover a lot of the costs of the team. It was really a turning point for us.”
With all aspects of the team ready for their second season, Mitchell decided it was time to grow the team even more. While officially a club team at the school, the ice hockey team is now recognized by the Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League (Dlll).
“We had shown our potential during our first season, and we now had the players and funding to really compete with other schools, so I reached out to the ACCHL and applied to become a member team,” said Mitchell. “They agreed to recognize us, and it’s allowed us to really get our name out there.”
The team now has six games and one tournament on their schedule this year and will play their first at Virginia Commonwealth University on Oct 5.
“It’s really nice to see all the work pay off,” said Mitchell. “Two years ago we had no idea if this could happen. Now we’re competing against big schools and people are regularly reaching out to me about joining the team.”