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October 24, 2014

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Hockey title puts tiny Union on the sports map

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AP Photo/Mike Groll

People walk by the Nott Memorial at Union College on Monday, April 14, 2014, in Schenectady, N.Y. Tiny Union, enrollment 2,200, defeated Minnesota, enrollment 48,000, Saturday for its first NCAA hockey title.

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — After tiny Union College toppled the heavyweights of hockey for the national title, its president Stephen Ainlay couldn't resist a little cheerleading.

"How about them Dutchmen!?" Ainlay shouted Monday to a room full of accepted students, who promptly broke out in a thunderous roar.

There have been a lot of hoarse voices on campus since Union (enrollment 2,200) thumped Minnesota (enrollment 48,000) 7-4 on Saturday for its first-ever NCAA title. Garnet-and-black-clad students and fans who watched the game spilled into the streets to celebrate, thousands joyously mobbed the team when it came home and the mayor of Schenectady is planning a parade on Thursday.

At a school that has always emphasized academics (it doesn't offer athletic scholarships), there's a feeling that the rafter-rattling victories over Boston College and Minnesota in the semi-final and final championships known as the Frozen Four will give it a greater profile nationally and draw more interest from prospective students.

"When we played in the Frozen Four they had to put 'New York' next to it," said Adam Appelbaum, a freshman from Boston. "We're getting time with these big-time schools that have 50,000 kids. — playing them and beating them!"

Union, a cloistered campus of manicured lawns and stately buildings about 145 miles north of New York City, was founded in 1795, and has always been known more for its history (former President Chester Arthur was an 1848 graduate) than its hockey.

The Dutchmen made the jump to Division I from Division III for hockey during the 1991-92 season, and initially served as a whipping boy for the major college powers, going 3-21-1 in that first year.

The team still plays in a cozy arena that seats 2,200, but it improved enough to make it to the Frozen Four two years ago. Winning it all this past weekend in a Philadelphia arena packed with more than 18,000 fans took it to a new level.

"That feeling in that arena — it was literally shaking with chants around Union," Ainlay said. "That's the feeling a lot of people have. So it will translate undoubtedly into admissions behavior. It will translate into giving behavior. It's a very important thing for this school."

Ainlay said he was particularly proud the players won while maintaining the school's high academic standards. In an era where the term "student athlete" is regularly derided as meaningless or deceptive, he said "I hope this team redeems that phrase."

Robert A. Baade, a Lake Forest College economics professor who has extensively studied college sports, said Union's big win may result in more giving but he was less convinced it would create a big bump in applications.

"Students aren't going to make a decision on attending a small school based on how accomplished their hockey team is," Baade said.

Still, for Lexington, Mass., high school student Jordan Herbert, who was among the accepted students Ainlay addressed Monday, the hockey win is an added bonus.

"If someone asks you where you're going to college and you say, 'Union,' and they know that name, it's a small thing," he said, "but it's definitely a little bit better."

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