November 6, 2013

From NEHJ: Beacons of hope

By Mike Zhe

A big, talented sophomore class has UMass-Boston poised for a shot at the top spot in ECAC East. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

Whether they were ready or not, the training wheels were coming off for the UMass-Boston freshmen.

The verbal removal came between the first and second periods of a Nov. 20 game against Framingham State last season. The Beacons held a 2-1 lead, but their coach, Peter Belisle (Manville, R.I.), wasn’t happy. He had eight freshmen dressed and, during the first intermission in the locker room at the Clark Athletic Center, he directed at them the brunt of his anger.

“He sat all the freshmen down in front of the team and said: ‘This team is going nowhere unless you guys pick it up. There can’t be an adjustment period,’ ” recalled forward Peter MacIntyre (Norfolk, Mass.).

The players adjusted. They finished strong in a 9-4 win, a springboard to a seven-game win streak that left the .500 mark in its wake like a sputtering AMC Pacer. By year’s end, the 19 wins they’d collected were the second-most in program history, and three of the freshmen forwards — MacIntyre, Kit Sitterley and Frankie DeAugustine — were named to the All-Rookie team in ECAC East.

But nobody forgot Nov. 20.

“(Belisle) was slamming his stick around the locker room, getting in players’ faces,” said forward Derek Colucci (North Scituate, R.I.). “It really woke us up, opened our eyes. That was definitely a main key to our season.”

“It was a fire that got lit,” said MacIntyre, who scored a team-high 19 goals as a freshman last season. “For him to … not to give us the reins, but to ask us to step up and not play like freshmen, that was big for us.”

The Beacons enjoyed their best season since 1981-82 last winter, losing a heartbreaker to Babson in the ECAC East semifinals in Northfield, Vt., 4-3 — a game that’s still a topic of conversation. The 11 returning sophomores form the core of a team that has even higher hopes this time around, a conference title and NCAA tournament berth a spoken goal.

Even the older guys see it.

“This seemed like the longest preseason we’ve had,” said senior captain Travis Daniel, who led the team with 40 points last year and is 11 points away from joining the program’s century club. “Every time we saw Coach, he was excited. Guys are pumped.”

On a team that ranked third in Division 3 in scoring (4.67 goals, behind only Adrian and Oswego), the returning sophomores accounted for 55 of last year’s 126 goals, or nearly half. MacIntyre, Sitterley and DeAugustine formed one of the most dynamic lines in the country, and all the first-year players seemed to bond early.

“It’s a very tight-knit group,” said MacIntyre. “We all lived in the same apartment building last year. We’re all close.”

Most share another bond, too. Many took winding roads to get to UMB, arriving fashionably late as the low-Division 1, high-Division 3 demarcation played out.

MacIntyre, who brought a Division 1 body — 6-foot-5, 205 pounds — to UMB, was originally committed to UMass-Lowell after playing in the EJHL with the Boston Bandits, but was asked by Lowell to sit out a season before joining the team.

 “I didn’t think it would be good for me to sit out an entire hockey season,” he said. “I called Peter and he was happy to have me.”

“With his skill set,” said Belisle, “his reach, his shot, his playmaking ability — and he can be pretty physical, he’s got good speed, he can take a guy one-on-one and can shoot the puck a ton … I think this kid can make a little bit of a living off this game.”

Colucci had a family connection. His uncles had played for Belisle’s father, legendary coach Bill, at Mount St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island, and the families have been friendly for decades. He drew some interest from Hockey East schools Merrimack and Providence while skating for the South Shore Kings of the EJHL, but nothing materialized.

“He may be small in stature, but he plays well above his size,” said Belisle. “He’s probably one of the toughest kids on the team.”

DeAugustine, an NAHL kid from Pittsburgh, added 9-16-25 totals. Sitterley’s speed, meanwhile, was his ticket out of North Carolina. He had 9-19-28 last year.

“We just kind of stayed with these kids and were patient,” said Belisle. “You know these kids’ dreams are to play Division 1, and we have to respect that. But we run this like a Division 1 program. If the Division 1’s don’t come calling — ‘Hey, come to Boston.’ ”

Zach Andrews came. He took over the No. 1 goalie role and set a program record for freshman wins. So did Mike Miller (Wrentham, Mass.), a top penalty-killer. So did Andrew Crawford (Medford, Mass.), a steady, 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman who finished with a plus-14.

“He’s one of those guys that if you don’t notice him, he’s doing a good job out there,” said Belisle.

Fourth-line right wing Jeremy Finger might have logged the most ice time of all the freshmen, playing on the penalty kill and setting up in front of the net on the power play.  Forwards Giovanni Marinelli, Trevor Landgraf and Connor McStravick will look to graduate to everyday roles this winter.

Only two of last year’s freshmen didn’t return — center Max Reavis and backup goalie Tanner Jones. The ones back recognized early on they had a special bond.

“Honestly, right when I came to school,” said Colucci. “The first day we just kind of jelled together. It was kind of weird we jelled together so soon.”

The ECAC East is as deep a league as there is in Division 3. Norwich is coming off a fourth straight trip to the Frozen Four. Babson has a ton back from a league champion team. The Beacons and their super sophs open on Nov. 2 at UMass-Dartmouth.

“What I’ve been telling this class is they’re not going to sneak up on anybody anymore,” said Belisle.

“If we don’t do better than last year,” said Colucci, “it’s a failure, I assume.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.