This Week in New England D-III: Nov. 11, 2004

For the biggest conference in D-III hockey, it takes a couple of weeks to sort through all sixteen teams. Never mind that it takes a little while to track down all of the coaches, it still comes down to finding out about the players, returning and new, to sort out who has the talent and what the conference’s competitive balance looks like. So here is the second installment of the conference preview focusing on the remaining four D-III squads as well as the D-II teams playing the full conference schedule in advance of their end-of-season six-team tournament under the Northeast 10 banner.

Last week’s column included prognostications on the top eight finishers in the league. While this week focuses on the teams trying to crack that list, keep in mind that anything can happen and just may. Now before I start getting e-mails about hedging my bets and playing both sides of the fence, I have just two words for you to consider: Framingham State! Why Framingham State? Just two seasons ago the team had one of the worst records in the league and was predicted for a similar finish last year. What happened was a Cinderella story with the Rams not only producing a winning record, but also capturing the fourth seed and home-ice in the first round of the playoffs. So, based on very recent history, these four remaining D-III schools all have a chance at surprising some people this year and have every intention to do so.

Johnson & Wales certainly hopes that it may be this year’s Cinderella story. After finishing last in the conference in 2003-04, head coach Eric Noack’s team is looking to stir things up this season. “We hope we can sneak up on some people coming out of the gate this year. Based on our results from a year ago there aren’t a lot of expectations except from ourselves.”

Last season was Noack’s first behind the bench for the Wildcats and he feels his young team definitely has the talent to compete with other teams in the conference. “We have some strong leadership coming from our senior goaltender Nick Lacroix and some exciting new players like freshman Ryan Lord who should make some early contributions to the team’s success.” Ironically, hopes for early success were postponed this week when a freak Zamboni accident made the ice surface unplayable for a game scheduled with Framingham State. “It was something I had never seen before, Noack exclaimed. The Zamboni actually took out a five-foot section of the ice, right down to the sand base. There was sand everywhere. What made it worse is we had the band there and buses of spectators ready to launch our season. We’ll just have to carry that excitement into the next game with Southern New Hampshire.” Here’s hoping the Zamboni incident isn’t an omen and that the rest of the season comes off without a hitch.

Another second year coach is looking for bigger and better things from his squad this season as well. Plymouth State Coach Brett Tryder feels his 19 returning players have what it takes to play at the upper end of the league. “Last year we put in our systems and we have to play a disciplined game in all three zones to succeed,” notes Tryder. “We have some real decent skaters and few need some of our new guys to step up with our key guys from last year. We really feel we can be right in the hunt and compete for a playoff spot — we’ll get a better feel for things this weekend in the Paine Webber tournament where we’ll see several teams from our league.”

WNEC Coach Karl Enroth echoes the sentiments of his peers with the thought that making the playoffs is a great goal for everyone and nobody is out of it. “We have an interesting mix of eight seniors and ten newcomers. We need our key players to play big and the new guys to mature quickly. If that happens, we could be there in February.”

So with all due respect to these teams forecasted in the lower half of the pre-season poll, there’s a lot of hockey to be played and as Cinderella found her slipper, so might one or more of these teams. Here’s the projection for 9-12 in the conference:

9. Plymouth State College Panthers

2003-2004 Overall Record: 8-15-1
2003-2004 League Record: 4-11-1
2003-2004 League Finish: Eleventh
2004-2005 Coaches’ Prediction: Eighth
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Ninth

Team Overview: With nineteen returning players experience will help. Big contributions from Rory Nickerson and Dennis Kane will be expected. Better overall performance on the road will be key for team success.

10. Worcester State College Lancers

2003-2004 Overall Record: 4-19-0
2003-2004 League Record: 3-13-0
2003-2004 League Finish: Twelfth
2004-2005 Coaches’ Prediction: Tenth
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Tenth

Team Overview: Much will be expected of senior captains Justin Vallas, Jared Grinkis and Jason Rogato for production and leadership. Mark Holman needs to provide consistent goaltending in order for the Lancers to have a shot.

11. Western New England College Golden Bears

2003-2004 Overall Record: 9-13-3
2003-2004 League Record: 4-9-3
2003-2004 League Finish: Ninth (tie)
2004-2005 Coaches’ Prediction: Eleventh
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Eleventh

Team Overview: Equal mix of seniors and newcomers means some blending time to establish teamwork. Kevin Leonard and Michael Smeitzer will need to lead by example. Goaltending in the post Mike Newall era will have a large impact on the team’s success.

12. Johnson & Wales University Wildcats
2003-2004 Overall Record: 1-22-2
2003-2004 League Record: 1-13-2
2003-2004 League Finish: Twelfth
2004-2005 Coaches’ Prediction: Twelfth
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Twelfth

Team Overview: Team has a nucleus of young talent including forwards Ryan Lord and Adam Frew. Will need to ride the back of senior goaltender Nick Lacroix until things mesh and confidence builds.

The D-II Teams

What looks like a D-III team, recruits like a D-III school, plays the same schedule as a D-III school but isn’t a D-III school? The answer is A D-II school. Yes, there is D-II hockey, albeit limited to about seven teams across the country. They all play a full D-III schedule for the leagues they are a part of, but are not eligible for D-III playoffs or tournament play. In the case of the ECAC Northeast, that means four teams that play the full conference schedule, with only the common games against D-II opponents impacting their playoff fates, are guaranteed a playoff berth as all teams are eligible for the post-season tournament along with St. Michael’s and St. Anselm from ECAC East.

“It is strange that we play in a league where we don’t count in the league standings but play everyone in the league just like all of the other teams,” noted SNHU coach Rene LeClerc. “We follow all of the D-III rules and guidelines but are ineligible for D-III consideration because of the classification of the school’s athletic program. It would be nice for the kids to see that change but for now we have to play it the way it is.”

Coach LeClerc is not alone in wishing for the opportunity to have his team “play down.” None of the D-II programs give scholarships and they comply with all ECAC guidelines for length of season, start dates and number of games. Fellow coach Scott Harlow at Stonehill commented that “it is interesting that only a half-dozen games of our total schedule determine our post-season position. It would be great for the players if we could have them play the season with the chance to win the league and play for an NCAA berth — it’s what you want to compete for.”

This separation of divisions or line of distinction subject is one for much more in-depth discussion down the road. Hmmmm, I think I feel a feature coming on. But for now, let’s separate the D-II programs out and take a look at their forecasted finish in their mini-league:

1. Assumption College Greyhounds

2003-2004 Overall Record: 9-14-2
2003-2004 League Record: 7-7-1
2003-2004 League Finish: Second (tie) among D-II
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: First among D-II

Team Overview: Team success will be keyed by solid defense and strong offense led by captains Geno DeAngelis and Scott Hersom, Jeff Iloven and newcomer Matt Paget. Team should leverage strong junior class including three goaltenders.

2. Southern New Hampshire University Penmen

2003-2004 Overall Record: 12-13-1
2003-2004 League Record: 7-7-1
2003-2004 League Finish: Second (tie) among D-II
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Second among D-II

Team Overview: Team strengths found in balanced group of forwards and solid goaltending of Tim Fewster. Look for freshmen Brandon Hammermeister and Matt LeMay to contribute to the offense in their first season.

3. Stonehill College Chieftains
2003-2004 Overall Record: 10-11-1
2003-2004 League Record: 7-7-1
2003-2004 League Finish: First among D-II
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Third among D-II

Team Overview: Replacing offense from departed senior Rob Pascale will be a must from core group of six new forwards. Leadership will come from captain Andrew Jackson and forward Matt Polara helping out a group of thirteen freshmen and sophomores.

4. Franklin Pierce College Ravens

2003-2004 Overall Record: 5-19-0
2003-2004 League Record: 2-14-0
2003-2004 League Finish: Fourth among D-II
2004-2005 USCHO Prediction: Fourth among D-II

Team Overview: Second year program has seventeen freshman and sophomores on the roster. Dennis Millman or Robert Arduini keeping the puck out of the net will be a focal point in improving on last year’s inaugural season.