The College of New Jersey’s ice hockey team made history last weekend. In a battle against in-state rival Rutgers University the team won its first game of the season, 4-2, behind a hat trick from sophomore Elias Sulpizio.

The 45 year old ice hockey program has played, and beaten, Rutgers multiple times. But Friday’s win came in a place not many thought the team would ever be; Division 1. The Lions jumped to the first division of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) for this season after playing at Division II for much of the team’s existence. The win was also the team’s first conference win as members of the Northeast Collegiate Hockey League (NECHL) which Rutgers is also a part of.

This jump into Division 1 has been a challenge unlike anything the program has ever faced. After seven seasons in the Division 2 Colonial States College Hockey Conference, including four straight league championships, the team’s first season at the highest level hasn’t been easy. The team started the season 0-6-0 playing against other D1 teams. The team came close twice, pulling the goalie down by a goal twice, against both Villanova University and William Paterson University.

That isn’t to say none of this was expected. Head coach Andrew Ducko has seen the team grow exponentially since he joined in 2015. Six straight conference final appearances and those four cup wins brought an expectation of winning to the team. That said, his group knew the type of competition Division 1 had in store. Last season the team played eight games against D1 teams and while the group only lost three in regulation it was still a drastic change.

“Our team was used to success, and we have to work so hard to simply be competitive, so that’s the most difficult,” Ducko explained. “Maintaining the positive atmosphere through adversity, and continuing to improve.”

The main difference between the two divisions has generally been the size of the programs competing. While Division 2 has plenty of heavyweights, the top tier features programs that attract NCAA caliber talent to schools with plenty of resources. TCNJ, while becoming a known name in the northeast, has been growing and hoping to use this first year to continue that development.

“We wanted to move our team constructed for D2 up to D1, so the players who earned the opportunity could see it through, and build a team with players who wanted to come to a great school,” Ducko said. “I think TCNJ is a great place to go to school, I have spent a lot of time coaching the TCNJ students, and they are a great group of intrinsically motivated Student-Athletes.”

Most of the team’s rookies are all at forward, where the team is hoping to find scoring consistency as the year progresses. That includes new players like forward Logan May, whose resume includes ice-time with the nationally ranked North Jersey Avalanche 18U AAA. May has exploded since making his collegiate debut, scoring seven goals (tied for most on the team) and three assists in nine games.

The defense is led mostly by returning veterans, or as close as you can get to that in non-varsity hockey. Senior team captain Chris Cantelmo and Dan Dorokin are the most experienced players TCNJ has on the blue line, and they are hoping to close out his college career with a productive season on the ice.

However, the most important position for the team has been goaltender. Returning All-Star Mike Bussanich and Justin Cooper have both been tested greatly since the start of the season. They’ve been joined by first-year senior Alex Delesky in net. The Lions goaltending has been a pillar of the team the past few years. Going into this season, Ducko believes his three man group is up for the new challenge.

“They all work hard at practice, late nights at the rink after school, pushing the team to improve,” Ducko said. The head coach noted that his goalie’s play the previous season is a big reason why they’re currently where they are.

“Mike being a freshman at TCNJ last year was a big reason we felt it was time to give D1 a try. He gives us a chance to compete every night, and more importantly, he’s such a great person.”

While the first win took awhile to achieve, the team has started to produce positive results. The team’s October 15th overtime loss, 4-3, to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) was the group’s first Division 1 point. That performance earned Bussanich “Goalie of the Week” honors from the NECHL. Then the day after the Rutgers win, TCNJ traveled to and beat Lehigh University, 5-2. Ducko believes results like this will keep on coming and his group’s overall positivity will make sure of that.

With a record of 2-6-1 (1-1-1 in conference) the team has one game this coming weekend, a road trip to play non-league Towson University on Friday, before its first major test of the year. It’s next two games after that will be against conference member University of Buffalo on the road. The team will travel nearly 400 miles to western New York to play one of the NECHL’s powerhouse members. 

“We are looking forward to the trip to Buffalo, (but) we have to focus on Towson next week first,” Ducko said. “Opportunities to be together as a group should help improve our team.”

The team hopes to earn its first win on home ice the following weekend. The Lions will host Lehigh and Syracuse University at Tsai Field House, on the campus of The Lawrenceville School, on November 11th & 12th, respectively.