By Mike Zhe
The NESCAC was a neatly split case of the “haves” and the “have-nots” last winter, with five teams finishing at least six games over .500 in league play and the other five losing more than they won.
Any talk about which of the “haves” should be back near the top of the standings starts with defending champion Bowdoin (23-4-2), which brings back six of its top eight scorers, including versatile forward/defenseman Ollie Koo (Greenwich, Conn.), whose 16-18-34 totals led a team that came within a win of the NCAA final four.
“They’re just loaded with talent,” said Amherst coach Jack Arena. “I think they’ve been the most talented team in the NESCAC for the past three or four years.”
Senior forward Harry Matheson (13-17-30) will captain the team, which also returns John McGinnis (11-18-29) and Colin Downey of East Sandwich, Mass. (8-18-26), from a team that led the league in scoring (4.24 goals) by a wide margin.
Amherst (15-7-3) graduated a third of its goals but returns players like Mike Rowbotham (7-18-25), Andrew Kurdlanski (12-9-21) and Brian Safstrom (11-8-19); figures to have some players step up on defense; and likely will hand the goaltending reins to former Belmont Hill star David Cunningham (Arlington, Mass.).
“I think we have a team this year that’s going to be very balanced,” said Arena. “I like our forwards. I like our defense. I don’t think we necessarily have the superstar kid this year, but we have good players up and down the lineup.”
Defensive-minded Williams (17-7-3) returns leading goal scorer Peter Mistretta (New Canaan, Conn.), who potted 14 last winter, and standout goalie Sean Dougherty (15-7-2, 1.98, .934). No team allowed fewer goals per game than the Ephmen’s 2.00.
Middlebury (13-11-2) lost six of seven games during a midseason stretch that saw it play tough league foes and nationally ranked out-of-conference opponents. It closed on an 8-4 run, losing to Bowdoin in the NESCAC semifinals, and will try to cut down on its 3.15 goals allowed. Forward Matt Silicoff (11-13-24) was named Rookie of the Year.
“I think you’ve got to look at the usual suspects,” said Colby coach Blaise MacDonald (Billerica, Mass.). “Bowdoin, Amherst, Williams and Middlebury. But I was also impressed with Wesleyan last year. I thought they had a very good team.”
Trinity (15-7-3) upped its win total by six last winter, thanks in part to the stellar play of goalie Ben Coulthard (South Windsor, Conn.) Coulthard, a senior this year, went 12-6-3 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .935 save percentage and is the biggest reason for optimism on a team that returns forward Jackson Brewer of Newton, Mass. (12-12-24), and added St. Anselm transfer Liam McKillop (16-16-32).
Wesleyan (10-11-4) brings back forward Keith Buehler, who led the league in scoring on his way to Player of the Year honors. His supporting cast includes goalie Nolan Daley of Exeter, N.H. (2.50, 9.26).
Colby (7-15-3) made strides under former UMass-Lowell coach MacDonald in his first year on Mayflower Hill. The White Mules rode a 4-1-1 stretch into the postseason, where they were edged, 2-1, by second-seeded Williams in the NESCAC quarterfinals.
With 13 returning players and 13 newcomers, there should be more battles to earn playing time. First-liners Nick Lanza of Rocky Hill, Conn. (12-15-27), and Ben Chwick (7-16-23) lead the cast of veterans.
“We were very thin, depth-wise,” said MacDonald. “If players played poorly they continued to play. I know we’ll have much more competitiveness for playing time.”
The three teams that finished 8-9-10 last year — Hamilton (6-16-3), Connecticut College (7-14-3) and Tufts (7-15-2) — also were the league’s three weakest defensive teams, allowing 3.58, 3.72 and 4.17 goals a game, respectively. Lowering those numbers is the first step toward making a climb in the standings
Keith Buehler, sr., F, Wesleyan. Led the league in scoring last year with 20-20-40. Will need to do it this year without partner in crime Nick Craven.
Robbie Donohoe (pictured) (Canton, Mass), sr., D, Middlebury. Two-way defenseman was instrumental in attack that averaged 3.38 goals last season.
Ben Coulthard (South Windsor, Conn,), sr., G, Trinity. In a season of good goaltending, his save percentage of .935 last year was the best.
MASCAC: Salem State’s turn, finally?
When UMass-Dartmouth defenseman Steve Ginand (Milford, Mass.) scored a third-period goal and his teammates hung on to beat Plymouth State, 2-1, in last year’s MASCAC championship game, it marked the end to a chapter, of sorts.
Both Dartmouth, which claimed the league’s second automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and Plymouth State graduated big senior classes, standout goalies among them. No question, the MASCAC will have a different feel this winter.
Two teams that return the bulk of their rosters are Salem State (14-12-1) and Westfield State (14-9-3), with Salem getting the nod as our preseason pick. The Vikings bring back numbers up front and on defense, and goalie Ryan Sutliffe heads into his senior year as the most accomplished backstop in the league.
Sutliffe’s numbers last year (3.04 GAA, .896 save percentage) weren’t his best and he’ll look to improve in his finale. Kyle Phelan (Barnstable, Mass.), Eric Defelice, Kristopher Faric and Chad Goodwin (Whitinsville, Mass.) all eclipsed the 20-point mark.
Plymouth State (19-7-1) enjoyed a nice two-year run at the top of the standings, one that ended with the loss to UMass-Dartmouth in last year’s title game. It’s got a nice defensive core led by Zach Sarig and Dave Walters, and coach Craig Russell (Northfield, Vt.) will mix in 15 new faces, including newcomers like forward Michael Economos and Chad Barthelmess and defensemen Tord Thoresen, Tommy Dowell and Erik Storm, who are expected to contribute immediately.
“I think we’ll be there in the end; there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Russell. “But right now? No way. We haven’t earned it.”
With 15-18-33 totals, Westfield State junior T.J. Powers (East Greenwich, R.I.) is the top returning scorer in the league. The Sacred Heart transfer developed some nice line chemistry with sophomore P.J. McCadden that should carry over to this year.
The Owls led the MASCAC in scoring last year (3.9 goals) and bring back most of the players responsible for that, Steve Evans being the notable exception. Ian Perrier (2.93, .921) gives them a nice last line of defense in goal.
“They didn’t lose a whole lot,” said Russell. “They’re going to be a little inexperienced on the blue line but they seem to have a lot of chemistry on their top two lines.”
“We have a good, veteran team,” said Westfield State coach Bob Miele. “It’s just getting some of the newer guys situated and up to speed.”
UMass-Dartmouth (12-8-7) has to replace a standout goalie in Ryan Williams and several of its top point men. Standout junior defenseman Ginand gets it done at both ends of the ice.
Fitchburg State (11-14-2) lost a lot, including Player of the Year Joe Caveney (Fitchburg, Mass.), but has a promising sophomore class that could blossom even more than it did a year ago. John Celli (Leominster, Mass.), Ryan Connolly and Max Lorenzen all scored double-digit goals as freshmen.
Ryan MacDonald’s 18 goals for Framingham State led the whole league last winter even as the Rams (2-19-3) struggled mightily, while Worcester State (6-17-3) had trouble scoring goals (2.27) and preventing them (3.58).
As coaches are fond of pointing out, the last four years in the MASCAC have produced four different champions. The last two earned bid to the NCAA tournament. Seven teams would love to achieve that this winter in a league that’s got a new look.
“Any team can win,” said Miele. “We do have some veterans coming back but it doesn’t really matter. Other teams have very good freshman classes coming in. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”