The Skatin’ Rebels are going to the playoffs, but the UNLV hockey team’s sights are set so much higher than that. The Rebels are already headed to their league’s top division. What they want next is to follow the trail blazed by Arizona State University and become a full-fledged NCAA Division I squad.
The American Collegiate Hockey Association, to which UNLV belongs, is composed of member schools across three divisions that compete at levels ranging from club hockey to teams roughly on par with the NCAA’s Division III.
After a season-long campaign that saw UNLV hold onto the No. 2 ranking in the West Region of the ACHA’s Division 2, the Rebels were nipped in the final week thanks to a pair of losses to Northern Arizona University.
The top two teams from each division get their ticket punched directly to the ACHA’s national championship March 9-19 in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks to those two losses, UNLV fell to No. 3, meaning they’re the top-seeded team in the West when regionals kick off Feb. 24 in Greeley, Colorado. The top two teams in regionals earn a spot in the national tournament.
Two wins put UNLV in nationals, their last chance to capture a Division 2 title as next year, the Rebels are set to step up to the association’s Division 1 level. It might not be a long stay.
“Our end goal is to get [NCAA] D-I,” Rebels coach Anthony Vignieri Greener said. “We're following [coach Greg] Powers at Arizona State University. He helps us out daily. Our general manager went to ASU and knows Powers really well and has a relationship with him. We're just modeling our program after his.”
The Sun Devils competed a hybrid ACHA/NCAA schedule in the 2015-16 season before stepping up to full NCAA competition this year as an independent team. It’s the route Greener wants to see UNLV travel. “We look to be the next school to go NCAA D-I. Last year it was (expected within) five years. Now, maybe we can do it in three.”
Becoming a full varsity team requires the school to add a complementary women’s program to satisfy Title IX regulations. To that end, the hockey team has been working closely with women’s lacrosse in planning to take both programs to that level.
Greener said team has two promising things on the horizon to attract recruits, and they’re both complementing each other. First, there’s the imminent inaugural season of the newest National Hockey League franchise. Come September, UNLV will have its own dedicated space in the Vegas Golden Knights’ new training facility and access to the team gym.
Greener’s other selling point: the chance to be part of the group that pushed the Rebels to Division I. It’s already helping the team’s recruiting efforts.
Sophomore mechanical engineering student Dion Antisin played at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, before coming to UNLV. He’s already letting players from his old team and from his native British Columbia know the score.
“They're looking at what the hockey is like,” Antisin said. “That's the first question I always get. The next question is how the school is. Hockey, you don't think Vegas. Well, now you do. It's starting to become a hockey hotbed. Everybody wants to be part of something that's going to be great. That's one of the things you push to these kids is just try to want them to build something you're going to remember. This year we're looking at a national title. Next year we're looking at a national title. It's not just a rebuilding year. We're building and we're winning.”
In just his second year as head coach, Greener has brought in 13 new players, including two from Sweden and two from Canada. He plans to bring in another 12-15 next year.
The team will play at T-Mobile arena again next season. With growing support from the community helping to boost recruiting and fundraising, Greener expects a strong season next year.
“With winning,” Greener said, “players will come and money will come too. Vegas is a city built on winning. You can see that in our games. We want to be the legacy that started this so they could say, ‘Hey, I was here during that whole process.’”