You might think that a stretch of playing five games in eight days, including a “home” game at Frozen Fenway, might have a team a bit tired and looking for a little rest.
Not the case for Williams, which enters this weekend’s nonconference matchups with Manhattanville and Plattsburgh excited to play more difficult opponents in preparation for the remaining conference schedule.
“We played those five games in a short period of time and only one of the games was really at home,” said Ephs’ coach Bill Kangas. “The Fenway game was our home game and it was a special night for the team and the school. Because it was a home game, our support staff was all able to participate, so everyone from our scorekeeper to singer of the national anthem was part of that night. We had the Red Sox locker room as the home team and winning the game was special. Playing the other games, including the Plattsburgh tournament, took care of the midweek game schedule while we were still on break, so now starting this weekend, we can get into a rhythm of playing only on the weekends the rest of the season and use our weekday practices to work on things and get better.”
One dimension of Williams’ game that has clearly progressed over the course of the season has been the play of the freshmen. Their progress and contributions to the team’s overall success have been duly noted and appreciated by their coach.
“We had to bring in a few more guys than usual this year due to the graduation of a large senior class last spring,” noted Kangas. “I think the group, in general, has really done a nice job adjusting to the college game and are showing steady improvement in their level of play. George [Hunkele] and Frankie [Mork] are both among our offensive leaders and made a big jump quickly in their understanding and playing at the college level. We are very happy with how they continue to perform well and are very happy with the way all of our first-years are acclimating themselves in the program.”
In addition to the thrill of the victory over NESCAC rival Trinity on Tuesday last week, Kangas also had a different thrill closer to home when his team faced off against Johnson and Wales on Saturday night.
Kangas’ son, Brett, is a sophomore defenseman for the Wildcats, who upset the Ephs by a 3-2 score with a goal in the final minute of overtime.
“It was probably more fun for my wife and the family in the stands than it was for me on the bench,” Kangas said. “I noticed him on the ice a few times and I think he played pretty well, but I also have to concentrate on coaching Williams, so I can’t really tell you much about what he did out there. They are a good team and their goaltender was excellent. Brett definitely has bragging rights for a while and maybe later in the spring when he is on a break, we can sit down together and watch the game film since I really haven’t watched the film other than a few clips. It would be fun to relive it together away from the competitiveness of the game itself. It is great that he really likes the school he is at and is having some success on the ice.”
When the subject of competitiveness comes up, there are a number of items that were triggered in Kangas’ thoughts.
First is the high level of competition his team brings to each and every contest regardless of their opponent. To date, the Ephs have played in five overtime contests this season and suffered their only two losses in overtime. The ability to play in very tight games is something that the coach thinks will benefit his team in the second half and certainly down the road come playoff time.
“We have played a lot of one-goal games and overtime games this season,” said Kangas. “With the level of competition in our league being so strong top to bottom, we need to continue to play our best hockey in close games where one play or one mistake can make the difference in a one-goal game. This team has bought in to the significance of playing good team defense and I have been very impressed by our great gap control and commitment the team has to taking care of the defensive end first. Those are the kinds of things we will continue to work on along with special teams which for the most part, have been pretty good so far this season.”
One of the beneficiaries of the commitment to team defense has been junior goaltender Sean Dougherty.
This season, Dougherty is 7-2-2 in 11 starts and is among the top goalies in the nation sporting a .939 save percentage and 1.69 goals-against average. As good as the numbers and level of play have been, his coach thinks there are better days ahead for the talented junior.
“I think Sean’s best hockey is still ahead of him,” stated Kangas. “I know that may sound strange when you look at his numbers and how he has played not only this season, but since he has come to Williams. He may be the most competitive kid on the team and that is saying something. He is competitive in everything and that really drives him to perform well and continue to look for improvement in his game. Sean has been a big part of our success this season and will be a big part in whatever happens over the balance of the season.”
This weekend sees the end of nonconference games for the Ephs, who finish the rest of the schedule in conference play starting next weekend with a road trip to Maine to face Colby and Bowdoin.
“We have the same goals that probably every team in the conference have,” Kangas said. “First, qualify for the conference tournament. Second, get a home-ice seeding in the playoffs. Third, be the No. 1 seed overall. These are the goals we start out the season with and we will continue to focus on achieving what we have set out to accomplish as a team. This league is as competitive as it has ever been, so realizing these goals is going to be a good challenge for the team, as well as for me and our staff. As excited as the kids are to play, I am equally excited to be doing what I am doing with this group of young men.
“This is a lot of fun.”