Since the birth of the MAAC in 1998, no team has shown as much improvement as the Iona Gaels. Picked to finish last in the inaugural coaches’ poll that season, the Gaels have continuously surprised onlookers.
The first year, Iona used a three-goal late-game rally in the MAAC quarterfinals to force the third seed, UConn, to overtime before eventually falling to the Huskies.
A year later, there was no disappointing ending as the Gaels scored twice in the third period to upset Canisius on the road, earning a berth to the MAAC Final Four. Once there, Cinderella continued her work, as Iona upset top-seeded Quinnipiac in the semifinals before falling to UConn in the championship game.
And last season, Iona repeated its Final Four destiny, knocking off Sacred Heart in overtime in the quarterfinals.
So now that Iona has finished surprising everyone, it’s no surprise to see them one of the top picks among MAAC coaches for the upcoming year.
“For all of us, it’s been an incredible run playing and being in different roles [over the last three years],” said head coach Frank Bretti, the mastermind behind the Gaels’ success. “We’ve gone from a team that doesn’t want to finish in last place to a team that can get to the MAAC finals.”
With 12 seniors in the lineup, Bretti knows that his best strategy it to capitalize on his club’s experience.
“It’s gotten to the point that the kids can almost coach themselves,” said Bretti. “The seniors are excited to get out and play this season. They’re motivated by probably the best possible factor, and that’s the fact that this is their last chance.
“We’re coming into this year very optimistic and have our goals set high.”
The same target that’s on the back of Mercyhurst, the Gaels figure is sewn to their sweaters as well. That’s a big change from the feeling the team had four years ago.
“There’s no question we have a bullseye on our back,” said Bretti. “We’ve been the hunter and I feel that we’re going to be hunted.
“As a team collectively, we have to understand that role and bring our level of play up. We understand that it’s tough to go on the road and win because teams will want to play us.
“Our players are understanding of that and how we go about our business every day lends our team to the fact that our guys are ready for that challenge. We have a lot of character and that will be the guiding force to what happens to us.”
Bretti credits his senior class with building a program at Iona. Probably not the top choice of many players when the MAAC began in 1998, Bretti knows that his current senior class were the pioneers for players after.
“I give these seniors a lot of credit to come here under circumstances years ago that weren’t that good and they’ve stuck it out,” said Bretti. “It’s because of that I don’t think that there will be any overconfidence on this team.”
But before training camp even started for the Gaels, they were dealt a bit of a blow, losing junior standout Marc Hallam for at least the first half of the season. Hallam has suffered multiple concussions throughout his career, including one in last year’s MAAC semifinal game versus Quinnipiac. The junior from Medicine Hat, Alta., will undergo surgery as a result.
“Hallam out for the first half already brings us down a player,” said Bretti. “But that’s an opportunity for some seniors to have more of a contributing role than they did last year. Opportunity is what will do great things for our program.”
Key to Iona’s success will be the play of goaltender Mike Fraser. The junior netminder carried Iona two seasons ago to the championship game, but struggled at times last year, posting a .500 record and less-than-impressive numbers.
Having graduated Fraser’s tandem partner Ben Brady, Bretti recruited Scott Galenza, a 5-foot, 11-inch goalie from Camrose, Alta. He hopes that Galenza can lighten the load a bit for Fraser.
“Galenza is a highly-touted goaltender who I believe can step right in,” said Bretti. “He won the Royal Bank Championship with his team in Alberta where we was the goaltender and the MVP.
“Ultimately, I’d like to have two high-caliber goaltenders.”
So now the time has come for Iona. Certainly, the Gaels posses the potential to excel. How much, though, won’t be seen until March.