Sacred Heart poised to continue climb up Atlantic Hockey ranks

Sacred Heart’s Mitch Nylen is a team cornerstone (photo: Omar Phillips).

It’s often said that respect is earned and not given. If that’s the case, then no team is arguably earning more than the Sacred Heart Pioneers.

A year after earning the program’s first home playoff series since 2010, the Pioneers rocketed up Atlantic Hockey’s ranks to start 2015-16, placing fifth in the preseason coaches poll. It’s their highest ranking since the league expanded from 10 teams to 12 back in 2011 and their highest preseason tally of the CJ Marottolo era.

“It’s nice that the other coaches in the league placed us there,” Marottolo said, “but polls don’t predict the future. We have our own goals as a group. Atlantic Hockey is such a hard league and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We have a lot of respect for the other teams.”

The product is the result of a period of growth within their ranks. Sacred Heart lost few key scoring pieces to graduation. Of the 12 players who tallied 10 points or more last year, only Ben Lake and Drew George graduated. The top six of the defense at the end of last season lost only one player, Will Rayner.

And with a batch of young goalies in Sammy Bernard, Nathan Perry and Brett Magnus — two sophomores and a freshman, respectively — the Pioneers are poised to have a breakout season if it can all come together.

“The key is consistency night in and night out,” said Marottolo. “[We need to be ready to] practice the way we need every day. Last season we lost four or five games in a row and then came back and won five out of seven.”

A big part of that consistency stems from the team’s continuity in leadership. Among the AHC’s top returning skaters is defenseman Mitch Nylen, who recorded 16 assists last season, 13 in conference play. He was plus-7, and as a junior this year, he’s one of the cornerstones on which the Pioneers are built.

“Mitch Nylen has had a very seamless transition [to a leader],” Marottolo said. “[He’s a] great skater. Good habits. How he prepares is second to none. He watches the game, he studies tape. He’s an outstanding role model as a leader, great to coach, great teammate.”

Sacred Heart opens its season with three of its first four games on the road, including tilts at Union and Massachusetts. The Pioneers’ home opener, on Oct. 17, will be against Division I newcomer Arizona State, and they’ll have road games at Penn State.

The game against the Sun Devils will be played in Danbury, Conn., at the Danbury Ice Arena in memory of Jason Pagni, a Connecticut icon who passed away suddenly in 2014. The game will acknowledge Pagni’s legacy within the hockey community and help benefit the Gabriella and Madelyn Pagni Education Fund.

In conference, the Pioneers drew arguably the most balanced schedule, playing only two four-game series against western opponents (Robert Morris and Canisius). Their other four-game series will come against Holy Cross and Army West Point.

Last season

13-19-6, 10-12-6 (eighth) in Atlantic Hockey. Lost to Canisius in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals.

Names to know

The Pioneers are loaded with returnees, including leading scorers Zach Luczyk and Jordan Minello. Justin Danforth, Evan Jasper, Zach Sabatini, Alec Butcher and Kory Kennedy are all back up front, with Mitch Nylen, Erlich Doerksen, Jacob Brightbill and David Iacono on the blue line.

Three questions

1. Does Sacred Heart continue to rise and jump into the top five of the league? Some believe the Pioneers could be the team that joins Canisius, Robert Morris and RIT as potential league champions emerging from the pack.

2. Who emerges as the goalie? Despite a loaded talent base up front, there is limited experience returning in net following the departures of Alex Vazzano and Andrew Bodnarchuk.

3. Can the special teams improve? Sacred Heart had the third-worst power play in the nation. If the Pioneers can improve in that area, they can potentially score the three wins needed that would have netted them a first-round bye last season.

Crystal ball

Every year, someone makes the jump to the top of the league. If the offense and defense continue their development, it’ll help the goaltending get acclimated quite easily. If the power play improves on last year’s performance, it’s going to be a fun season in Connecticut.