Last Man Standing

SUNY Oswego at RIT
Frank Ritter Memorial Arena
Henrietta, NY

October 26, 2019

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“HOW MANY STUDENTS DOES RIT HAVE?”

I had no clue what RIT’s enrollment was, but the drunk New Hampshire fans in front of me demanded an answer. They didn’t appear able to process the explanation that I was just a guy in a t-shirt because I, like many others in the spring of 2010, had fallen in love with the Tigers and their shocking run to the Men’s Frozen Four. RIT accomplished the feat as a mid-major in its fifth season of NCAA Division I play that took down two of the sport’s blue bloods on the way there, and although they had already been extremely successful in Divisions II and III (including a pair of national titles), they were an unknown on any kind of larger scale.

Therefore, to them, I must have been A Guy in a T-Shirt: an alumnus, or a Rochester lifer with season tickets, or someone who had extensive knowledge of the team and school, because who else would own a RIT shirt? Well, someone who had visited the stand near the Ford Field entrance and had $30 to burn, to name one.

So, I took my best guess at it. RIT was bigger than people assumed, I reasoned, but obviously not a colossus of a university. I knew hockey was its only NCAA Division I sport; its others were still in Division III. “Uh…about 17,000?”

“WOW! THAT MANY?!”

Their surprise made me doubt myself, although when I checked later, I found that I hit it pretty closely. I tried to refocus on the warmups taking place on the ice below, hoping that would be the end of it. It wasn’t.

“WHAT’S RIT KNOWN FOR?”

“Well, a Frozen Four hockey team, right? But also, deaf studies.”

I had heard something about that on ESPN during one of the Tigers’ previous NCAA Tournament games, helping me to pass the unexpected and unwanted quiz. I was mostly correct there too, as RIT is the home of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and deaf or hard of hearing students make up nearly ten percent of its population.


While Christopher Tanev eventually became the best-known player from that 2009-10 roster thanks to his long NHL career, in that moment, the Tigers’ stars were goaltender Jared DeMichiel (somewhat obviously, as the goalie is almost always the star on an underdog team) and the its student section, dubbed the Corner Crew for its location in the northwest corner of Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.

Student sections in NCAA men’s hockey are always lively and loud, with a cache of go-to chants. But RIT’s group was something different.

Their integration with the school pep band, while not entirely unique, was seamless. They had signs on top of signs. They had the fanatical noise level and hard edges of a group climbing to unprecedented heights with their favorite team, that those whose schools are in the Frozen Four nearly every season simply don’t. In fact, as the UNH guys and I were getting to know each other, a sea of orange-clad fans, at least a couple thousand in number, stood in the corner of the Detroit Lions’ home stadium that matched their familiar and much cozier confines at Ritter. They had been there since their convoy of buses met the freshly-opened gates, and didn’t seem like they had exhausted their cheer catalog to that point. Adding a special twist to things was the large percentage of the group who flashed the corresponding American Sign Language letters with a raised right hand while chanting “R-I-T! R-I-T!”

Could a group of UNH supporters, or anyone on the outside, be blamed for finding the nearest person in an orange shirt and trying to get at least some sense of what makes RIT and the Corner Crew, these new and exciting phenomena in the usually-staid world of NCAA hockey, tick?


In a bit of cruel irony, the Frozen Four run that pushed Ritter Arena and its fans into the national spotlight wound up being a fulcrum for fundraising efforts to replace the rink, which dates to 1968, when the school relocated from downtown Rochester to a newly-built campus in suburban Henrietta.

So one national semifinal loss and four seasons later, the Corner Crew circus packed up and left Ritter, following the NCAA men’s and women’s teams about 700 feet south to the Gene Polisseni Center, a gorgeous and state-of-the-art 4,300-seater that stands as one of college hockey’s newest gems. Polisseni has six squeegee guys to follow up the Zamboni and guarantee an even sheet of ice, Ritter has a giant window that throws light at the shoot twice end and does unspeakable things to it. Polisseni has twin video boards, one on each end of the ice, a dedicated TV studio, luxury seating, a donor reception area, a team shop, an inflatable shooting game, and history displays lining the walls, Ritter has…pretty much none of that. Polisseni (presumably) has a person to work the scoreboard, Ritter has…

“John! John! Can you do clock?”
“I don’t know how.”
“They’ll show you how to do it.”
“Do I get paid?”
“This isn’t NCAA.”

Despite the unsuccessful efforts of Tigers star Bridget Hamlin to recruit her boyfriend’s help for a game starting in a half hour, don’t count out the old barn just yet. After all, it beat the odds of most venues in a similar position by surviving and continuing to host competitive hockey, including RIT’s ACHA women’s team. And as the Tigers got underway with in-state College Hockey East rival SUNY Oswego late in the afternoon, the ghosts of the raucous student section made their presence known.

“R-I-T! R-I-T! R-I-T!”

Then…

“[clap, clap, clap clap clap, clap clap clap clap] LET’S GO!”

And a little later…

“SAY IT AIN’T SO, I WILL NOT GO
TURN THE LIGHTS OFF, CARRY ME HOME
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA
NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA-NA, NA, NA”

Wait, do arena ghosts know Blink-182 classics?

Of course they don’t, nor do they generally continue singing songs from stoppages after the game begins again. These incongruities (and a few others, the existence of ghosts in the first place, to name one) caused me to look in the direction of the noise, and notice that while the Corner Crew may have found a new corner to call home, they left someone behind – Tom LaSalle.

LaSalle, a recent RIT computer science grad, attends every single home game played by the ACHA women’s version of the Tigers, standing in that famed corner of Ritter Arena alone and chanting in support of the team. A one-man Corner Crew, he calls himself.

“I actually stumbled upon the team by chance,” LaSalle said, when asked the very obvious question of how one ends up being him.

“I’ve been a fan of RIT hockey for five years, and walking home one evening, I happened to see the team in the middle of a game,” he continued. “I was hooked, and the rest is history.”

Before we go any further, let’s be very clear about something: this is not a team that’s supposed to have fans. RIT is a new-ish organization, but a pretty unsuccessful one by any reasonable measure. After starting life in the non-ACHA Upstate New York Collegiate Hockey League, they first joined ACHA Division 2 in 2016-17. The Tigers won their first ACHA game on December 3, 2016 by shutting out a first-year Pittsburgh team 6-0 behind three Hamlin goals, two from Rebecca Searns, and Maddi Dillabough’s 27 saves.

They have yet to win their second. What’s more, RIT hasn’t been particularly close most of the time, allowing 9.44 goals per game over the ACHA portion of their history, while scoring 1.47. And even if they were world beaters, the hard truth is that the presence of NCAA hockey at the school will always kneecap the potential interest in an ACHA team from students and the general public.

But LaSalle is there, regardless of any of that. And his definition of “there” means showing up at 3:00 for a 5:45 puck drop, well before either team arrives, then standing and making noise for the entire game, win or (mostly) lose. Between his extreme support level without the help of alcohol or other fans, as well as the team’s nature and lack of success, he is clearly among the most extraordinary of the extraordinary. A true bearer of the Corner Crew legacy.

“It definitely is nice to have a fan that’s here all the time and pepping us up,” Dillabough, who also captains RIT’s NCAA lacrosse team, said. “When I make a good save, I can hear him no matter where I am. It means a lot that someone is noticing us and always cheering us on.”

“It means so much,” Hamlin added. “Especially because we don’t get a lot of fans, his presence brings energy to the team.”

“He loves hockey, he loves RIT, it’s so nice to have a guy on campus like that.”

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The craziest part of all is that LaSalle’s faith may actually be paying off, at least incrementally, because RIT’s team tonight was as competitive as it ever has been. Where the old Tigers were often Hamlin getting the puck, winding up, and taking it to towards the net from anywhere on the ice, players like Deirdre Cannon, Kristina Klishko, Christine Miller, and Sarah Limberger have dramatically elevated the team’s talent level.

“A lot of our incoming class is made up of people who have actually played before, while a lot of the girls last year were people who had not played organized hockey before,” defender Jess Beckmeier offered. “So I think that the experience that our new players have is really having a positive impact on our performance as a team.”

And, of course, they have LaSalle, ready to throw his arm in the air, yell “ICE! ICE!” and wave Oswego back to their defensive zone at a moment’s notice.

“He never stops,” Hamlin marveled. “He’s standing the whole frigging time.”

A talented Lakers squad remained unfazed by the upgrades though, opening the night’s scoring when Christina Ravesi buried a rebound on an Oswego power play from the bottom of the left circle five minutes into the game.

“LET’S GO RIT!”

By the end of the opening period, it was 3-0 to the visitors, thanks to a pair of turnovers that became Laker breakaway goals, first by speedy Nicole Moriarity, then from Carly Sukiel.

“WE’LL GET IT BACK!”

As the second period opened Dillabough, who wound up with 45 saves, made a pair of fantastic pad stops on Libby Morel. Then on a penalty kill a few minutes later, her right-to-left movement to poke check the puck out of danger was instrumental to the Tigers returning to even strength unscathed.

“YEAH MADDI YEAH! WOOOO!”

However, Oswego finally cracked RIT’s strong goaltender (and LaSalle’s staple “DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” chant during Tiger penalty kills) again late in the middle frame, as Lauren White tapped Sukiel’s feed from the right side home.

Then, with 1:46 to go, the most bizarre goal of the evening started with a loose puck halfway through the depth of the RIT zone, roughly equidistant between Dillabough’s crease and White. Preferring to play the puck instead of, potentially, another breakaway, the netminder barreled out towards the disc, and…absolutely flattened her green-clad adversary. Steve Atwater, Rodney Harrison, Kam Chancellor, meet Maddi Dillabough.

“It wasn’t my main motive, I was trying to get the puck, but it was kind of satisfying that I was still standing and she wasn’t,” Dillabough admitted.

Just one problem: the puck. With both players involved in the collision well out of the play, Morel wound up getting to it first and firing into the vacant net.

At 5-0 through 40 minutes, the game might have appeared as a blowout on a casual scan, but a deeper analysis would reveal that it wasn’t some throwaway game up in Rochester. The Tigers had managed a respectable 19 shots (en route to 26 for the game), most of the goals against came from a couple very correctable mistakes and a fluke play, and the ice surface had largely leveled out after early Laker dominance.

“I actually thought we improved a lot as the game went on,” Dillabough said. “Like by the third period I thought we were figuring out what we were doing wrong and fixing it.”

Hamlin, a good player for Oswego’s perennially-strong NCAA Division III team from 2013-15 before transferring to RIT (where her plan to play for the Tigers’ DI squad was undone by concussions), finally got her team on the board in the first minute of that final period. It was one of her trademark solo efforts, as she carried in off left wing to the front of the net, briefly lost the puck, kicked it back to her stick, and buried.

“It’s nice to score against Oswego, but it’s tough because I don’t relate to that team,” the sustainability Ph.D. candidate said. “When I was at Oswego, we weren’t even allowed to talk to the club girls.”

“It’s still a little nice because my mom was like ‘ooh, you scored against Oswego!’”

There were other RIT chances subsequent to that. Klishko drew a penalty soon after, Limberger drew another in the late going, Tyler Lucey fired high on a partial breakaway in between. But despite those and LaSalle’s “R-I-T! R-I-T!” guiding his Tigers to the final buzzer, the 5-1 scoreline stuck.

Defeated, but encouraged (Dillabough offered a plan to win consecutive games by the end of the season soon after stepping off the ice), the Tigers skated towards the northwest corner of Ritter Arena and, maybe for the first time in history, offered a stick salute directed solely at one fan, Tom LaSalle, the last man standing.

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