Maturity. One word is all you need to sum up Sacred Heart this season.
The team that has played the role of “almost” for two straight years is finally at the point where the upperclassmen outnumber the underclassmen.
For two straight seasons Sacred Heart has been on the cusp of excellence. Consecutive fifth-place finishes have forced first-round playoff games on the road, and come-from-behind victories by UConn in 2000 and Iona in 2001 have ended the Pioneers’ seasons abruptly.
This year, head coach Shaun Hannah hopes that will change.
“I think that we have a team that’s returning 22 guys and we’ve filled some holes do we’ll be better prepared for more games than we were in the past,” said Hannah. “Compared to years past, we’re better prepared to achieve at least a fourth-place finish.”
With four seniors and 14 juniors, Hannah hopes that the experience of playing in tough playoff games over the past two years will benefit his club.
“We’re looking to our older guys to show the younger guys the way to go,” said Hannah, the league’s youngest coach at age 29. “It’s the first time since I’ve been coaching that we’ve got one of the older teams in the league. In the past, if you look at our league, it’s been those teams that do well.”
With all of the returning players, the major cog that will be missing is goaltender Alexi Jutras-Binet. Over four years at Sacred Heart, Jutras-Binet was the key backstop for the Pioneers. That is, until sophomore Eddy Ferhi stole the show, and the starting job, from the experienced senior last season.
The date was November 4. Sacred Heart was traveling to Lynah Rink for a matchup with Hannah’s alma mater, Cornell. At night’s end, the Lynah faithful had witnessed one of the biggest upsets in school history as Sacred Heart won the game, 5-3, behind a stellar 34-save performance of Ferhi. Suddenly the once-backup goaltender was opening eyes.
“We knew Ferhi was good,” said Hannah. “But last year he came into his own and took the starting job away [from Jutras-Binet].”
“We’re expecting him to come back and play the same way and do what he did last year — give our team a chance to win every night.”
Added to the mix will be rookie netminder Kevin LaPointe from Quebec City, Que. Hannah is hoping that he can step right in to give the team a one-two punch in net.
“We tried to build a team starting with a goalie and have tried to fill holes from there,” Hannah said. “We’ve definitely improved our depth and now we feel good about the goaltending tandem we have in place in Ferhi and LaPointe.”
The number-one goal for the Pioneers entering the season will be to win close games. Last year, the Pioneers played in 12 games decided by a goal or less, with a 2-6-5 record in those games. Hannah knows that record must improve.
“We gave away some points last year by losing some games we should have won,” Hannah noted. “We had five ties, which is a lot of ties. So we’ve got to be prepared to get that extra point this year.
“Even if you turn those five ties into wins, you finish in a different position in our league.
“It’s part of the maturity process, and our team is older and more mature. These guys understand what it will take to win.”
Just remember that one word.