During my time playing at Framingham State, I played with and against some solid talent. Every team that we played was hungry to win and the skill level was almost even all across the board. Yes, there are always those teams that are not as good as the others, but in college hockey you soon learn that every team has a chance to win.
Particularly in our division, the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC), it was a battle every game. Take, for example, Worcester State. They were dead last in our conference most of the year and seemed doomed to miss the playoffs. To their credit, they fought the rest of the way and ended up beating every team in our conference, including Framingham, to knock us out of the playoff hunt.
That’s the MASCAC: all teams are talented enough to win on any given night. With that said, let’s take a look at all the teams in the division and see what we can expect for next year.
Plymouth State University
A perennial powerhouse that consistently has been the team to beat in the MASCAC the last ten years, things will be business as usual for the Panthers this coming season as they look to pick up where they left off. After winning the MASCAC title but falling just short in the national tournament, they will no doubt be hungry for a national title and they have the personnel to win a championship.
Head coach Craig Russell will enter his sixth year with the team. Since then, he has never coached a losing team, has won the MASCAC championship twice and has helped his Panthers reach the NCAA national tournament. He leads a team full of talent which plays a physical, yet finesse ridden style that wears down their opponents and capitalizes instantly on any mistakes. My first game experience came against Plymouth State and the way they play the game is deserving of respect.
While attracting top talent from across the country to replace their graduating seniors, the Panthers won’t have to look far for scoring, defense or goaltending. MASCAC Player of the Year Andrew Wigg, a senior, who finished top 20 in scoring in the nation this past year, is only the tip of the iceberg that is the Plymouth State offense. Backstopping this high powered offense will be goalie Gordon Ceasar who finished last season as one of the top goalies of the MASCAC, posting a .900 win percentage, a stingy .934 save percentage and a 2.00 GAA. With a well-balanced defensive core sandwiched between a high-powered offense and an elite goaltender, the sky is the limit for the Plymouth State Panthers this coming season.
Salem State University
Another perennial powerhouse team, the Vikings were right at home when they faced off against Plymouth State in this past season’s MASCAC finals. Although ultimately losing to the Panthers, this trip to the championship game seemed almost routine for a program that has only had two losing seasons in the past 33 years. A team that plays a highly skilled puck possession type of game, the Vikings are capable of scoring goals in bunches on any opposing team.
Led by forward Alex Minter, complemented by veterans Andrew Bucci and Chris Mastropietro, the Vikings won’t need to depend heavily on incoming transfers or freshman to supply the offense. Any successful team needs a strong coach. In the 35 years O’Neil has been at the helm, he has accumulated 545 wins, clearly demonstrating that he knows what success is at the college level. He imparts that to his team, and that has helped them stay at the top of the MASCAC year after year.
While the Vikings don’t have a guy that can put up 20+ goals a season, they do have a well-rounded core of players, all of whom are more than capable of scoring every time they hit the ice. Look for them at the top of the standings once again this year.
Westfield State University
Nestled away in western Massachusetts, the Owls enjoyed a renaissance this past season and they look to build on that. Finishing third overall in the MASCAC, the Owls will no doubt attract big name recruits to the ranks to make up for their lost seniors.
Their biggest need this off-season will be to fill the hole left by senior goaltender Ian Perrier. One of the pillars of their success, Perrier’s presence will be missed. Plymouth State and Salem State have many individually skilled players who work well on their own but Westfield plays a more physical and punishing style of play.
While they have guys who can find the back of the net, they play a style that relies on team coordination and brute strength to out muscle opponents. Whenever we played them, it was always a battle. They were big, physical and always finished their hits so if you weren’t strong on your skates, you were getting knocked into next week.
Recruiting mostly from Canada, the Owls play that “Alberta farm boy” style of hockey where they use their size, strength and speed to relentlessly pursue you. If Westfield can fill their goaltending position and maintain their physicality, they are capable of being back on top of the standings.
Fitchburg State University
To say that finishing 10-13-3 this past year was a letdown is an understatement for the Falcons. A program that has consistently been one of the best in NCAA Division III, Fitchburg State suffered a rare setback this season and will be looking to rebound. Part of why this past year was so uncharacteristic of them is due in part to the credentials and record of their head coach, Dean Fuller.
As seems to be consistent in the MASCAC, excellent and winning coaching is prevalent on almost all the teams and Fuller is at the top of his class. In his 28 years of being head coach, Fuller has amassed a 495-283-49 record, was named MASCAC coach of the year in 2010, been to the playoffs every year since being named head coach and has won the MASCAC championship title seven times. The Falcons play with a quiet confidence as a result.
Fuller demands excellence, and his team usually delivers. This past year, however, they seemed to be a team without an identity. While every program has the goal of winning a championship, it’s important to develop a team persona, one that everyone can buy into. Salem State was a team that would beat you with their finesse while Westfield State was a team that would forecheck you to death, yet Fitchburg this past year seemed to not know who they were and ultimately suffered a sub-par season as a result.
The championship pedigree is there, however, and it won’t be going away. When I was first being scouted by them, their assistant coach made it clear just what they were hoping to achieve that year; an NCAA championship. While they will have to fill holes to fill, Fitchburg State has a winning foundation and a highly successful coach which can help them climb back to the top.
Worcester State University
The most interesting story of the 2014-2015 MASCAC season was the Lancers’ seemingly improbable run to the playoffs. After playing 90% of the season in the basement of the MASCAC, the Lancers went on a stunning run that saw them beat every team in the conference during the final 10 games of the regular season. That run culminated in the Lancers knocking Framingham State out of the last playoff spot. A story about never giving up, that run was something to behold.
I remember when they first beat host Plymouth State on their Senior Night and the shocked reactions from all the guys on my team. We even began to say that there would be no way they could do that again and that the Plymouth game was a fluke, after all, here was the last place team who just beat the best school in our conference. After that, the Lancers went down the line, knocking off Salem, Westfield and Fitchburg in succession.
A team that struggled mightily all year, the Lancers showed incredible fortitude and a will to win. Those are great traits to have when you’re trying to build a program into a powerhouse. Although they ultimately were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, if they can build off the momentum of those final few games of their season, they undoubtedly will keep up with the rest of the MASCAC.
When you have a talented roster and a head coach with the skills and pedigree to bring it all together, you have a recipe for success. That success has been found many times for head coach John Rolli and his Corsairs. Rolli has had only three losing seasons in 32 years at the helm for the Corsairs. In that time, he has won the regular season conference title 12 times, won the conference post season tournament 10 times and has been to the NCAA final four four times.
Rolli has a 570-209-39 win/loss/tie record which is outstanding no matter what level you coach. Even though this past season and the one prior were disappointing, UMD has the tools necessary to climb back to championship form. Rolli has shored up his offense and goaltending, bringing in high scoring forward Matt Baldino as well as former Goalie of the Year for the Atlantic Junior Hockey League, JJ Solloway.
Needing to improve his defensive core, Rolli knows how to win and that kind of thinking can be infectious, particularly to a squad full of talent such as Rolli’s. UMD, while struggling mightily last season, showed signs of what could come to fruition, doubling up teams by sometimes more than five goals. If Rolli can recruit the right kids and get them to buy into his proven systems, then there is no reason he won’t be able to add more championships to his already stellar resume.
Framingham State University
“The winds of change are blowing in Framingham,” quipped BSP (Big State Puck), a reference to the school being the biggest and only public four-year residential college in the greater Boston area. Framingham State has long enjoyed a hockey team that has given the school’s students intense and exciting hockey to watch. Even though the struggles of the program have been well documented, there is a quiet confidence that has begun to brew within the organization.
After losing several key seniors this past season, the Rams will be turning to the next generation for help. To find that help, one needs not look far. Rick O’Connor, Melvin Nichols, and Vaughn Guetens, who will represent the Rams as captains, will undoubtedly look to rein in the young talent and get back to the winning ways of two seasons ago. The future could not be in better hands, and I am confident in my assertion that if anyone can bring glory to the Rams, it’s these three. They cannot, however, do it alone. They will have to rely on a solid supporting cast of veterans Rich Hill, Cam Coburn and Tom Fahey who will be shoring up the back end for the Rams, while leaving junior goaltender Alessio Muggli to shut the door for them in net.
Muggli — who I believed should’ve been in the running for MASCAC Goalie of the Year this past season — will be looking for his forwards to provide the offense needed to win games. While offense was sometimes hard to come by this past year, the burden to produce secondary scoring will fall to returners Cam Hoffman, Mark Essery and Keith Barnaby, all of whom chipped in on the offense for the Rams last year.
Head Coach TJ Brown, a 70-goal scorer during his college days at UMass Dartmouth, has yet to bring that kind of success to the coaching ranks, but the potential is there. After winning MASCAC Coach of the Year honors during the 2013-2014 season, Brown will look to build off that success and can rely on his captains to provide the guidance and leadership the team needs. A relentless forechecking team with a work ethic to match, the Rams will need to start from square one in order to bring a playoff title to Framingham. You can only lose so many times before you get fed up and begin to work tirelessly towards winning. With hard work and a can do attitude, the Rams will rise.