Framingham State’s T.J. Brown thinks so.
John Rolli, an institution at Massachusetts-Dartmouth, does too.
It is the opinion many, including those two MASCAC bench bosses, that conference title chase will boil down to two squads, Salem State and Plymouth State.
Just like last year when they shared the regular-season crown.
“I think the league should be very strong this year,” said Brown, “with Salem and Plymouth being the teams to beat.”
Rolli, the second winningest Division III coach of all-time (only Middlebury’s Bill Beaney has racked up more D-3 ‘Ws), was, likewise, to the point.
“Salem and Plymouth should be the top two teams in the division,” he said.
Craig Russell, Plymouth’s fifth-year coach, on the other hand, is not so sure.
“Salem [is] the clear team to beat,” Russell said. “They didn’t lose much to graduation and seem to have brought in some experienced guys from juniors around the U.S. and Canada.”
Certainly, there is a lot to like about Salem.
Although top scorer Eric Defelice has graduated and is trying his hand in the pros with Knoxville (SPHL), there is still an abundance of scoring left in the cupboard.
Forwards Alex Minter (11-14-25) and John Needham (8-11-19) were slotted second and third on the scoring list, and they are still just sophomores, while junior forward Chris Mastropietro fired in 10 goals to go with five helpers.
Defenseman Cameron Banwell (3-11-14) proved to be a strong puck mover and power play distributor. He also chipped in a pair of power-play goals.
Asked for his take on players to watch in the MASCAC, Russell said, “Minter (and) Mastropietro.”
Russell, on the other hand, has plenty of assets of his own.
Ian McGilvrey (12-19-31) led all Panthers in points and assists last year as a freshman and Josh Woody, now a junior, returns having led Plymouth in goals with 13.
Then there is junior goalie Gordon Caesar, the Panthers’ human eraser.
Caesar seized the Plymouth net and racked up eye-popping numbers (1.68, .943). Caesar spun four shutout performances, with all of them coming in MASCAC play.
“I expect us to be challenging for the MASCAC title again this year,” Russell said. “I do expect us to undergo a little transition period early on since we’re still young, but it shouldn’t take as long as last year.”
Last Year’s Record: 11-14-1 (Overall), 8-9-1 (MASCAC)
Coach: Dean Fuller, 31st yr. (485-270-46)
Key Returning Players: F John Celli, Jr., F Max Lorenzen, Jr., G Ryan Wysocki, Sr., D Craig Halpin, Sr.
Key newcomers: F Stephen Carlette, G Brian Robbins U Mass-Lowell, D Daniel Robbins.
Key departures: D Shawn Bradley
Noteworthy: Nine of last year’s top scorers were underclassmen.
Last Year’s Record: 11-11-4, 8-7-3
Coach: T.J. Brown, 6th yr. (25-83-14)
Key Returning Players: F Brendan McCarron, Sr., F Ryan McDonald, Sr., D Dylan Cosford, Sr., D Vaughn Guetens, So.
Key newcomers: G Allesio Muggli, F Tyler Colacchio, D Chase Nichols
Key departures: D Bo Driscoll, G Nick Cafrelli, F Eric Ward.
Noteworthy: McCarron was the league’s leading goal-getter (14).
Last Year’s Record: 5-18-2, 5-13-0
Coach: John Rolli, 31st yr. (562-193-36)
Key Returning Players: F Shaun Walters, Sr., F Mike Restuccia, Jr., F John Sartell, Jr., D Mike Grassi, Jr., G J.J. Solloway, Sr.
Key newcomers: F Jaret Babych, Coquitlam BCHL, F Casey Shea, Middlesex USPHL, D Jerry Laakso, Ilves FEL, F Mike Kelly, Norwich ECACE, D Shayne Bailey, Boston EHL, F Matt Baldino, Boston EHL.
Key departures: F Dmitry Antipin, D Nate Dupere, G Ben Vandervies.
Noteworthy: Walters and Restuccia tied for second in MASCAC scoring (24 points).
Last Year’s Record: 14-11-2, 11-5-2
Coach: Craig Russell, 6th yr. (65-31-11)
Key Returning Players: F Michael Freitag, Sr., D Zach Sarig, Sr., G Gordon Ceasar, Jr., F Ian McGilvrey, So., F Andrew Wigg, Jr.
Key newcomers: F Chris Zuccaro, Northern Cyclones EHL, F Dylan Giberson, Kemptville CCHL
Key departures: D David Walters, F Phil Arnone.
Noteworthy: McGilvrey (9-18-27) led all MASCAC scorers
Last Year’s Record: 16-10-2, 11-5-2
Coach: Bill O’Neill, 34th yr. (532-333-57)
Key Returning Players: F Alex Minter, F John Needham
Key newcomers: NA
Key departures: F Eric DeFelice
Noteworthy: Salem led the conference in team offense (3.85 gpg) and was second in team defense (2.75).
Last Year’s Record: 12-14-1, 10-7-1
Coach: Bob Miele, 6th yr. (52-66-14)
Key Returning Players: F Jackson Leef, So., F Dalton Jay, Jr.
Key newcomers: F Roman Pfennings, Connecticut EHL, Josh Finkelstein, Toronto Canadiens OJHL.
Key departures: F Vince Perreault, G Eddie Davey.
Noteworthy: Perreault has turned pro with Knoxville (SPHL).
Last Year’s Record: 9-15-1, 5-12-1
Coach: Shayne Toporowski, 1st Yr. (NR)
Key Returning Players: F Nathan Stanley, Sr., F Andrew Bates, Sr., F Stephen Rock, Sr., F Alex DeWitz, So.
Key newcomers: F Shawn Haltam, Ogden WSHL, F Alex Pommerville, Salt Lake WSHL.
Key departures: D Curtis Martin, F Derek Soborn.
Noteworthy: Toporowski, who played three games in the NHL (Toronto), moves across town after one season as an assistant at Holy Cross.