Sophomores prepare to take on heightened roles for UMass hockey

By Anthony Chiusano

(Photo by Judith Gibson-Okunieff)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

When looking at the Massachusetts hockey team’s roster, one can’t help but notice the absence of many of its stalwarts from its past few seasons.

Gone are Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira and Branden Gracel – the team’s 2013-2014 top three point scorers – who graduated following their senior seasons. Joel Hanley and Colin Shea followed the same path after overseeing the defensive unit in all 34 of UMass’ games last year.  In total, the Minutemen lost nine seniors to graduation.

As a result of this transition, UMass is left with a young team entering the 2014-2015 season, composed of nine freshmen and six sophomores.

Minutemen coach John Micheletto said that this newfound youth presents a refreshing atmosphere that has provided general excitement and anticipation for the upcoming year.

“It’s a different energy, a different dynamic with the group,” Micheletto said. “Now you’ve got a handful of young guys who are just eager to make a good impression on both the coaching staff and their teammates.”

While the freshmen continue to familiarize themselves to the college level, it’s been UMass’ sophomore class that has helped ease the adjustment period and continue to take on elevated roles, according to Micheletto.

“That group in general we’re leaning on an awful lot to make sure they’re helping with the freshmen since they were just in their shoes a year ago,” Micheletto said. “So, it’s not only the captains and the seniors that you’re asking to kind of get those younger guys acclimated.”

In particular, Micheletto said that forwards Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi have looked comfortable in their preparation to help lead the Minutemen offense in their second years.

Iacobellis was named the team’s 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year after recording 11 goals and 10 assists, which placed him fourth on the team in points (21).  Pigozzi finished right behind Iacobellis with 18 points in 33 games for UMass, notching five goals and 13 assists.

The two forwards played the majority of games on the same line last year, along with redshirt senior captain Troy Power. According to Iacobellis, Power played a crucial role in aiding their development in their first seasons.

“He showed us the ropes,” Iacobellis said. “We had a lot of questions and he always did an unbelievable job in explaining exactly what we wanted to know.”

Pigozzi added that observing how Power handled himself served as inspiration for how to act.

“Playing with older guys, like (Power), who has been here for many years, that’s obviously a huge help,” Pigozzi said. “You can simply look what he’s doing on a daily basis, and just follow behind him.”

Micheletto said he sees Iacobellis and Pigozzi taking on a similar teaching role with this year’s group of freshmen, which includes forward Patrick Lee, who has been regularly matched on the same line in practice as the two sophomores.

“He has a great personality and is always a kid that is going to want to be there to learn,” Iacobellis said about Lee. “He’s got a great attitude toward the game, he asks questions and he is excited to play.”

On the defensive side, Micheletto noted the important roles that sophomores Brennan Baxandall and Marc Hetnik will play on the backline in creating turnovers and initiating a quick transition into an aggressive offensive attack.

“In this day and age, if you don’t have four guys involved in the offense on a somewhat consistent basis, you’re going to be limited in terms of what your scoring is,” Micheletto said.  “Finding those soft spots in the second layer of the rush really becomes important.”

Baxandall, who appeared in 21 games for the Minutemen last season, is fully-recovered from offseason surgery, according to Micheletto.  The coach said that he expects the 6-foot-2 defenseman to return to the fast and aggressive style of play that he displayed last year.

As for Hetnik, Micheletto praised the flexibility he showed last year when he was moved to forward midway through the season to help a struggling offense.  Hetnik, who has since moved back to defense, finished with a goal and an assist.

“I would certainly like to contribute offensively a little bit more,” Hetnik said. “I think last year, we didn’t have much productivity on the blue line as far as offense goes, so I would like to be one of those guys who is active on the play and helps contribute to the scoring.”

In addition to their solid core of true sophomores, the Minutemen will also have redshirt sophomore forward Frank Vatrano available for a full season following his ineligibility that lasted through last year’s regular season.

Vatrano, who Micheletto said “loves scoring goals like nobody else” he’s ever seen, showed a glimpse of his offensive expertise in UMass’ Oct. 4 exhibition game against Dalhousie, when he tallied a goal and an assist in a 5-2 victory.

Micheletto said that although Vatrano is still relatively new to the team, he is already regarded as a veteran presence in the Minutemen locker room.

“He’s a gifted player who does things the right way and approaches practice and games with an unbelievably competitive mentality,” Micheletto said. “Guys respect him because of the way that he approaches the game.”

With this year’s collection of young talent, Hetnik said the loss of last year’s graduating class will not be a hindrance in its ultimate goal of making a run in the Hockey East tournament this season.

“I think that everyone brings a certain aspect to the table that will help us be there in March,” Hetnik said. “I like what I see.”


Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.