BY RICKY ST. CLAIR
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Ali Vakos needed a change of scenery.
After playing two seasons of Division I hockey at the University of Connecticut and just 17 wins to show for, the Hamden, Conn., native reevaluated her situation.
Before committing to the public research university, Vakos was recruited and in contact with Plattsburgh State women’s hockey coach Kevin Houle.
Vakos said the coaching staff was hospitable and gave the program consideration, but wanted to fulfill a dream of playing at the Division I level.
When it came time to transfer, however, Vakos was determined to give Plattsburgh another chance.
“When I decided to leave, I remembered how they treated me and how they made me feel welcome,” Vakos said. “I figured I’d give them an option since this is a really good program, and they’re just as good as many D-I programs. So, I figured I’d look into coming here.”
It didn’t take long for the 5-foot-2-inch forward to adjust.
After going nearly 11 months without playing organized hockey, Vakos made her Cardinals debut against Norwich University Jan. 6.
The result — a game-winning goal with 6:29 remaining in regulation and a 4-2 win over the fifth-ranked Cadets at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena.
“I thought it was going to take me a little longer to get adjusted playing back in the college level again, so yeah it did surprise me,” Vakos said. “I didn’t play at all in the first semester. I didn’t dress once for UConn … never skated on the ice. I just went home and played a lot of hockey, but not college-tempo hockey.”
Vakos has since made an immediate impact, scoring seven goals and seven assists, good for 14 points in 17 games played for the Cardinals.
The junior attributed her short-term success to a dedicated work ethic.
“I’ve been working really hard both on and off the ice, trying to get back to that same level I was before I stopped playing,” Vakos said. “I just really work hard and do the extra little things that make a difference and listen to what coach has to say.”
One year removed from a 4-23-7 season at Connecticut, Vakos and the unbeaten Cardinals will venture to this weekend’s NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championships in Superior, Wis., for a shot at the program’s third national championship.
Vakos said the changeover is unreal.
“We didn’t win much at UConn, so to come to such a winning environment makes me much happier to be at the rink,” Vakos said. “Whereas at UConn, I hate to say it, but I didn’t like going to the rink; I dreaded it. Going into games knowing you were going to lose isn’t fun.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the final four and win a championship,” Vakos said. “Now that we’ve achieved our goal of winning the ECAC (West), now I want to win a national championship. That’s always been one of my dreams since I was young and knew I wanted to play college hockey.”
Vakos said the community support and atmosphere at Plattsburgh has been overwhelming.
“I’ve had a great experience so far,” Vakos said. “I really wouldn’t change anything about it, and I would do it all over in a second. I can’t wait to go to Wisconsin (Wednesday). It’s something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life.”