This is the first article in a series that is not only a different idea for this blog but also a personal endeavor of mine. If I asked you to list some of the benefits of living in Oxford, my bet is that one of your first perks would have something to do with football, basketball, or baseball. And yes, you're right. Living here makes attending these games a lot more convenient. Whether it's parking on game day, deciding last minute to drive over to the Tad Pad to watch some hoops, or attending every mid week afternoon baseball game, living in the spot that ever calls makes my addiction to Ole Miss sports way more bearable. But have you ever thought much of the other sporting events on campus? Do you even know what and where the Gillom Sports Center is? How about the the scoring system of a rifle competition? Where does the Ole Miss hockey team (we have a hockey team?!?!) practice and play?
On the official Ole Miss sports website, there are six men's varsity sports (football, baseball, basketball, golf, tennis, track & field) and eight women's varsity sports (basketball, golf, rifle, soccer, softball, tennis, track & field, volleyball). There are also five club teams that regularly compete against other schools in the region, including our SEC rivals (rugby, ultimate frisbee, hockey, badminton, lacrosse).*
For the year of 2014, I plan to attend one sporting event for every varsity and club team at Ole Miss. Along the way I hope to talk to at least one member of each team, and maybe even a coach if I'm lucky. In doing so, I want to impart some more knowledge about these sports themselves onto all of us here at the Cup, as well as add a human element to this new feature. One of the best things about Ole Miss is that there are tons of opportunities for any student to get involved and belong to a team, and I feel like a lot of those opportunities and the unique personal Tom Rinaldi-esque stories that come with them get lost in the limelight of the "big three" at Ole Miss.
So let the 360 Rebel Tour begin.
Ole Miss Hockey, January 17 against MSU
Hockey has an interesting - and understandably brief - history in Mississippi. A widespread hockey phase swept through the 'Ssip during the late 90s/early 2000s. Inline/ice hockey leagues (of which I was a part) blew up across the state, and I'm sure more than a handful of y'all reading this attended your fair share of Jackson Bandits or Mississippi Sea Wolves games. Both teams have since ceased operations, but hockey is still alive and kicking as the Mississippi River Kings (Southaven) and the Mississippi Surge (Biloxi) presently compete as members of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Also young, the Ole Miss hockey team is just in its sixth year of competition. With collegiate club hockey, there are four regions consisting of around 150 teams total. The top two teams from each region at the end of the season automatically advance to nationals while the next eight teams compete in a regional tournament, the top two teams from which fill in the final 3rd and 4th slots to nationals. Ole Miss was one of those few teams to make it to national competition last year, and they took to the ice this past weekend against Mississippi State as part of their journey to a second straight trip to nationals. I attended this match to cheer them on and learn a bit more about what they do.
I arrived at the Bancorps South arena in Tupelo on Friday afternoon and sat down with head coach Angelo Rosena along with three players: senior and captain defender Sean Rogers, a civil engineering major from Biloxi, MS; junior defender Chris Engle, an exercise science major from Gulfport, MS; and freshman forward Jimmy Rainey, a business major from Glen Rock, NJ.
I had a few questions for them.
What are the costs of playing club hockey? What about sponsors and fundraisers?
The way we make our money, we have player dues which come out of our pocket every year. The rest of our budget we fundraise and have a little bit of help from the club sports department at the school. We've also done some fundraisers at the Library Bar & Grill and that's how we make a lot of our money for our trips. In addition to a crawfish boil, we bring in a goalie and net and people pay for a chance to shoot on the goal. If you score on him you win a cover card for the Library to get in free of charge. Other than that, we fill our own gas tanks to come to practice.
Speaking of practice, could you touch on your practice schedule leading up to a game?
We practice Tuesday and Wednesday night every week. We keep the practices late so there aren't any class conflicts. We sometimes have a team dinner on Thursdays. Fridays, if it's a home game, we come to the rink a few hours early or if it's an away game we might leave Thursday night.
What's the furthest you've had to travel?
Last year we went to Orlando as well as East Lansing, Michigan. This year we travel to Cincinnati and South Carolina.
Could you talk a bit about this year's team's characteristics, i.e. built for strength, finesse, speed, etc., and how that affects the lines and the team's overall play style?
Last year we had a couple standouts but this year we are more balanced and everyone pulls their own weight. Some kids are really fast while others have great hands and so we just feed off of each other. We work during practice to balance the lines so that we pair up really nicely during the game.
Have there been any attempts to make hockey an official NCAA team at Ole Miss? What would it take to get it there and is that even a goal, or would you rather stay at the club level?
That was a cool goal to look at when they first started the program a few years ago. It is obviously a very long term process. To make it happen there would first have to be a rink in Oxford. That comes along with starting a youth program. With any rink you want to open, you have to develop a youth program first for not just hockey but figure skating as well. It would also require Ole Miss hockey to continue growing and competing at a high level in the ACHA in order to make the jump to the NCAA. For this to happen, we dedicate a lot of time to recruiting every year. We had guys come out to skate around with us tonight during warm ups who are in high school who then stay around to watch the game as well. Our recruiting coordinator Colin contacts around 200-300 each year regarding the team. There's more than handful of current players that came down to Ole Miss after being recruited by us.
OLE MISS HOCKEY RECRUITS? Whoa slow down, let's dig a little deeper into that. How does a club hockey team recruit out of state players (specifically northerners) to play for a team located where ice is placed in a beverage, not maintained for a sporting surface?
Coach: I was part of the first class initially recruited here to play. I attended a junior college in upstate New York for two years. After that I was looking to transfer somewhere warm, specifically down south. I was looking at UCF and UNLV mainly while Ole Miss fell a little bit by the wayside. I had only put a little interest into Ole Miss only because I didn't know that much about it. Colin threw everything at me at that point. He answered any questions I had and emailed me to keep that relationship going. After that, my first time to campus was to register for classes. I didn't even bother with a visit. That year, it was the second year of the program but the first year of an actual recruiting class. The jump from the first to the second year was just unbelievable.
Jimmy: I went to a private school in New Jersey and it started with Colin emailing me to let me know they had a team and were starting to get a lot more guys from New Jersey on the team. I wasn't really sure because I had applied to mostly New England schools and Ole Miss wasn't on the radar. Then Colin told me about the recruitment weekend and I thought, "If there's any weekend to go, that's the one." It was the weekend right after the season ended and all of the recruits were invited to come down and skate with the team and see the different facilities. After that, just having other northeastern recruits looking to play here and team members already established really helped with the transition down here.
(Later, I emailed Colin for some further insight into how Ole Miss Hockey recruits. Here's what he had to say.)
What's the first step in finding recruits out there? Are there recruiting websites with highlight videos similar to other sports? How do you reach out to these guys to come to Ole Miss to play (email, phone, visits, etc.)?
The first step in recruiting is finding players interested in Ole Miss. The two main ways we do this is: 1) recruits fill out a recruit form through our website and 2) I use a recruiting site to find recruits who are looking to continue playing hockey at the collegiate level.
With the recruiting site, the first thing I do is email players I think would be a good fit with our program. Then if they get back to us, I follow up with a phone call and emails. I continually email with recruits through an email recruit list. The next step is to get players down for a visit. During the visit we try to include a skate, a campus tour and a dorm stay with a current player.
What's the typical sales pitch you give someone looking to play club hockey to come play for Ole Miss?
Our pitch to kids to come play for us is that they can come play hockey at a good level, compete at a national level and the fact that we provide a balanced college life. We don't have real 'incentives' to offer other than being part of a relatively new hockey program and continuing to play at an organized and high level.
Do you find that most of the players on the team are planning to enroll at Ole Miss regardless or, that through your efforts of recruitment, you are able to sway them to choose Ole Miss because of what the club team can offer?
I find that a majority of our players come to play at Ole Miss through our recruiting efforts. Out of the 27 kids on the team, I brought in 22 of them. The other 5 were planning to come to Ole Miss anyways. I would also say there are another 15-20 kids at Ole Miss right now who I recruited to play hockey. They came, played a couple years but then decided not to play for one reason or another.
In the end, the reason I find most players come to Ole Miss is because of the team culture, how gorgeous the campus is and the different college experience they would have coming down South.
(Back to the locker room)
Does Ole Miss Hockey have a rival? Who and why?
Our #1 is Alabama. Although Bama's program is a tad older, the level of talent we put on the ice and the overall product is very similar. Both teams made it to nationals last year for the first time and each got a win there. We met for a two game series in December and split both those games. Both games ended with a shoot out. The last couple of years our games against them have been tightly contested.
If you could sell Ole Miss hockey to a typical student at Ole Miss in order to convince them to come out to a game, what sales pitch would you make?
Jimmy: I think one of the biggest selling points is the speed of the game. With football, it's "run a play, blow the whistle, take a breather" etc. In hockey it's constantly go, go, go with some violence thrown in as well.
Coach: It's a very different sport for a lot of people in the South. They haven't seen hockey like other people up north have seen it. When they come out here, they see such a different sport with elements from across other sports: contact of football, goal scoring of soccer, fancy stick use of lacrosse, etc. It's 60 minutes of constant play. I think the atmosphere is great too. Spectators can be seated right on top of the action next to the rink. Also, since we aren't an NCAA event, we can serve ALCOHOL at our events (emphasis added by the Cup). You know that's always a big advantage at an SEC school.
As for the game itself, if you saw anything about the hockey games over the weekend, you already know it was a blowout. The Rebs simply outmatched the Dogs in talent of play and line depth (for the uneducated, hockey teams are built around lines, or strings as you might call them, that rotate in and off the ice every couple minutes). By the end of the 1st period, the Rebels were up 3-0 and had only allowed two shots on goal. Halfway through the 2nd period, the Rebs were up 8-0 and anyone could see how depleted the Bulldog skaters were. It was at this point that I finally "tapped" into the unique opportunity that Ole Miss hockey provided.
Twenty ounces of Yazoo Dos Perros for $5 while I watch our team dominate our in-state rival? Why the hell not? As our friend Kleph at Roll Bama Roll put it so nicely on Twitter, Ole Miss hockey offers "The holy trinity of southern entertainment: alcohol, air conditioning and barely regulated violence."
Speaking of violence, the fight that broke out in the very beginning of the 3rd period was a hysterically one sided affair. If you've already watched the video, you can see that the Ole Miss player (Eddie Murphy, freshman, Calgary, Alberta Canada - yes Ole Miss Hockey has a proper Canadian) removed the State player's helmet and went to town on his face. If you need any further evidence, check out the blood on the ice (Hint, it's not Murphy's blood).
Only in hockey though would those two players, after having fought, be rink side talking it out like bros. Granted Murphy was looking clean in a charcoal gray suit while the MSU player was in sweatpants and a t-shirt with his eyebrow held together with scotch tape, but who's counting?
As the game continued and the Rebels furthered their dominance, during the last minutes of the third period, Bulldog skaters were not even phased by Rebel goals. As the final buzzer sounded, it was obvious how much recruiting and coaching had separated Ole Miss from State on the ice. For a weekend shutout, Friday's 16-0 score was repeated Saturday night, putting the Rebels just a few steps closer to that much desired return trip to nationals.
Thanks to Coach Angelo and the players for taking the time out of their dinner break to talk to me about the present state of Ole Miss hockey and its future. Speaking of future games, Coach Angelo told me that at one point, the club team organized party buses from Oxford to the games for students. Just as a plug for the team in the hopes that they might pick this fundraiser back up, please vote on whether you would you be interested in a $10-$20 ticket that might include the following:
- Close up seats ticket to the game
- A ride to the game
- A meet and greet with the players before or after the game
If there's interest, then maybe they'll do it. If not, still look for opportunities to help the Ole Miss hockey team raise money. The best way to do this is to go out and watch your Ole Miss hockey team. They put in the work to represent Mississippi's flagship university and deserve your gratitude and support.
Next up on the tour: Women's Rifle.
*If you know of some others teams I should cover as a part of the 360 Rebels tour, let me know in the comments section or shoot an email to the Cup.