When the MAAC began four years ago, Iona came into the league with diminutive expectations. The club was winless in the season prior, so head coach Frank Bretti did what he felt was necessary: clean house.
As a result, the recruiting class of the 1998-99 season became essentially a new team: 18 freshmen. Attrition claimed just three from that class, leaving the translation an ugly one — Iona lost 15 players after last season.
Likely Iona is the only team in the country to lose more players than it returns — 15 graduated, only 11 back. Gone are players like Ryan Carter, the MAAC’s all-time leading scorer, and Nathan Lutz, a two-way defenseman with the nose for the net.
“From a realistic standpoint, we have a lot of newcomers, and the strength of the league and the strength of our nonconference schedule doesn’t make it easy on us,” said Bretti.
Not exactly a vote of confidence. But, at the same time, in a similar situation as four falls ago, these waters aren’t totally uncharted for the sixth year coach.
“We’re happy with our recruiting class and in the long run we’ll develop a little bit more of a deeper team than we’re used to seeing in the past,” said Bretti.
“The first group we brought in of 18, a lot of those guys stuck around, so after that we were able to bring in impact recruiting classes. This group represents players that are a little bit deeper. Our third and fourth line and our sixth, seventh and eighth defensemen will add a little to this team.”
Bretti was quick to point out that his current club will take an entirely different mindset than teams past.
“We’ve been a team where our offensive players have carried a lot of the weight, whereas today we’ll look to more of an overall approach,” Bretti noted. “We want to be an offensive team but we need to be a little bit more of a physical team and stronger on defense.”
That has been the war cry for the Gaels for three seasons now, and two years ago, it seemed to come true. Iona fixed a lot of its defensive miscues and entered last year as a favorite for the league title. But things fell apart, and a combination of injuries and increasing maturity throughout the league showed Bretti that his club was still short on the defensive side.
One item that could spark that defense will be the play of goaltender Mike Fraser. The senior sported a terrific season two years ago, but took a back seat to rookie Scott Galenza a year ago. Galenza, though, has decided not to return to Iona this season, giving Fraser the number-one job to run with.
“We’ll be looking to Mike Fraser in goal,” said Bretti. “He’s had his ups and downs but if the defense can play well he could get off to a pretty good start.”
Still, entering any year with a rookie class larger than your other three combined leaves too many unanswered questions. It also makes setting team goals impossible.
“We’re not at a point where we can set goals,” admitted Bretti. “We just have to get these guys to understand that they have to try to get better each week. If we can do that, hopefully we’ll be in a position to make the playoffs. I’m not going to say that we have to get home-ice advantage because I don’t know what the hell’s going to happen.”