With more or less typical losses to graduation, this was going to be the season for Merrimack to take a step forward in the standings. No more battling it out to the end for the final playoff spot.
That is, until early departures ripped extra holes in the depth chart. Count ’em: Anthony Aquino, a former All-Hockey East selection. Matt Foy, last year’s marquee recruit. Top defensemen Greg Lauze and Jeff State, not to mention Darren Clarke, another blueliner who left midway through last season to return home.
“Obviously, we’d be a lot stronger if we kept Foy and Aquino on the right side,” says coach Chris Serino. “Those are a couple big-time scorers. Losing Foy for three years and State and Lauze for two more are big hits we took, but, hey, there’s no sense dwelling on what we don’t have. I’m more concerned with making better what we do have.
“We’ve got practically a new team here. Our freshmen usually sing the national anthem for the intrasquad game so they were all over there singing. [That left] only three guys on one blue line and three guys on the other blue line. We’re in a little bit of trouble. But the good thing is that if we forget the games and have a karaoke contest, I think we’ll be in the top two.”
That Serino is back to quipping with the best of them — even if it involves some whistling past the too-many-freshmen graveyard — is great news following the scare of throat cancer last year.
— Chris Serino, on Merrimack’s youth becoming apparent early.
“I’m doing excellent,” he says. “I feel fabulous and I’m ready to go.”
He’s even assumed interim athletic director responsibilities, potentially until next July, confident in his health and ability to maintain focus on the hockey team.
“My number one priority is to coach the hockey team,” says Serino. “My number two priority is to help with the athletic program. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.
“The President and the entire school have been very, very good to me. They treated me and my family great when I was out sick last year. This is something that I feel I’m paying back to the school.”
Serino will have his hands full with all the new faces, but the known quantities begin in goal, where Joe Exter returns for his senior year. Last season, he often played well until worn down by too many shots. Warrior goaltenders led the league in saves per game by a good margin (33.4 compared to 31.2 for Providence, 27.5 for UMass and all others below 26). With all the new faces on the blue line, that statistic is likely to be repeated, so Exter will have to weather the storm for 60 minutes and steal a few games for his teammates.
“Our goaltending should be a strength,” says Serino. “We should have pretty good goaltending with Joe Exter. We’re looking for him to have a big year. We also think Casey Guenther is ready to assume the backup role, but only time will tell on that.”
How well the defense plays will go a long, long way in dictating the team’s position in the standings.
“We’ve got three coming back: Nick Cammarata, Tony Johnson and Eric Pedersen,” says Serino. “Cam DeYoung, who played for us early last year, but had to leave school for financial reasons, is back. So that gives us a little more experience.
“And we have three freshmen vying for the other two spots: Bryan Schmidt, Rob Lalonde, and Brian Boulay. I really like Schmidt. He reminds me of Jayme Filipowicz [an all-star Serino coached at UNH]. I think he’s going to be a real good one.”
Last year’s big surprise, Ryan Cordeiro (20-16–36), leads the returning scorers along with Alex Sikatchev (14-12–26) and Marco Rosa (5-21–26). All three can play and Rosa ranks as one of the most underrated all-around players in the league. He was this writer’s selection as New England’s top collegiate defensive forward.
After those three, however, the scoring plummets to single-digit point producers. Clearly, several forwards will have to elevate their games for Merrimack to be successful.
“We could have as many as five freshmen in our top 12 forwards,” says Serino. “We have some freshmen who have really stepped up to the plate in Brent Gough and Matt Johnson. We’re hoping guys like Tim Reidy and Steve Crusco, who showed flashes of being pretty good players, can put some numbers up for us.”
In the short term, Warrior fans may need to show some patience with the youth on this squad.
“It’s going to be a funny kind of team,” says Serino. “We could have seven or eight freshmen in the lineup every night. But it’s a good group. They’re working their tails off.
“I think that we’re going to play better as a team. I like the chemistry and leadership of our team. It’s going to be a team that is much better in the second half than it is in the first half. Depending on how quickly they jell, it’s a very unselfish team that will play good team defense.
“We’ve all agreed that the goal is to get better each game. The winning and losing will take care of itself. If we continue to get better and continue to work at getting better, I don’t think a slow or fast start will matter to us. If we can just show steady progress, things will work okay.”
As for the long term, Serino dismisses the idea that the Warriors took a step backward in recruiting last year because of the absence of a marquee name of the Aquino-Rosa-Foy stature.
“I think we got some real good players,” says Serino. “I’m excited about our recruiting class. I’m really impressed not only by their hockey ability, but their character. Sometimes you only get the marquee guy, but the people you surround him with aren’t as good. But it takes more than a marquee guy to make things happen. I think of the 10 guys we brought in, we’ve got four or five who are going to be immediate help to us.”