The Sacred Heart Pioneers made their statement loud and clear throughout the 1999-2000 MAAC season, a statement that they are here to stay.
An eighth-place pick last season by the MAAC coaches, Sacred Heart used heart, determination and a lot of skill from a talented group of players to muscle into a tie for fourth place — opening plenty of eyes around the league on the way.
The catalyst behind that surge was the leadership of head coach Shaun Hannah. In his fourth season at the helm, Hannah was picked by his peers as the MAAC Coach of the Year after his Pioneers posted a 16-15-3 overall record.
Losing only three lettermen last season, one would expect the Pioneers to rank close to the top of the MAAC preseason poll, but instead they find themselves tied for fifth with defending postseason champ UConn. Not that Hannah minds.
“We’re not looking at [the poll],” said Hannah, who reached the 50-win plateau last year as a coach. “Our focus is improving on what we have accomplished.”
Improvement is the theme for Hannah and his Pioneers this year. He feels that as the league grows older, the biggest challenge is keeping the best players coming through your doors.
“The league is always improving. You don’t want to ever level off,” Hannah said. “You improve, you keep developing your program, and then eventually you’ll be where you want to be.”
Where Hannah wants to be is in the mix at the top of the league, after a season that saw the Pioneers fight tooth-and-nail for home ice, only to lose it to UConn in the last weekend of the season. They went on to fall to the Huskies, the eventual tournament champions, in a heartbreaking quarterfinal game.
— Sacred Heart head coach Shaun Hannah
As Hannah tries to improve with the MAAC, one thing will remain the same, and that is the man between the pipes. Goaltender Alexis Jutras-Binet, along with having one of the longest names in the league, will be looked to as the biggest impact goaltender in the league.
Things got a lot easier for Jutras-Binet last season when Sacred Heart’s defense improved significantly, and allowed the then-junior tender to see much less rubber. That is the trend that Hannah hopes the Pioneers can continue.
“We’re pretty solid defensively,” Hannah said. “Alexis is a senior this year, so we knows he’s going to play hard.
“Offensively we hope to generate some more goals,” Hannah noted, a season after SHU averaged only 3.06 goals per game, placing the Pioneers at the bottom of that league.
To do that, they’ll look to returning forward Marty Paquet, who led the team in scoring with 40 points last year, as well as junior Lloyd Marks, who checked in right behind Paquet with 35 points.