Like the rest of his teammates, Quinnipiac senior forward Chris Cerrella didn’t commit to play hockey for the Braves with the hope of achieving mediocrity. Despite the fact that QU barely finished above .500 the year prior to Cerrella’s arrival, the influx of a talented freshman class four years ago immediately raised the bar much higher.
Since those first few days on campus, the Braves’ alternate captain has experienced plenty of changes at the Hamden, Conn. school. As an institution, Quinnipiac’s status has been upgraded from a College to a University. On the ice, the Braves athletic program has also made the leap from the Division II to the Division I level.
However, there has been one constant over the course of that span of time — the explosive all-around play of the North Massapequa, N.Y. product. Cerrella has scored at least 39 points in each of his four seasons and will leave Quinnipiac as the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Yet every time Cerrella has laced up his skates since joining Quinnipiac, it has been done with one sole intention in mind — winning. And this year, with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line to the MAAC tournament winner, that desire yearned even stronger inside No. 19.
“It makes it easier when you win, and we were fortunate enough not feel what it was like to lose a lot [the first few years],” Cerrella said. “But it was a good thing this year when we felt it a little bit. We had a four- or five-game losing streak and it made us hungry.”
And now, following a 4-1 win over Iona on Thursday night in the MAAC semifinals, Cerrella stands a mere one win away from accomplishing the goal of reaching the final field of 12. With that in mind, the Braves certainly need to thank Cerrella for playing a major role in the development of the Quinnipiac program. QU is now a power in the MAAC and ranks among the top 10 in wins among Division I programs since the start of the 1998-99 season.
“The thing about Chris is that, since the day he stepped onto the ice for us, he’s been a goal scorer and a point machine,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “He’s a great player with great skill. He protects the puck when it’s on his stick as well as anyone in the league. And slowly, but surely, he’s evolved into a more complete player.”
Said Mercyhurst hockey coach Rick Gotkin of Cerrella: “He’s a great player. Quinnipiac has a handful of good players, and he’s certainly one of them. He’s very dangerous because he can shoot, he handles the puck well and he competes.
“He’s the kind of player that you hate playing against, yet you would love to have him on your team. But I can tell you this, it’s no fun playing against him.”
Unfortunately for Gotkin, his team will have the task of shutting down Cerrella on Saturday afternoon with an NCAA tournament bid on the line. For the senior, the prize is now clearly in sight, and there is only one obstacle left standing in the way of the Braves. On paper, Quinnipiac may hold a bit of an edge, as it won two of three contests from the MAAC regular season champs this year.
“I think that he’s really matured as a player,” said UConn hockey coach Bruce Marshall about Cerrella. “Just watching him play this year, you can see that he’s really taking a sincere attitude. He wants to win the right way, and he wants to see how he can help the team.
“Just the way that he shakes your hand after the game or talks to you off of the ice, it seems likes he realizes that these are cherished moments.”
Cerrella arrived at Quinnipiac four years ago as an unknown in national college hockey circles. But he broke onto the scene as a freshman, scoring 66 points in his rookie campaign. For his efforts, he garnered Division II first team All-America honors.
Since then, the points have been plentiful for the Empire State product. His production dropped off to 39 points [18 goals, 21 assists] as a sophomore, but Cerrella has responded with totals of 52 and 48 [after Thursday’s game] respectively, in his last two campaigns. As a result, he was named to the MAAC First Team in each of the past two seasons.
Yet the 2000-01 season has been filled with many highlights for Cerrella. The senior scored a goal in a 3-2 win over Union on Dec. 3 to help the Braves to their first-ever win against a member of one of the “Big Four” conferences.
In addition, Cerrella passed Todd Johnson for first place on the school’s all-time scoring chart in last Saturday’s MAAC quarterfinal contest against Army. Although point No. 203 came via an assist on Ryan Olson’s second period goal, the senior scored arguably the biggest point of his career later in the game. With the game tied at 3-3 in overtime, Cerrella cashed in on a breakaway opportunity to extend not only his career — but also his team’s season for at least one more game.
That marker set the stage for Thursday night’s game against the Gaels, a contest in which Cerrella recorded an assist in a 4-1 victory. The Braves had lost in the MAAC semifinals in each of the past two seasons — after winning the regular season title — yet exorcised their demons against Iona.
“I never imagined this,” Cerrella said. “This is a dream come true, for me and the rest of the seniors. It’s a dream for even the freshmen, to make a run at the NCAAs. We’ve got 60 more minutes left, and hopefully we can take it to them.”
“It’s a good feeling right now. [Losing in the MAAC semis] the first year was pretty hard to deal with, and the second year was even harder. We’re were very confident going into tonight’s game.”
Following the win, Cerrella sported a grin from ear to ear. However, he realizes that the win over the Gaels was only one additional step towards the NCAA tournament.
Win or lose on Saturday, Cerrella has left his imprint on the Quinnipiac program. A victory over the Lakers, though, would serve as a major reward for four years of hard work — not only for Cerrella, but also for the entire senior class.
“When they scored the first goal, I turned around and said that we’re a great team and that we were going to come back,” said Cerrella, who was recently drafted by the Asheville Smoke of the United Hockey League. “And if we didn’t, then it was a great four years and I have no regrets about coming here.
“Our goal was to win this game, and now it’s to win the next one. Mercyhurst is a great team. It’s going to be an interesting game, a hard-working game. The two teams that are in the final are just as good as any of the other teams that are left, in Hockey East or those leagues.”
Added Pecknold: “Well, it [winning on Saturday] would make them happy and it would make me happy. It’s a tough game, a 50-50 game, but I think that it would mean a lot to them [to go to the NCAA’s].”