Rejuvenated Jeffs Fly High with First-Class Coach

By Ezekiah Phillips '05

(for Amherst sports information) 

AMHERST, MA - As the minutes and seconds ticked down in the Amherst women's hockey squad's regular season finale on Feb. 17, co-captain Tory Serues '04 couldn't let herself celebrate - yet. Sure, the game's outcome was almost certain - the Jeffs led 5-2 and would surrender only one last goal in the final seconds - and with the 5-3 win over visiting conference opponent Connecticut College, the team's 13 wins would set a new school record for single-season victories. Several days later they would discover that their victory earned them the fifth seed in the NESCAC Tournament. "Obviously, it was very exciting, and there was a lot of adrenaline going," said Serues after the game. But, she added, "Things could still go wrong, and you just want to stay calm and focused." When the final buzzer sounded, however, the Jeffs could rejoice; for one night, all the calm and focus that had allowed the squad to earn win after win could take a breather on the bench.

In the locker room after that game, head coach Jim Plumer brought out a list of goals that the team had set at the beginning of the season; the list, typed and signed by all the members of the squad, had hung in their locker room since its conception. Now, with the regular season wrapped up, the Jeffs could revisit their ambitions.

1) End the regular season with an over-.500 record? Check.
2) Make the NESCAC playoffs? Check.
3) And the third goal - to win a NESCAC playoff game - was still within reach (the Jeffs eventually fell at fourth-seeded Hamilton College in the conference tournament quarterfinals).

"I told them I was proud of them," Plumer said afterwards. "I told them that really, I thought this was a defining moment for our program."

Added Serues, "He was saying nothing but good things." Indeed, it's been hard to say anything but good things about what the Amherst women's hockey team has done this season. With a final record of 13-12 (7-9 in NESCAC play), the Amherst squad, in addition to setting a team record for total wins, also exceeded last year's victory total by 10 games. "Everyone's so excited," said Serues, "just knowing that we've set goals, and have really gotten there and have really worked hard as a team."

Only a few months ago, it was difficult to imagine that the squad would accomplish so much in the upcoming winter. Jim Plumer, a former assistant for the women's hockey program at Bowdoin College, had assumed head coaching duties in July, and with that change came high hopes, yet also some uncertainty. "We didn't really know what to expect going into the season," said fellow co-captain Amanda Muller '04, who was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery at this time last year. "All that we knew about Jim was that he came from an excellent program, but that was it."

However, the pieces were in place for a successful season. "When I interviewed and talked to all the seniors," recounted Plumer in his office a day before the Jeffs ended the regular season with three straight wins in as many games, "I was really struck by how committed they all were to wanting to be part of a winning program. I think I started to get pretty excited even before we hit the ice. And once the freshmen started to see how committed the upperclassmen were, these guys worked really hard. At the beginning of the season, they were all ready to go."

Plumer, drawn to the head coaching position because he saw in Amherst's women's hockey "a program that was ready to mature," used his skills as a former businessman to propel his athletes to new heights, in part by bringing more intensity and discipline to the program.

"The season definitely has a more intense tone than the previous seasons," Muller said. "Practices are rigorous and demand high levels of focus and intensity. Jim expects hard work from every member of the team each time we step on the ice."

"One of my big philosophies in life," said Plumer, "is that the little things you do when no one's looking end up making you who you are - and that flows through to practice. One of the things we really stress is being ready to go at the drop of the puck in the first period, and so we have to practice that [by being] that way when we get to practice. These students have a lot of physical skills, so it's mastering the mental part that I think will ultimately make us better."

Plumer, a self-described "hockey junkie," created a team playbook and a team handbook and also developed a mission statement for the program, along with a set of expectations for its members - expectations that don't just apply to the several hours each day that the players spend at the rink. "These are sort of our guiding policies," says Plumer, "whether it's how you're treating your academics or how to prepare for games. We've approached a lot of the other things - mental, psychological, preparation for games. Hopefully they're learning about hockey, and they're learning about how to prepare for an exam, or a job interview, or a big presentation or some big event in their life."

Plumer has also brought a new style of play to the hockey program. "We play a very aggressive style," says Plumer, "and I think a style of play that the players really enjoy. We do some unconventional things in terms of hockey systems, but we've been effective in scoring more goals and preventing [opponents'] goals. We're definitely playing a hybrid of two or three different styles, some of which are kind of European. We don't even have regular hockey positions on the team, except for the goalie." Becoming familiar with this system has taken time, making the Jeffs' feats in the midst of this change all the more impressive. "I think that one of our biggest challenges this year," says Muller, "was learning how to play the style of hockey that Jim taught us in the beginning of the season. Learning these new plays and the new positions took some time to adjust."

The style of play was first put to the test in the squad's opening game against Trinity. "So here we are," recounts Plumer, "we're changing the way we approach hockey completely. We come into this game and we haven't really done it very much, but we scrimmaged an intramural team for about 25 minutes the week before. So I think there were a lot of people who weren't sure this was all going to work." The Jeffs went on to win that game, 5-1, putting any uncertainty to rest. "I walked into the locker room after the game," says Plumer, "and Amanda Muller had a smile that was about two feet wide on her face." A month and a half later, the Jeffs, whose record after eight games stood at 3-5, had climbed back to a record of 5-5 before traveling to New England College on January 18 to take on a team that, according to Plumer, "had beaten a top-10 team in the country" and is "on the fringe of being nationally ranked all the time."

The Jeffs were 26 seconds away from again falling below .500 when sophomore Renee Sisti scored the tying goal, and then in overtime posted the winning goal, vaulting the Jeffs to a 6-5 record. For her individual efforts in that game, among others, Sisti was named NESCAC player of the week.

"After [that win]," says Plumer, "I walked into the locker room and I said, 'Muller, show me the smile.' I think all of a sudden the kids looked around at each other and said, 'We can do this.' That was the turning point for us. The next day at practice and most of the days after that, there have been a lot of smiles." Indeed, there has been much to smile about, despite several challenges - the biggest of which, according to Plumer, has been having only one regular goalkeeper, which, in accordance with league rules, has forced one player each game to be designated as a backup.

The squad was bolstered by a star-studded first-year class: Starting goalkeeper Lindsay Grabowski didn't miss a minute in net all season ("a tremendous accomplishment for a freshman goalie," says Plumer) while Rachel Simon, Alena Harrison and Meghan Dickoff finished the season third, fourth and fifth on the team in points (22, 18 and 14 points scored, respectively). The team also has enjoyed strong leadership and performances from the upperclassmen. "The captains were very good at rallying the team at certain points," says Plumer. "We had some points where we really needed the team to focus. The whole senior class has really stepped up." Senior Alison White finished second on the team in points with 23. "[She's] had a great senior year," says Plumer. And sophomore Renee Sisti "had a phenomenal year," ending the regular season as Amherst's leading point-scorer with 26 on 14 goals and 12 assists.

But as strong as the individual accomplishments are, the Jeffs, like that championship football squad about two hours east of here in Foxboro, Mass., are all about team. "Our team is a group of 21 girls who would do anything for each other, on or off the ice," says Sisti, "and that family aspect is one of the best qualities we have. We pride ourselves on outworking every team we come against and never giving up."

"I really feel like we're on the right track," Plumer says. "I'm happy for the kids. They wanted this program to succeed, and we're not unrealistic about where we are now. But I'm happy for them, and we're going to continue on that." Other teams, too, are starting to take notice. "I think we're gaining more respect in the NESCAC," says junior Ellie Roe. "We've had other coaches come to our coach and say, 'Wow, your team works hard every shift of every game, and we really respect that. We like competing against you.' Even if it's weighted to their side, we give them a good game, and that's something to be proud of."

"Ultimately, the goal is to overachieve," says Plumer. "The kids are learning how to compete, and if you look at where we've come from the beginning of the season to now, we've made huge strides. And the kids believe."

"I love this team," said Serues. "I love playing. The only thing I can really stress [about this season] is the improvement. It's a completely different experience to play with such a young team. There's so much excitement, so much heart, and everyone comes to practice and every game with the best of intentions and the best of expectations. And we really just try to leave everything out there every game. I'm pretty excited right now," she added, her final collegiate regular season game at Amherst having ended about half an hour earlier. "My adrenaline is still way up there."

Amherst women's hockey is now up there, too - and there's every reason to believe they're going to keep on rising.