PLYMOUTH, N.H. - The Plymouth State College ice hockey program begins a new era this Saturday in the 1998-99 season opener at New Hampshire College.
The contest will mark the debut of new Panther head coach Mike Bonelli, and it is the first game for both schools in the new ECAC Northeast Conference. The 18-team conference combined what was formerly the ECAC North, Central and South divisions into one large one, with the top eight teams qualifying for the post-season tournament.
Plymouth State plays a 24-game schedule from November through February, with the ECAC Northeast Tournament the first 10 days in March. PSC has 10 home games at Waterville Valley Ice Arena, about a 20-minute drive from campus, beginning next Saturday (Nov. 14) against conference opponent Nichols (7:00 p.m.).
A 1993 graduate of New England College, Bonelli takes over the team from Sal Leale, who is now head coach at Massachusetts College. The new coach, who was one of Leale's assistant's last season, returns 14 players from a team that finished 11-14-1 overall but made the ECAC North-Central-South playoffs with a 9-6-1 conference record.
Plymouth State was picked 10th in ECAC Northeast pre-season poll. Perennial powers UMass Dartmouth and Fitchburg State were selected in the top two spots, and PSC's Saturday opponent, N.H. College, was rated fifth.
"Anytime you get a new coach it breathes new life into the program," said Bonelli. "The kids have responded positively. Obviously making the playoffs is a goal for every team in the league, but we want to set a precedent of where we stand in the Northeast, and be a play-off team year-in and year-out. We're not talking play-offs now, we're trying to focus on the first semester, then the second semester."
The strength of the team should be its offensive unit, according to Bonelli, led by the return of five of the top six scorers from last year's team. Juniors Eric Ryan (North Chelmsford, MA), Kevin Creighton (Falmouth, MA) and Rich Vega (New Milford, CT) should again be three of the leading scorers, along with sophomore Erik Nadeau (Waterville, ME), who was one of the top rookies in the league last season.
Ryan, a co-captain, has been second on the team in scoring the past two seasons, connecting on 35 points in 25 games last year and leading the team with 19 goals. He plays a valuable leadership role as well as being a top scoring threat. Creighton was the top scorer last season with 40 points in 25 games (16 goals, 24 assists), and Vega contributed 28 points, and according to Bonelli, they make things happen with their physical play and speed. The coach added that Nadeau is by far the most natural goal scorer on team, and he came into camp in tremendous shape, and should have an excellenet season.
Bonelli could also get scoring from senior Josh Perry (Falmouth, MA). A 40-point scorer over his first two seasons, Perry dipped to 16 points last season and Bonelli is looking for him to return to the form he showed as a freshman and sophomore. Sophomore Blaine Korbl (Manchester, NH) and junior Matt Dutton (White Plains, NY) return after a year off, and should be in the mix and could make impacts on the team.
Other veterans on the offensive unit include senior Todd Hengstenberg (Clark, NJ), who is rebounding off an injury but can make things happen when healthy, and sophomores Tom Beaulieu (Hudson, NH), Matt McPhee (Plymouth, MA) and John Power (Reading, MA). Bonelli says his top freshmen, Tony LaScola (Fairfax, VA), Aaron Fifield (Northfield Falls, VT) and Dave Moore (Anchorage, AK) will likely be in the line-up every night and looked to to contribute not just gain experience.
Although lack of experience along the blue line is a concern for Bonelli, PSC's defensive unit will be led by senior Steve Colonna (Falmouth, MA), an ECAC First Team All-Conference selection last season. The co-captain possesses good size and strength and is a scoring threat as well. Senior Rob Fox (Mashpee, MA) and junior Tim Conroy (Cohasset, MA) are two other experienced veterans that Bonelli can rely on, but he'll also look to freshmen John Hornor (Marlton, NJ), Brian Carpenter (Lewiston, ME) and Chris Tortorella (Larchmont, NY). Sophomore Jack Langelier (Marlboro, MA), a part-time player last season, returns and could get increased ice-time this year.
Sophomore Cliff Mask (London, Ont.) is the team's only returning goaltender from last season. He had a 5.00 goals against average in 12 games as a freshman, but can be one of the best in the league when he's on, according to Bonelli. He should be the top man between the pipes, with solid back-ups in freshman Larry Forgue (Nashua, NH) and Matt Jezierski (Plymouth, MA) competing for the No. 2 spot.
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