January 15, 2013

Division 3 Journal: UNE on the upswing

By Mike Zhe

Senior defenseman Russ Franey and the Nor'easters aim to get back to .500. (Fotografix)

When University of New England forward Nick Kolb finished off a pass from Sean Sullivan (Worcester, Mass.) in overtime Saturday, their team had taken a sluggish bar and raised it to a point it hadn’t seen before.

Now, if it’s not elevated even higher by the time the year’s up, it will be considered a disappointment. But nobody at UNE expects to be disappointed.

The Nor’easters, for the first time since being elevated to the Division 3 varsity level in 2009-10, swept a weekend ECAC East series. They beat St. Anselm, 4-3, on Friday and won by the same score against New England College the next night, with Kolb’s goal punctuating the four-point weekend.

“It feels great to get a big four points,” said Kolb afterward.

Like many programs transitioning to the varsity level, the early road has been rocky for UNE, whose 5-9 record this season (3-6 in ECAC East) is ahead of past editions, the first three of whom went 3-22, 6-19 and 4-19-2.

But now, they think they finally have a view of the good stuff.

“It’s a lofty goal, but .500 hosts a playoff game,” said UNE coach Brad Holt (Dover, N.H.). “Usually, Norwich finishes at the top and we’re at the bottom, and we play Norwich (in the quarterfinals). We’d like to not play Norwich, at least at the start.”

Before penciling in ECAC East quarterfinal hockey in Biddeford, Maine, there are still things to address. It starts with an almost cartoonish penalty kill, which has succeeded just 61.3 percent of the time (38-of-62).

“We may have the worst shorthanded percentage in the country,” acknowledged Holt.

Goaltenders Ian Edwards, Keith McDonald (Storrs, Conn.) and Colby Drost – all three have played significantly – are seeing an average of 34 shots a game.  The Nor’easters are scoring 3.0 goals a game but giving up more than four.

“I think we have a pretty good team,” said Drost, a transfer from Division 1 Niagara who backstopped both weekend wins. “As long as we stay competitive and stay focused, we can win games.”

Hovering over the athletic program the last couple years has been an investigation into the misuse of diversity scholarship money. That caused several players to leave the hockey program and left it relying on a whole bunch if freshmen a year ago.

This year, things have been more settled.

“We have matured dramatically,” said Holt. “The four seniors that we have, they helped us get through a tough time. … Last year we relied on freshmen and it was tough on them. Now, as sophomores, they’ve risen up.”

Something that’s also risen up for UNE is its new home, after playing its first three seasons in town at the Biddeford Ice Arena. The Harold Alfond Forum is a 106,500-square foot, on-campus facility that includes a 900-seat arena, a performance court and a multi-purpose indoor court. Construction was advanced by a $10 million commitment from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

“Ridiculously beautiful,” said Holt.

After some lean years, the future for UNE doesn’t look too bad either.

Player of the Week

Zeke Testa, sr., G, Babson

Beavers got outshot 34-13 at first-place Norwich on Saturday, but got 33 saves from Testa (Wellesley, Mass.) in a 4-1 win.

Game of the Week

Bowdoin at Williams, Friday, 7 p.m.

The no-longer-unbeaten Polar Bears face their stiffest trip of the season, with this anticipated game followed by a jaunt up Route 7 to play Middlebury.

New England Division 3 Power Rankings

1. Bowdoin (13-1-1, 8-1-1 NESCAC)

Polar Bears’ 6-5 overtime loss to Wesleyan Friday means that there will not be an unbeaten team in Division 3 this winter.

2. Norwich (13-2, 8-1 ECAC East)

Two quality wins for Cadets last week, against Middlebury (3-1) and UMass-Boston (6-1), before getting stoned by Babson and Testa on Saturday.

3. Williams (8-3-1, 6-1-1 NESCAC)

Ephs took a 4-1 lead into the third period at No. 10 Plattsburgh Saturday but lost 5-4 in overtime to snap a seven-game unbeaten streak.

4. Plymouth State (11-4, 7-1 MASCAC)

Dave Walters was the overtime hero Thursday, scoring an OT shorty to beat Westfield State, 3-2. Panthers have now won seven straight league games.

5. Babson (9-3-2, 5-2-1 ECAC East)

Great balanced scoring in weekend sweep of St. Michael’s (4-3) and Norwich in Vermont. Former Milton Academy standout Jay Haseley had a marker each night.

6. Amherst (8-4-1, 5-3 NESCAC)

Mike Rowbotham had a goal and three assists as Lord Jeffs beat Tufts (6-2) and tied Conn. College (2-2).

7. UMass-Boston (10-3-1, 4-3-1 ECAC East)

Freshman Peter MacIntyre (Norfolk, Mass.) and Mike DeGrazia each scored twice as Beacons took out frustrations of 6-1 loss at Norwich by walloping St. Michael’s, 10-3.

8. Nichols (10-6, 3-2 ECAC Northeast)

Bison got two goals from Frank Butler (East Haven, Conn.) and pumped out 46 shots on goal in 5-2 win over Brockport, then gave No. 4 Hobart a game on Sunday, losing 2-1.

9. Trinity (6-4-3, 3-2-3 NESCAC)

Bantams have gone just 1-3-2 since returning from their holiday break and have scored a total of 10 goals in those games.

10. Castleton State (9-5-2, 4-4-1 ECAC East)

Spartans went 2-3-1 before Thanksgiving, 7-2-1 since. Erick Cinotti stopped 25 shots in 2-1 win at Plymouth State last Tuesday.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeZhe603.