It was a storied trip for Holy Cross last season, one that few associated with the program, coaches, players and fans alike, will ever forget. A wire-to-wire regular-season championship was followed by a dominant walk through the Atlantic Hockey tournament and the school’s first visit to the NCAAs.
Now, for the Crusaders the question is obvious: can they do it again?
At this point, that’s a hard question for anyone, even head coach Paul Pearl, to answer. Last year’s team lost two key forwards: Greg Kealey and Jeff Dams. These four-year standouts accounted for more than 17 percent of the ‘Cross offense. Add in third-line graduated center Tim Coskern and that increases to 23 percent.
“Last year was three years in the building,” said Pearl of his team’s success. “We had been getting better and going a little farther in the playoffs.
“[Greg] Kealey and [Jeff] Dams took a lot of heat off of guys with their ability to score very timely goals. That’s where some other guys who were getting good ice time, they’re going to have to be the ones putting the puck in the net at key times. A lot of those guys, and you can’t point out anyone, will need to step in this year and be the key guys for us.
“We have a big recruiting class because we lost so much. There will be a lot of competition for playing time,” he added. “So it was great to be able to break through and win. Now we’d like to be able to stay [at the top]. We have the ability that if we play right and things go well to be a top team in the league.”
Pearl will likely have to rely on his defense this season, particularly his veteran goaltending, at times to help what could be a lower-producing offense. Tony Quesada, who broke out of a two-goaltender rotation with teammate Ben Conway late last season, becoming the clear number one down the stretch, could likely again see the bulk of the work. Pearl, though, hopes that Conway will still push Quesada and that that combination will be highly effective.
“Tony is definitely coming back as a starter,” said Pearl, whose team last year was second defensively behind only Quinnipiac. “With Ben coming back as well he’ll be challenging for at least half of the playing time.
“Last year Tony played great down the stretch and he’s going to need to do that [again] to keep Ben out of the net.”
In addition to Quesada and Conway, the Crusaders will look to several other returning players to keep the program dominating in Atlantic Hockey. Last year’s rookie phenom Jimmy Sixsmith and junior Pierre Napert-Frenette both have the ability to score clutch goals. Defensively Tony Coskern, brother of the departed Tim, will be looked to as the leader on the blueline, with Pearl hoping that he not only gets solid defense from the senior but also some offensive production.
If the Crusaders can win another regular-season title, Pearl says one thing is for sure: it won’t be wire-to-wire.
“Last year, yes we were wire-to-wire but if you look at the point totals in the league it was tight all the way,” said Pearl. “When you look at the recruits all of these schools have brought in, every year you know we’re bringing in better and better players and that’s just raising the bar for everybody.”
And should the Crusaders put together another magical run and become the first team in the league to advance to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, experience will be on their side. But the experience gained in last year’s NCAA appearance isn’t what Pearl deems as most valuable from that campaign.
“Going to the NCAA tournament was nice, but what was important was getting past the semifinals and getting to and winning the finals of our own league,” Pearl said. “In the past that’s where we had lost, so we were asking ourselves, ‘What’s the next hurdle that we’re going to jump?’
“Those experiences and knowing that if we play hard we can repeat, that is what was good experience.”