Salve Regina explores unknown territory

Turning youthful inexperience into a positive became the focus from the outset for ECAC East second seed Salve Regina. As such, the Seahawks, who are eagerly advancing to unexplored territory, will engage third-seeded Castleton in the ECAC East semifinal on Saturday.

Having essentially skimmed below the top-tier radar in the past, constantly building with an eye toward an opportunity at a lon- hoped-for postseason run, the Seahawks broke camp last summer with a wealth of newcomers to the program.

Salve’s program endured nine consecutive losing seasons before coach Michael Cox, then in his third campaign, guided his club to an 18-9-1 record in 2008-09. Regardless of the final outcome of the Seahawks ECAC East quarterfinals matchup with the Spartans this weekend, Cox’s club has made an impact on the school’s record books with a program-best winning percentage (.692).

The Seahawks active roster totals 19, including six freshmen.

Through the first half of the season, the Salve on-ice product played to expected form without a significant wavering. A 10-1-2 surge down the stretch, however, has gone a long way in changing perspectives from both sides.

“We started off a little timid, but I feel like we built and became consistent and closer as a team,” said Taylor Shepherd, a junior speedster who leads the team in game-winning goals with four and holds a plus-12 rating.

As the season unfolded, Shepherd says that throughout the locker room, the adage that “less is more” has become a rallying point.

“Last year, we had a lot of freshmen; with the group that we have this year, it was easier to incorporate them because there were fewer incoming players. We grew as a team; it almost felt better to get on the ice with them. The scores don’t lie; we all feel that we were a better team in the second half.”

“The first half of the season is about building, getting to know who you are, getting to know your strengths and in the second half is where you can put those qualities into practice,” said Cox. “I think we’ve done that and as a result are now in position to compete for a league championship.

“As upperclassmen, we know what it’s like coming in; it’s often awkward and filled with pressure,” said defenseman Shannon Coleman, one of just four seniors on the club. “We wanted to make them feel comfortable from the beginning and they reciprocated and let us know that.”

Of the 16 skaters on the Seahawks’ roster, 14 have notched goals thus far. None of the top eight scorers are seniors.

“I wouldn’t want to play with anyone else,” Shepherd said of the group of contributing freshman.

Goalie Colleen Marcik is among the new faces that have put an exclamation point on the Seahawks’ run. Marcik is 11-4-4 with a 2.05 GAA and a .solid .927 save percentage.

“We were fortunate to get her,” Cox said of the Connecticut native, who carved out an impressive prep career at Taft School. “She had been at national camp and was among the top 15 best 17-year-olds in the country. She started off slow following a summer of rehabbing an injury, but once she got her confidence back, she’s been dynamic. At times, she’s changed the direction of the game for us with clutch saves.”

Fortunately for the Seahawks, the symmetry of integrating new faces manifested itself in all disciplines.

“Part of the difference between us in the past and now is that we can go seven or eight kids deep that can score,” Cox said. “A lot of teams don’t have that luxury. We possess an energetic first line, and we have a second line that has Danielle Fallon, who is one of the most dynamic players in our league.”

Fallon, who finished with 18 points in her initial year in Newport, currently leads the Seahawks with 11 goals and 17 assists. She is sixth nationally among sophomores in point totals.

“Having a smaller team is working to our advantage, 1000 percent,” said Coleman. “We have three lines; that gives us a lot of depth. In years past, we’ve actually had better first halves. This is the first time in my four years here that the second half has been better.”

A Chicago native, Coleman is the much sought-after analytical defenseman in Cox’s view, consistently taking charge in the Seahawks own end. Her knowledge of Cox’s system has allowed her to get involved in the offensive flow as well, as she has a pair of power-play tallies to go along with a short-handed marker and a pair of game-winners. Coleman’s presence among her young blue line partners has allowed the Seahawks to cash in their chips at the right time.

“This year, as compared to previous seasons, all of our defenseman have an ability to score; they all can put the puck on the net,” said Cox. “A lot of teams pack the middle. Defensemen now have to deliver that puck on target. The focus of our offense is dependent on that. In some ways, our first look is back to the point.”

A Seahawks win against Castleton and a Norwich victory over No. 5 Massachusetts-Boston in the semifinals would send the Salve squad on the road for a shot at the title. Overall, the Seahawks finished 8-4-1 on the road.

For the moment however, hosting a program-first playoff game will deservedly take center stage on campus.

“It’s always nice to win at home,” said Shepherd, “but winning our first playoff game here would be especially exciting.”