Teams win championships in hockey. Hobart proved it three years ago when the Statesmen swept to the ECAC championship in thrilling style. Last year, Elmira used the same formula to turn what looked like a rebuilding year into a league title and a run to the NCAA semifinals.
“Last year was kind of special,” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “Out of the 29 games, 20 of them were decided by two goals or less. The way the second half of the season went was very exciting. The only way to top it is to go a little bit further, but I would settle for getting off to a better start. Last year we struggled early.”
The Soaring Eagles were up and down during the first two-thirds of the season last season, only amassing a 7-7-2 record by the middle of January. Then the team came together and went on an 11-2 streak to make the season special.
Looking at this year’s roster, Elmira returns 90 percent of its scoring punch, but the Soaring Eagles are trying to be careful not to fall into a familiar trap.
“Two years ago, we didn’t graduate a whole heck of a lot and had most of our scoring returning,” said Ceglarski. “Our expectations were very high and we didn’t meet those expectations. This year is an entirely new group. One of the things last year was that we had unbelievable team chemistry. Our graduating senior class was as special of a senior class as we have ever had here. The talent might have been different from other years, but the camaraderie and the way they battled for each other is going to be really hard to replace. We have our work cut out for us with a lot of new faces on our team.”
Elmira will look to five new faces amongst the forwards to help get the team off to a quick start. Four freshmen will put on the Purple and Gold sweaters up front this season: Rusty Masters, Jason Fransky, Noel Lortie, and Darin Pandovski.
“We think what we have is a talented group of forwards,” said Ceglarski. “All these guys had very high numbers offensively. Last year we finished with the third lowest goal totals in the history of our program, so we thought that we needed to add something there.”
Rounding out the new batch of forwards will be Jan Velich, who sat out all of last season because he played an exhibition in the Quebec juniors two years ago.
“At the end last year, [Jan] was perhaps our best player in practice, so will get right into the mix this year,” said Ceglarski.
Another big hole to fill will be in net after steady goaltender Greg Fargo graduated last May. Junior Raphael Cundari is expected to step into that void, with sophomore Kevin Fitzpatrick and freshman Casey Tuttle nipping at his heals.
“Raphael Cundari didn’t get the opportunity the last two years to start just because he played behind one of the best goaltenders to ever play here,” said Ceglarski. “We are confident in him to be able to step into that role this year.”
Heading into this season, the expectations are higher around the Thunderdomes, but whether the Soaring Eagles can rise to the challenge may very well come down to teamwork again.
“The biggest reason that we enjoyed the success last season was the team chemistry and camaraderie, and that had a lot to do with the seniors on our team last year,” said Ceglarski. “It is going to be important for us to develop that with so many new faces, form our own team identity and not rely on last year’s identity.”