After the UAA hockey program was reinstated last summer and given clearance to resume play in the 2022-23 season, head coach Matt Shasby found himself with the unenviable task of having to virtually build a roster from scratch.
But Shasby and the Seawolves were able to benefit from pivotal new policies the NCAA instituted in recent years.
First came the introduction of the transfer portal in fall 2018 followed by the extra year of eligibility provided to all college athletes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The new avenues gave players the opportunity to change schools without having to sit out a year and extend their careers by awarding them an additional season.
“If we didn’t have that transfer portal, I can’t even imagine what this process would’ve been like trying to find 27 hockey players,” Shasby said. “We’re very fortunate that rule has gone into effect the last two years and that’s also going to be a big part of our team building and recruiting process moving forward.”
Not only have the new policies increased and incentivized player mobility, they’ve also made it easier on coaches around the country to replenish the ranks of their programs with more experienced athletes.
Per the new rule, incoming players from other institutions no longer have to sit out an entire season when they decide to transfer to a new program. This particular change was a godsend for the first-year head coach and his staff since they had no existing roster for the program’s first season since being fully reinstated.
Shasby said the program will probably look to add three experienced transfers and three promising freshmen each year from now on.
“We knew we were going to have a large freshman class to be our young base, but we needed to go get leadership and we needed to go get college hockey experience,” Shasby said.
The Seawolves were able to pull 15 DI transfer student-athletes from the portal who hailed from established hockey programs like Brown, Clarkson, Northern Michigan and Canisius. Six of the new veteran recruits are graduate transfers with an extra year of eligibility left because of the pandemic.
The Seawolves also targeted upperclassmen heading into their last two to three years of eligibility to become their future leaders.
“It was difficult to get upperclassmen just with the way credits transfer for guys,” Shasby said. “Once you start your upper-division credits, it’s really hard for a kid to move from school to school because a lot of those credits don’t go with them.”
UAA women’s basketball head coach Ryan McCarthy thinks the portal is a good tool that gives student-athletes the freedom to find new homes and more ideal fits for themselves if coaching staffs or situations at their previous programs change.
“We’ve been the benefactor of that far more often than a victim,” McCarthy said. “At some point, they’re going to need to regulate it more so with the Division I level.”
He believes that it benefits Division II programs more than it hurts them and compares the burst of movement at the Division I level to the Wild Wild West.
“If you’re a Division II player and you enter the portal, you’re probably not going to get picked up by a Division I team or your chances are a lot lower,” McCarthy said. “If you’re a Division I, you could kind of go down or make a lateral move sometimes.”
Shasby said the combination of COVID and the new transfer rules was kind of a “perfect storm” for their rebuilding program.
“Kids are looking for a new challenge and a new opportunity, and we were there with open arms and 18 scholarships to divide up however we saw fit,” Shasby said.
Incoming UAA forward Adam Tisdale is a graduate transfer from Sacred Heart University and one of the beneficiaries of the extra year of eligibility, having already played four years in college and 172 games of junior hockey.
He said that COVID-19 was different for everybody but rough all around with the long breaks in play during the season. Sometimes they’d play for two weeks and then have a month off because of outbreaks.
“It was pretty tough, but it was a blessing in disguise because you got another opportunity to show what you got,” Tisdale said.
The Canadian who had never been to Alaska is excited to help establish a winning culture and believes the wealth of experience that he and his fellow graduate transfers bring will be instrumental in those efforts.
“Experience is really key to college hockey,” Tisdale said. “The five grad guys should be really good for the younger guys to keep building on the season we’ll have this year.”
Prior to the transfer portal, student-athletes like Tisdale were hesitant to change programs because they didn’t want to wait two years to use their last season of eligibility. He believes that the change has been a welcome and exciting opportunity for players and coaches across the country.
Under McCarthy, UAA women’s basketball has been a powerhouse program at the DII level over the last decade, and he thinks that success is part of the allure that attracts D I talent to their team.
“We always talk about how when they come to UAA, they’re going to have a shot to compete for a national championship, and we’ve been fortunate enough to do that quite a few times,” McCarthy said.
While the pandemic brought the world of sports and world at large to a screeching halt in 2020, the extra year of eligibility is an attempt to compensate for that lost year. It’s given players invaluable game experience and allowed upperclassmen a chance to make up for lost time or finally get to shine.
McCarthy says it has helped his program overall and gave the players who had been loyal to the program an opportunity to accomplish more goals. However, he admits that it did hurt the graduating high school players given that the Seawolves didn’t sign any true freshmen in this year’s recruiting class.
Incoming junior college transfer Natalia Beaumont is technically a freshman even though she’s heading into her fourth year of college. She had two seasons cut short due to injury and one not count against her eligibility because it was during the COVID year.
“We signed five people that are ready to compete right away,” McCarthy said. “They’ve got college minutes under their belts, they’ve been in a demanding situation that only college can really simulate and we’re expecting them to contribute right away.”
Typically, fifth-year players have redshirted at some point during their careers. During a redshirt season, players generally do everything with the team except suit up and play in games. That includes workouts, practicing and abiding by all the same rules and regulations without reaping the benefits of actually playing the sport against live competition.
“Games are the biggest teaching point, and any coach in the country will tell you that you learn more from playing games than anything else,” McCarthy said.
He said with the COVID year, student-athletes got all the benefits of a redshirt season and actual game experience.
“On our team last year, a prime example of that was Jazzpher Evans,” McCarthy said. “She played a full season in Division II at Quincy and then came to us as a freshman and had already proven she was a good college player.”
She didn’t generate a lot of interest from colleges in terms of recruiting coming out of high school because of her lack of experience playing high-level basketball.
Her AAU youth team wasn’t very good, but her first year in college at Quincy University gave her a chance to prove herself against a higher level of competition prior to joining the Seawolves.
“It wasn’t as high-level as UAA but it gave me the opportunity to have a step up before I came to UAA,” Evans said.
She was able to get more exposure, showcase her skills and compete against more physically mature athletes.
“In college, everyone is older,” Evans said. “You go from playing teenagers to some people that are like, 24 or 25. It’s a big step and you’re also on your own for the first time in your life.”
She said that the COVID year allowed her to practice establishing a routine and get acquainted with everything that being a college student-athlete entails before moving on to a more competitive program.
“I think people are using the opportunity that they have extra time to figure out where they really want to be at and what makes them happy,” Evans said.