That’s really the only way to describe a year where your absolute favorite sports team finishes 6-23-6. That’s a bafflingly ugly number, ain’t it? In perspective, UMass finished just six points ahead of Lowell, which had one of the worst seasons any D1 athletics program has ever had in any sport ever. The difference there was UMass’s 3-0 record against its vastly inferior little sister school. The Minutemen would win three other games all season – two against a pretty-bad Vermont program, and a lonely nonconference rout of Quinnipiac (hardly adequate revenge for last year’s heartbreaking loss which sent the Minutemen into a season-collapsing tailspin).
We all saw this coming, although some of us (i.e. this blog) saw a slightly less hopeless season ahead. While most critics rightfully saw an already-overrated Lowell squad losing pretty much every relevant player to graduation as a recipe for disaster, most were equally skeptical of a UMass team losing its five leading scorers to either graduation or the professional ranks, and UMass was thus picked to barely finish ahead of Lowell in many preseason rankings. Indeed, in many years, 16 points would be enough to doom UMass to miss the postseason, and only yet another awful Providence season allowed UMass the chance for a hard-fought two-game sweep against BC (again). The Minutemen managed not to win any of its final 14 games down the stretch. Their last win? Paul Dainton’s only career shutout victory, which we attended, the 6-0 thomping of Vermont that led the three of us to some misguided optimism about how far this primarily-freshman team had come in just over half a season.
Yet, for once, the long stretch of winless games down the stretch actually showed signs of improvement, believe it or not. As the schedule turned from the dregs of Hockey East, from the Lowells and Vermonts and Providences of the world, we saw the Minutemen jack up the caliber of play to match the opposition. With the notable exception of one weekend, during which the UMass men’s club hockey team apparently suited up and wore the varsity team’s numbers in a 17-2 combined clubbing at the hands of BC and ‘Mack, UMass played a long series of down-to-the-wire heartbreakers against the class of Hockey East – Merrimack, BC, Maine. Five straight one-goal losses followed by an easily-winnable tie.
In fact, making that weekend more inexplicable, the Minutemen played the class of Hockey East pretty damn close all season long. Even in that BC game, the Eagles were kept mostly in check until they broke it open in the waning minutes. In the three-game series against UNH and BU, the Minutemen pulled off two ties (again, both winnable games, but I digress), and kept the other games close enough considering the considerable blue line youth on display back early in the year. UMass blew leads against the Huskies twice at home (though their visit to Matthews was a pretty poor showing) too. All of these woulda-shoulda-coulda moments can come to a couple conclusions, not any of which are mutually exclusive:
1) These guys were young, like REAL young, and has yet to learn how to close games out.
There was a severe lack of experience at pretty much every key position this year for UMass. Doug Kublin led the blue line corps, but everyone else of note was a freshman or sophomore. Adam Phillips and Joel Hanley saw a huge chunk of minutes. Anthony Raiola was forced into a lot of action. Conor Allen and Colin Shea logged a lot of ice time. See a pattern? Outside of Kubbie, who really had any significant experience coming in? Darren Rowe played a bit, as did Mikey Marcou. The latter had a pretty awful season, but he’s also going on just one year of regular playing time, and missed a number of games this year to injury. The young D-corps got better as the season went on, but can we really expect/trust these guys to be able to know how to shut down bigger, more experienced forwards when the game’s on the line? Not yet, my friends. Not yet.
Likewise, the forwards, outside of Hobbs, Syner, Concannon, and Langeraap, were a rotating group of youngsters. The offense performed admirably in the absence of Jimmy and Casey and the like, but even those guys took until their sophomore years to develop into offensive leaders. Mike Pereira, Conor Sheary, Branden Gracel – all of them look poised to have great careers for this squad. I’m also high on the prospects for guys like Troy Power and Adam Phillips (as I’ve said in the past, I’m a big proponent of having a blue-line scoring threat like Irwin showed flashes of being) contributing in big ways offensively next year. Syner and Hobbs, while not as dominant as Marcou and Wellman were, are a dynamic scoring duo who I think will have a lot better support around them than their predecessors had (no offense to Syner and Hobbs themselves, who were part of that support). This unit will nonetheless require a bit more time playing together to really find their groove. The offense unfortunately did struggle at times this year, but again – it’s hard to imagine such a young team succeeding against bigger, more experience teams, when the Minutemen are already at such a recruiting disadvantage to the more established powers of Hockey East. The program is making strides, but it’s not there yet, and it’ll take a lot more sustained success if and when it wants to get up to that level.
On the flip side…
2) The results would have been even worse – a lot worse – without #31 between the pipes.
The Minutemen, as I noted in last year’s postseason recap, did have one important crutch coming back – a senior goaltender, one who has always been at least above-average in Hockey East, and one who’s had a penchant for stealing games on occasion. Dainton was true to form this year, posting solid numbers and seemingly playing his best hockey down the stretch run, including another strong showing in the playoffs at Chestnut Hill. Obviously, next year the training wheels come off, and UMass will be relying on Jeff Teglia an awful lot.
There are some bright spots to this. Jeff Teglia may have struggled a bit in his initial appearances for the Minutemen, but he nonetheless got some experience under his belt. When Dainton took over following Jon Quick’s sudden departure in ’07, he was a pure freshman with no collegiate experience, handed the starting job with only sophomore Dan Meyers behind him. Granted, Teglia’s “experienced” backup next year is Kevin Moore, similar to Meyers in clubhouse presence and leadership but slightly less legitimate as a “backup.” On the other hand, Dainton also didn’t have a young buck behind him competing for playing time. Tegs will have two freshman recruits, Boyle and Mastalerz, and the competition for the starting job can only help as a motivating factor.
Beyond that, though, it’s pretty well-established in the local media that Dainton was the prototypical “good clubhouse guy,” earning that “C” on his uniform in his leadership of the young Minutemen. Here’s hoping that this means he taught Tegs everything he knows (minus the whole “wandering around outside the crease to play the puck” thing? Please? My heart can’t handle three more years of this!) and maybe even offered some advice to Boyle and/or Mastalerz, too.
And who knows? Not to belittle the accomplishments of the program’s all-time saves leader, but couldn’t it be within the realm of possibility that one of these recruits (who, for what I can recall, all seem more highly-touted than Dainton was when he was recruited) could emerge as being better than Pauly D was? Is that blasphemy? This is a program that produced a top-5 NHL goalie right now in Quick. Sure, that was back when Dennehy was pulling in quality recruits, but goalie coach Mike Buckley is still here. While I think that the students’ chants of “Teg-li-a!” in that last weekend against Maine were frankly pretty moronic (that student article is coming in the offseason, I swear!), I still have a good feeling that the goalie situation with resolve itself sooner than later. (As in, before the bulk of the conference schedule starts next year. Fingers crossed.)
So, yeah. The walk through hell is over. It was one of the worst seasons in program history on paper, yet, unlike the baskettaball team’s season, the trend was upward nonetheless. Aside from Dainton, what is this team losing next year? Chase Langeraap finally started to put it together at the end of his career, and everyone knows that we’re heartbroken to be losing Kubbie, but Saunders was a frequent healthy scratch, Concannon and Lecomte are what-could-have-been stories thanks to lingering injuries, and Keane never really lived up to expectations.
Next year, we’ll see another couple blue-line prospects in Mike Busillo and the towering Oleg Yevenko. Between Yevenko and Phillips, the blue-line will finally have something we haven’t really seen much of in this program: size. Meanwhile, while losing Kublin, UMass will bring back a solid young corps who have improved throughout the year, with Phillips, Hanley, Rowe, Raiola, Allen, and Shea. With all those guys coming in, Donnellan hopefully returning from injury, and Mikey hopefully using his rough year as motivation to come back much-improved (being healthy from the get-go would help), hopefully the team can cover up the loss of one of the most consistent defensemen the team’s ever seen.
Likewise, offensively, unless someone unexpectedly bolts to the NHL like last year (highly unlikely), there are a lot fewer question marks. Again, Pereira, Hobbs, Syner, Gracel, and Sheary form the basis of a highly effective offensive corps. Rocco Carzo will hopefully use his strong finish to the season as a springboard to becoming a contributor offensively. Czepiel, Olcyzk, Filiou, DeAngelo, Power, and Kiley all saw playing time this year and have potential to be a strong supporting cast with another year under their belts. Shane Walsh and Zack LaRue will come in as freshmen with solid juniors numbers and a chance to contribute without the pressure this year’s freshman class had of carrying the team. Last-minute update: And you can add Joseph Manno to that list, too. He and LaRue both have some pretty impressive scouting reports going for them. And really, for Derek’s sake, it would be sick to have a guy named Walsh AND a guy from his hometown of Melrose (Sheary) on the same team, both doing well.
Do I think these guys will suddenly become the class of Hockey East next year? Of course not. Unless eeerrryone gets up and leaves, BC’s current crop of stars has one more year together, although I’m far less sold on Parker Milner than I am with John Muse. BU and Maine also have a significant amount of talent returning next year, and Northeastern could be frisky if their young stars can fill the McNeely/MacLeod void right away. UNH loses a massive percentage of its scoring and should be on the decline next year, and, while Merrimack’s days in the basement appear over for a while, they do lose some key seniors, including goalie stalwart Joe Cannata, and I just don’t see Da Costa turning down the limelight of the NHL as well. In the bottom ranks, I don’t see Vermont getting significantly better anytime soon, and who knows what to make of Providence or Lowell given their coaching situations. In other words, the middle of the pack is, honestly, a pretty reasonable expectation. I could see this team finishing anywhere from 3rd to 7th next year. There’s a lot of factors at stake. Given everything, though, improvement is the only logical scenario. The question is how much this team improves, and we will have to wait through another long summer and fall until we get to find out.
So that’s the year and the outlook in a nutshell. Now, as for the blog. This was my first year following the team as an alum. Half the year I was limited to watching choppy streaming video online from my apartment in Disney World, and the other half I got to experience the game from the student section a few more times (albeit at 12-16 bucks a game) with Derek and Matt and the gang. We also made a number of roadtrips, one successful (Vermont!) and a few less so (to Merrimack, as well as Matt and Derek’s trip to UNH, which I still need to visit). We will continue to follow the team next year, both from a blog standpoint and literally, as we look to cross Orono and Providence off our to-do list. We also want to make trips to Quinnipiac and any other New England venues the team gets scheduled to visit (Harvard? Cornell?).
That said, I founded Fight Mass to create a venue for the student section to band together, something I haven’t quite seen yet. I love that some of you have approached us about the blog, and your continued readership has been tremendous. Really, I could write about this all day regardless of who reads it, but at the same time, I’d love for those of you who do read it to continue to get involved and spread Fight Mass to your friends. I’ll get into it further when I write my student section piece (I swear, offseason, it’ll happen soon – I figure it’s the perfect thing to fill the offseason void), but I think part of the problem with UMass from a student fanbase perspective is a lack of organization. Without organization, a student section cannot build tradition, aside from “one random drunk guy yells ‘fuck BU’ and everyone else joins in, derp!” It was an organized, albeit small, group of fans that built the limited tradition UMass has (i.e. its chants, many of which are cribbed from other Hockey East schools, by the way), and even these traditions are falling apart (i.e. we don’t even say “how much time’s left?” anymore, people think the goal chant is “fuck fuck fuck fuck go UMass,” and other various fails one would expect from a Lowell but certainly not from a school of this caliber). I don’t want to just tell people what to do, because a) that will never work, and b) no one man should have all that pooowah. Instead, I want the students who know what’s going on to have a place to gather, and tell themselves what to do, together.
More on that later. For now, what you need to know is that myself, Matt, and Derek will continue to write for the blog, observers that we are. (Ben is welcome to continue contributing as well, if he so desires.) We have a few interested undergraduates who have contacted us about contributing. I’ve talked to all of them and gotten a writing sample from one, and I like the cut of all of their very different but interesting jibs. None of us is comfortable about “handing the reins” off to anyone, of course. I’m not entirely sure if that will ever really happen, because if someone with a 9-to-5 “real” job like Coogan can find the time to maintain a blog at a high level of involvement, we should be able to do so between the three of us with whatever employment we post-graduate scrubs can scrounge up.
How the blog will continue remains to be seen, but I envision the three founders contributing more the way we have so far: myself as the “big picture” guy, Walsh with the nitty-gritty hockey knowledge, Matt with his sharp wit and fury of a thousand suns fueling his various rants. Alongside that we see contributors as a chance for us to stay in touch with the student section, as we almost surely will be limited in our ability to all three of us commute all the fucking way to Amherst from wherever we happen to be when next season rolls around. For all we know, we might all end up closer to Boston (the other two already do live near there and I live slightly closer to there than to Amherst) and we’d catch the Minutemen in person more often in their road games out here. This is where the contributors would be useful. Again, it’s all up in the air. For now, if you’re a reader and interested in contributing, hit us up on the Facebook group and send us a message. And keep telling your friends, goddamnit! “Like” the Facebook group. It takes like 10 seconds. Really.
One more thing I’d like to say before the sun sets on our season recap is that the highlight of the year, for me anyway, was the chance to befriend Mark of Fear the Triangle. I’ve made it no secret that FtT is my most prominent inspiration for starting Fight Mass, and I’m pleased to announce that he’s also a great guy outside of his Internet persona, too. His blogging advice has been priceless and you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone with a more genuine love for this program and dedication for what he does. And on top of all that, he’s provided us with some tremendous beer recommendations to boot – even Toot gave him a shout out on senior night at the press conference. (Seriously. Read the “Road Trip” section on FtT if you’re going to a UMass road game ever.) We here at Fight Mass are proud to call him a friend and the UMass hockey community is lucky to have him.
So that’s it for the 2010-2011 season. Like I said, I’ll be offering my take on what’s wrong with the student section soon, and maybe the occasional update on our nationally-ranked men’s lacrosse team or the hopefully-imminent move of UMass football to the FBS, but otherwise, there’s not a ton to talk about in the offseason. I would like to take this opportunity to mention my forthcoming secondary blog, Six Lengths Ahead (tentative title, which will probably stick since I already started it and such) in which I will be publishing various musings, from Boston’s pro sports teams and other non-UMass happenings, to other pop culture things. Yeah, it sounds kinda Simmons-y, but hopefully with all the wit and none of the continuous references to the same three or four 80’s movies. Anyway, I haven’t written anything yet (I’ll probably start with a roundup of this week’s returns of Community, 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, or a look at the soon-to-be-done-for-the-season U.S. adaptation of the brilliant British show Skins) but rest assured that content is coming. Oh yes, it’ll be coming, hard and long (maybe not 3,000+ words long, but you know) all summer long and beyond.
As for the hockey team, the future is always brighter than the surface of a freshly zambonied ice surface. For all we know, Hobbs will head off to the Rangers early, all the goalies will suck, and the team will struggle along yet again. Or they’ll bolt out of the gate to a 10-2-2 record, then Cahoon Swoon their way to another low seed and early exit.
But maybe, just maybe, they won’t. And so goes the life of a UMass hockey fan. Call it masochism, call it madness, call it blind loyalty to an alma mater. We call it devotion. And one of these years, damnit, we’re bound to be right.
And so the question begs to be asked…
Is it October yet?