Just two seasons ago, the Salve Regina Seahawks celebrated an ECAC Northeast championship and first-ever NCAA tournament berth. Last season in the newly formed CCC, the Seahawks fell in the conference quarterfinals, but this year’s edition that opened with a road win against defending national champion Norwich returns many of the same key ingredients for success, even though their coach behind the bench is different.
“The win over Norwich to open the season was huge for us,” said first-year coach Zach Klann. “We enjoy setting our sights on playing the very best teams and competing at a high level. The challenge for us this season is building on what Andy [Boschetto] left behind and keeping the strong group of seniors and returning players comfortable in the transition.”
Boschetto left Salve Regina during the off season to pursue an assistant coaching position with Jason Lammers’ new staff at D-I Niagara. Klann was brought on board as the new coach and has inherited a strong team with great leadership that, most importantly, has embraced the transition and changes between the coaching systems and philosophies.
“I think the seniors and other key upperclassmen have really handled the transition well,” stated Klann. “It isn’t easy to go through a lot of change, especially in your senior year with a program, but I have been impressed with their adaptability and focus on transitioning to some new and different things we want to do with our game and personnel. One area where that support to the coaching staff has been clearly visible has been watching Nick [Cyr] and Kevin [Clare] and their work with a very young defensive group that includes four freshmen and a sophomore in the core group. They have been a great extension of the coaching staff and really show how all the players have bought in.”
Klann has been generally pleased with the first-half performance, despite some key injuries that have claimed the likes of senior captain Evan Schmidbauer, who was lost for the season. Several players have shown to be more than even their reputations that preceded them, and Klann has taken note of the stellar group he has available to compete in the second half.
“Obviously, you lose a senior and captain like Evan it is a loss to the team,” noted Klann. “Everyone can complain about injuries, but we have to keep moving forward and the break comes at a good time for us to heal up some guys and get ready for a big second half.”
One of the team’s key contributors is junior goaltender Blake Wojtala, who has started each of the Seahawks’ 13 games this season and been the starter since his arrival as a freshman. Wojtala’s numbers this year virtually mirror his career numbers with a .921 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.30 for the 8-3-2 Seahawks.
“I believed everything I heard about Blake before coming here,” said Klann. “Now I have had the chance to see it first-hand. He is the most competitive guy in the room and is very verbal with his teammates. His competitiveness translates across the team, and his performance on the ice is clearly something our players have immense confidence in.”
Offensively, the Seahawks have seen leadership from senior Pat Thompson, but a pair of underclassmen lead the scoring parade. Sophomore Jack Billings and freshman Danny Eruzione have posted 19 and 14 points respectively in the first half, and their coach believes there is much more and better ahead for the offense.
“Jack has been really clutch for us in the first half of the season,” said Klann. “He has the points and some clutch goals for us already this season. I think he is knocking on the door of the ability he has overall. There is more in there, in his game, and I think he is only going to get better in the second half.”
The season-opening win was a great confidence boost for the team, and the second half of the season opens with a similar opportunity in the long-standing Codfish Bowl Tournament hosted by Massachusetts-Boston on December 29-30 in Boston. The tournament has one of the best fields in recent history with all four teams receiving national poll recognition this season and two teams ranked in the top five. The first round features the host school facing Williams, while the Seahawks face last year’s Frozen Four participant Adrian.
“We always want to be playing the best programs we can,” said Klann. “Just like the Norwich game in the first half, the Codfish gives us the chance to build some positive momentum against some of the best teams in the country. Knowing that is coming up right after the Christmas holiday should help keep the kids focused over the break and staying in shape so we can be at our best in the tournament to open the second half strong.”
The Seahawks are just 1-2-0 in nonconference games so far this season, including the win at Norwich and losses in New York against Morrisville and nationally ranked Utica. Besides getting healthy over the break, the coach is hoping for a bit more improvement with the special teams to help the second half push.
“One of the areas of transition this year is the power play and penalty kill,” said Klann. “I think we just need to simplify some things a bit with both and we should be fine.”
The Seahawks will be looking to simplify quickly as they face a No. 2 Adrian team that may still be smarting from back-to-back losses to Wisconsin-Stevens Point to close out their first half.