The Rowan University ice hockey team arrived at 6:30 a.m. for conditioning. While most students slept, the athletes did suicide sprints, lunges, and push-ups during an hour-long workout in the Rowan recreation center just over a week ago.
It was a scene similar to any NCAA team workout, except this wasn't an NCAA team. Ice hockey is a club sport at Rowan, but don't tell that these players.
"I don't think it should be classified as a club sport," said Alec Nicolai, a junior right wing. "We put a lot of hard work into what we do. A lot of time and commitment. And the competition is way harder than club would say."
That competition comes from the Division II level of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, a national governing body for nonvarsity ice hockey that includes more than 400 teams in the U.S. Unlike the school's NCAA teams, Rowan (5-3-1) plays clubs from household-name colleges. Rowan recently played Rutgers, Penn State, and St. Joseph's. The team hosts Rider at Hollydell Ice Arena Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Next week, the team travels to the University of Maryland.
"The juniors had a more consistent competition, but I'll tell you what, we play some top teams here," said Shane Brennan, a senior center who played for the Philadelphia Little Flyers. Brennan said Penn State included a couple players he played against in juniors.
Under Lorri Brewer, the general manager, and John Caulfield, the head coach, Rowan has come a long way. The club had 18 players nine years ago. This year, 68 students tried out. The program needed to make roster cuts.
Brennan and Nicolai said the program would benefit from becoming NCAA-affiliated. The club operates on a $100,000 budget and the students pay to play. The coaches receive a stipend for travel expenses, but aren't paid.
Rowan went 18-9 with a playoff win last year. Dan Gilmore, Rowan's athletic director, said he's aware of the program's success. He said if the department could, it would "add a ton of sports." But with financial restraints and Title IX, Gilmore said there's no consideration to adding ice hockey at this time. He said moving up in division wouldn't change that.
For now, Rowan works around its limitations. There's no rink on campus, so the team rents ice time and practices twice a week.
The team added the early-morning workouts this year. Sometimes, the players see the football team practicing at the same time under the lights.
"Everyone's committed," Nicolai said. "We don't want to come out and just play and have fun. We want to win too."