This weekend begins in earnest the six-week season sprint for the UCHC championship as the league commences play as the only conference in the East to do so. With nine teams playing, King’s opted out of the season, the schedule is both condensed and intense in the travel schedule with teams playing eight of the nine opponents. While the playoff format is still to be determined, there is excitement about playing in this most unique of all seasons.
“We’re excited,” stated Utica head coach Gary Heenan. “I think it is a feather in our cap that we are the only conference playing in the East and a lot of effort has been made by the conference, member institutions and the teams to make this happen. While we don’t know how it is going to go, we are ready to get it going this weekend against a really good Wilkes team.”
The UCHC has consistently been a highly competitive league with playoff positions usually decided on the very last weekend of regular season play. While the schedule is dramatically condensed, expectations are high for a very competitive race for the championship.
“I really don’t expect the competition level to be any different,” noted Heenan. “We are the defending champions, so we know we are going to get everyone’s best. We feel like the target is on us. Wilkes returns a great roster with some high-end talent; Stevenson has loaded up on their team and Elmira is Elmira just to talk about a few teams. The home-and-home series with the travel is going to be interesting and it will likely come down to who can stay healthy and manage all of process the best.”
Among the teams playing with a shorter roster than usual, Utica has 20 skaters and two goalies available to play. The lack of extra players has the full attention of those players who have committed to the season and added to the energy level on the ice for practices.
“Unfortunately, we had a couple of players seek opportunities to play elsewhere and five more opt out to remote schooling at Christmas before we had any information on the possibility for a season,” said Heenan. “It is like coaching a pro roster with just the four lines and two goalies and the practices have been high energy with the players excited to play. We will see who has knocked off the rust starting this weekend.
Utica returns a strong core group including forwards Brett Everson, Conor Landrigan, Regen Cavanaugh and last year’s freshman sensation, Brandon Osmundson. The defense has experience but three freshmen in front of goaltenders Sean Dickson and Joseph Giacobbo. Last week’s exhibition games against the USA U-17 squad gave the team the chance to play some high intensity hockey as well as learn from their two-game split in the series.
Wilkes returns a potent roster with a lot of goal-scoring talent including forwards Donald Flynn, Tyler Barrow, Nick Fea and Phil Erickson who all scored ten plus goals and 20-points or more for the Colonels. Michael Gurska is a strong two-way defenseman and Michael Paterson-Jones will look to build off his 16-win season in goal as a freshman.
Seventeen freshmen are among the 32 players on the Stevenson roster for coach Dominick Dawes. Last week the team took a pair of 4-1 wins over Chatham with strong play in the final two periods of both games to secure the victories. Junior Chad Watt leads the young season in scoring, but freshmen Mac Lowry and Eric Olson are contributing early for the Mustangs. Some quick maturation for this team could find them very much in the hunt for a title.
Elmira lost the top eight, point producers from last year’s team but coach Aaron Saul always seems to find a way to keep his team battling at the top. Senior defenseman Adam Eby and junior forward Marty Kapoian will provide the leadership for a young roster that includes 13 freshmen. With the condensed schedule the roster will need to gel early but don’t be surprised if the Soaring Eagles are in the hunt come the end of March.
Six teams kick-off conference play this weekend in pursuit of a conference title that means a lot to everyone playing and maybe a bit more to the seniors lacing them up for what may be their final season. It should be a great “season sprint” with some terrific hockey from players who have anxiously awaited their opportunity to play real competition for a year.