For the first time in the nine-year history of Atlantic Hockey, the American International Yellow Jackets finished out of the basement last season, coming in 10th. Even though the team recorded the same number of conference wins as the season before, not finishing last was a cause for optimism.
“It was a relief after the last two years,” said AIC coach Gary Wright, who has been behind the Yellow Jackets bench since 1984. His team had dropped into last place on the final day of the regular season in both 2010 and 2011.
“We finished 3-3-1 down the stretch,” he said.
AIC had won just five times prior to those final games. The Yellow Jackets took Robert Morris to the limit in the first round of the playoffs, falling in overtime in the third and deciding game.
“The standings are obviously important, but there were other ways to measure some success,” Wright said. “Not finishing at the bottom, ending 3-3-1 and getting a better playoff draw, and taking a very good team to overtime in the third game gave us a lot of positives going into this season.”
AIC shaved a half-goal-allowed a game from the previous season behind a strong iron man performance of goalie Ben Meisner, who is entering his senior campaign. In all, there are eight seniors on the roster.
“Meisner will be the starter as he has been for most of his career, but we have two other very capable goalies [Ryan Kerpan and Chandler Long] who will get an opportunity at some point,” Wright said. “We have good depth.”
Leading scorer Adam Pleskach is also back for his senior season with an excellent chance to hit the career century mark in points. He had 29 last season, giving him 82 for his career.
Classmate Steve Mele will look to improve on his 10 goals from last season, picking up the pace for the departed Nielsson Arcibal and Michael Penny. Five of six defensive starters are also back.
Expected to make an impact right away is rookie Chris Porter, a 6-foot-3 forward who racked up 107 points last year in juniors.
“We’ve put an emphasis the past few seasons on recruiting, and that will continue,” Wright said. “We’ve got a great facility that’s as good as it gets in an off-campus situation.”
Despite the amenities at the Olympia Ice Center, AIC finished last in attendance in Division I last season.
“We’re going to be working on more marketing,” Wright said. “I don’t think the [Springfield, Mass.] community knows the caliber of hockey that’s played here. Having Union come here this season, coming off a Frozen Four appearance, is a big opportunity for us.”
AIC will have the distinction of being Penn State’s first NCAA opponent. The Yellow Jackets open the season at the Penn State Ice Pavilion on Oct 12-13.
About the Yellow Jackets
2011-12 overall record: 8-26-3
2011-12 AHA record: 6-18-3 (10th)
2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): 11th
Key losses: F Nielsson Arcibal, F Michael Penny
Players to watch: F Adam Pleskach, G Ben Meisner, F Steve Mele
Impact rookie: Forward Chris Porter scored 107 points in 73 games for Stouffville of the OJHL.
Why the Yellow Jackets will finish higher than the coaches poll: AIC has the experience to finish higher than predicted, especially if it can do well against scheduling podmates Army and Sacred Heart.
Why the Yellow Jackets will finish lower than the coaches poll: If Meisner struggles, his backups have little experience.