Despite starting out last season with all sorts of promise, the Utica Pioneers struggled during much of the year. The Pioneers were strong out of conference, going 6-2-2 in 10 non-conference games, and amassed a 4-1-1 record by the middle of November.
But the defense faltered when league play began in earnest and Utica dropped seven straight league games in December and January.
“We opened the year all right out of conference, but when we got into league we lost seven in a row which was pretty demoralizing for everybody involved,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “We had never lost three in a row before that, ever, so it was a learning process for not only the guys but for the coaching staff on how to handle that.”
After chewing on their frustration all summer, the Pioneers are ready to put last season behind them and have regained their optimism as this season starts.
“We return quite a bit so we are optimistic,” said Heenan. “We are coming off our worst year since our first year, so we know we have some work to do. We were a young team last year and are happy to have guys back a year older. To move up in this league, we know we have a lot of work to be done ahead of us. We are on more of a game-by-game basis than we have ever been, trying to get better every week.”
Tops on the list of holes to plug during the offseason was defense. A strong defense and penalty kill has been a strength at Utica since the program began eight years ago but it became a weakness last year.
“We let in the most goals we have [allowed] in a long time back there last year,” said Heenan. “Our PK was the lowest it has ever been. From a recruiting end, we needed to bring in some defensemen to solidify that area of the game.”
Coach Heenan brought in three new defensemen, all big strong kids over six feet tall. Jordan Smith (Oakville Blades) is a puck moving defenseman who should find some time on the power play before long. Josh Schmitt (Buffalo Jr. Sabres) is also a hands-type defenseman who is pretty solid in his own zone. And Robert Etts (NJ Hitmen) adds his 6-3, 205 lbs body to the mix.
Scoring goals wasn’t a problem last year, however. Utica brought in five freshmen forwards to put the puck in the back of the opponent’s net.
The Pioneers jump right into the league play this year. Following an exhibition game against the USA Under-18 team, Utica plays a pair of games against defending national champion Neumann.
“This year it is different as we don’t have the out of conference games to start,” said Heenan. “We have Neumann right away and needless to say they will be beaming with confidence, so we need to be ready from the get-go.”
Getting off to a quick start, particularly in league play, will be important for the Pioneers, not only to give them a leg up towards the playoffs but also so they can regain their confidence to get to the top.
“The start of the season is a huge challenge,” said Heenan. “Coming off last year, we need to get our confidence up to show everybody in this league that we belong. Playing the national champions, it is a heck of a start. It is a big mountain in front of us right away. Our schedule is a good one this year. It has been a little light the last few years. As a coach, I’ve learned that we need to play the best to keep us at the top before we get back to league play.”