Despite the abrupt end to the college hockey season and cancellation of the NCAA tournament, Utica and their head coach Gary Heenan can take great pride in the many achievements of their team this season despite some early challenges and team chemistry changes. Heenan led the Pioneers through those challenges on the way to the program’s best season including the No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It has been hard to process everything with the speed and abruptness that the season ended with before the national tournament,” said Heenan. “We literally had just a single day before having to send the kids off campus due to the coronavirus crisis. We didn’t have an opportunity to finish things on the ice like we wanted to against a talented tournament field but we can celebrate the best season in program history that included a 25-2-2 record and a record 20 consecutive wins. With the journey we had this year, those numbers didn’t seem possible at the beginning of the season.”
After a loss at Stevenson in early December, the Pioneers record stood at 5-2-2 overall and just 3-2-1 in the challenging UCHC. Heenan and his staff knew they needed a reset on the chemistry in the room and some healthy returns of veteran players from the injured list to get the team fully in the right direction. The loss against Stevenson would be their last “L” of the 2019-20 campaign and the desired culture shift was embraced and adopted by all.
“We had to change a lot of things,” stated Heenan. “I give my staff and the players a lot of credit for changing the dynamic and really giving us chance to have the season we did. It was tough at the beginning and like only one other year when I really didn’t like going in the locker room – it was awkward and our leadership group was struggling. We knew we needed a reset and leveraged social media with the team to reinforce the areas of focus. They really bought in and you could see the impacts in a lot of areas. We moved to a more wide-open style of play and away from being one of the most penalized teams. We got some players back like [Gianluca] Baggetta and [Conor] Landrigan who had big impacts on the ice and in the room. We won 20 games in a row and just got better and better as the season progressed.”
The amazing win streak helped the Pioneers win the regular season title in the UCHC; win the conference tournament with two-game sweeps of Nazareth and Wilkes in the semifinal and final round of the conference tournament and assume the No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament where they awaited the winner of the Wesleyan v. Babson first round game in the quarterfinals.
“We would have loved to have had the chance to play it out just like all the other teams in the field,” stated Heenan. “There were some real long-term power programs in the tournament like Norwich, Geneseo, Hobart and Wisconsin-Eau Claire. It was a great field that we will never know the outcome and how we would have matched up in a strong field. It was a very tough way to end a successful season and I really feel for our four seniors who couldn’t play it out on the ice. This situation extends our off-season but we are already getting ready for next year.”