October 10, 2013

Atlantic season preview: UConn aims to finish strong

By Allen Lessels


Junior Trevor Gerling ranked second on the Huskies with 12 goals last season. (Photo: UConn Athletics)
 

The University of Connecticut, a founding member of the Atlantic Hockey Association, begins its final season in the league with a two-game series at Minnesota State in Mankato on Oct. 18 and 19.

UConn, fueled by a nice run under adverse circumstances last season, has every intention of making some noise in its last Atlantic go-round before taking up residence in Hockey East next season.

“I think it’s important we don’t forget that the seniors on this team are not going to be able to play in Hockey East, while the rest of us are excited about that,” said first-year coach Mike Cavanaugh (North Andover, Mass.), who came to Storrs from Boston College. “I think we’d be doing a disservice to our seniors if all we focused on was Hockey East.”

Coaches’ meetings with assistants Mike Souza (Wakefield, Mass.) and Joe Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) — former Hockey East standouts at the University of New Hampshire and Boston University, respectively — have been divided into two parts, Cavanaugh said.

The coaches look at what the Huskies need to do to compete in Atlantic Hockey this season and then turn their focus to what lies ahead.

“The AHA is a good league and a league UConn has never won,” Cavanaugh said. “When we get to recruiting, we focus on Hockey East. I think we’ve been cognizant that with this current team we’ve got to be focused on competing for an AHA title every single day.”

It’s a tall task.

“We don’t come here thinking it’s going to be a cakewalk,” Cavanaugh said. “Quite the contrary.”

The Huskies are leaving Atlantic Hockey while the conference is on an upswing, in fact.

“Last year, we had our best year ever as far as nonleague results,” said league commissioner Bob DeGregorio (Winthrop, Mass.). “We’ve got to continue to improve the league’s overall ratings and strength of schedule. We can’t just schedule those guys. We’ve got to beat them.”

For the first time last season, Atlantic Hockey sent two teams to the NCAA tournament. Canisius grabbed the automatic bid for winning the league tournament, and Niagara, based on a super season, was awarded Atlantic Hockey’s first at-large bid.

“We’d like to keep that going, too,” DeGregorio said. “That’s another objective, to get two or three teams into the national tournament each year.”

As for the Huskies, they had their best overall season in their 10 years of Atlantic Hockey at 19-14-4 and were over .500 for the first time.

They did it with a late surge under Dave Berard (West Warwick, R.I.), who started the season as the assistant coach and stepped up and took over after longtime coach Bruce Marshall (West Boylston, Mass.) first took a leave of absence and later in the season resigned.

Last year’s success and run to a fourth-place finish in the standings and to the league semifinals helped ease his transition and ideally will help pave the way for this season, Cavanaugh said.

“The kids had some success and felt they had enough to win Atlantic Hockey and didn’t,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re really going to be focused on that goal and they believe they can do it. Having a belief in the locker room that you can win is half the battle. You’ve got to believe you can do something before you do it. The job David did with that is commendable. They did a fine job down the stretch.”

The Huskies will try to pick up where they left off, led by folks like goalie Matt Grogan, who was a listed as a senior last year but has another year of eligibility, and senior forwards Brant Harris, Jordan Sims and Billy Latta.

Grogan grabbed the starting job halfway through the season and was outstanding, finishing with a .937 save percentage, 1.93 goals-against average and 14-4-3 record.

Recruiting for the future is well under way, and Cavanaugh, who is working toward a full complement of scholarships, is excited about what he has to sell to prospective players — from the new league to the school’s commitment to the sport to a new facility that is in the planning stages and pegged to be ready for the 2017-18 season.

The message appears to be getting through.

“We’re doing OK in recruiting,” Cavanaugh said. “I can’t mention people by name but we’ve had some success early.”

Various websites have reported that Will Golonka, a forward from Carlisle, Mass., out of Belmont Hill, and Derek Pratt, a defenseman from Mount Hermon, Mass., are among the young players who have made commitments and are UConn-bound.

He and his staff will be keeping a close eye out for local players, Cavanaugh said.

“We want to be very strong in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “You look at the NHL right now. You’ve got guys like Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings, Hamden, Conn.), Colin McDonald (Islanders, New Haven, Conn.), Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets, Greenwich, Conn.) and right down the line.”

Quick played at the University of Massachusetts, McDonald at Providence and Atkinson at Boston College.

Cavanaugh wants the next Connecticut kid’s school of choice to be the home-state university.

“A lot of good hockey players come out of here and we certainly want to make it an emphasis to recruit in this state as well as western Massachusetts,” Cavanaugh said. “Long Island, New York and New Jersey are areas we’ll focus on, too. But we’re not limited to the region. We’re going to spread our wings as wide as needed to attract players.”

But that’s recruiting and tomorrow’s focus.

Today’s is all about grabbing UConn its first Atlantic Hockey championship and using it as a launching pad into Hockey East.

ATLANTIC HOCKEY PRESEASON RANKINGS

1. Canisius

 2. Mercyhurst

 3. Connecticut

 4. RIT

 5. Air Force

 6. Niagara

 7. Holy Cross

 8. Bentley

 9. Robert Morris

10. Army

11. American Int.

12. Sacred Heart

 

To read Allen’s in-depth analysis of each team in Atlantic Hockey, check out his team capsules in the digital edition of our October issue.

Twitter: @AllenLessels
Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com