It was almost fitting, looking around the room at MAAC media day, to see UConn coach Bruce Marshall sitting close to Holy Cross benchman Paul Pearl. The two have something in common — they’ve guided their teams to MAAC tournament championships, Pearl in 1999, and Marshall last year.
And both coaches face similar challenges one year removed from that championship: an extreme loss of talent.
Pearl learned the consequences the hard way last season as his Crusaders fought tooth-and-nail just to qualify for the postseason.
This year, Marshall will receive his welcoming from the ghost of graduations past. After losing eight key players, including goaltender Marc Senerchia, who played in all but two games for the Huskies last year, Marshall will look to rebuild UConn to again earn a berth in the MAAC Championships.
“I guess this is why you coach,” said Marshall. “You coach for the next challenge. The next challenge now is to see if we can get back [to the finals].
“You have to re-educate some of the kids and educate some of the new kids from scratch. Last year is last year. It’ll be great for last year’s seniors to talk about at the alumni game, but right now it doesn’t really matter.”
— Connecticut head coach Bruce Marshall on defending the MAAC Championship
One of Marshall’s challenges will be to transform his recruiting effort. Admittedly, Marshall notes that UConn does not attract the top players in the league, but looks for a long-term investment. Traditionally, UConn has tried to attract players that over four years can develop into top players, as evident in last year’s graduating class.
This year, though, Marshall’s freshmen were chosen with this style in mind, but also another trait: the ability to play the system.
“We needed to get the kid who has the right work ethic, the right discipline,” Marshall said. “We don’t score a lot of goals, so we need a type of kid who can play in a good defensive hockey system.”
Marshall’s Huskies will face fire immediately, though, as they open the season with the one team that manhandled them last year, UMass-Lowell. A longtime member of Hockey East, the River Hawks crushed UConn, 13-1, in the opener of the Festival of Lights Tournament played in Lowell last November. The Huskies will have to display the defensive ability that Marshall mentions to keep last year’s game from reoccuring.
After that, things do not get easier for the Huskies. After Lowell, UConn plays two non-league games versus Merrimack College, another Hockey East club, and will face UMass-Amherst, Air Force and Union on before the year ends.
Many look at seven freshmen that will grace the Husky lineup this season and expect them to pick up some of the slack of the departed seniors, Marshall does not.
“People can say our freshmen are looking to pick up the losses,” said Marshall, who enters his 13th season with the Huskies, “but I think it’s our sophomores and juniors that will have to decide they’re tired of being role players, and that they want to be impact players.
“The freshmen, we’ll be coaching them through the year, and the four seniors, every time they put the sweater on, it’s one game closer to the end of their college hockey careers. But it’s that next corps of kids — they need to be playing like it’s their last chance.”
Last chance, first chance, or somewhere in the middle, the Huskies will surely be challenged throughout the season. And provided that the club can maintain a decent balance throughout this tough schedule, don’t be surprised to see the Huskies skating around their own ice at the 2001 MAAC Championships.