Preview: Ohio Hockey Begins New Era

By
Nick Hart

Dateline
Updated Sun, Sep 8, 2013 7:54 pm
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Jay Mazzarella, gone.

Jonathan Pietramala, gone.

Nick Rostek, say goodbye.

Tyler Pilmore, the team’s captain and all-time leading scorer, off to pro hockey.

The Ohio University club hockey team knew they would have to find a way to compensate for the loss of four fantastic hockey players in last year’s seniors, but now they must also do so with a new bench boss for the first time in 12 seasons.

Dan Morris, who racked up 334 wins and a national championship behind the bench for Ohio, decided to step down from the head coaching position during the summer. Morris has been replaced by an assistant coach from the previous season’s staff, Jonathon Sheridan. After spending a year of mentorship under Morris, Sheridan is eager to begin his own era of Bobcats hockey.

“The way I want to see our guys play hockey is ‘hard work first,’” Sheridan said. “We have a very skilled team, and skill can win games, but it’s hard to win championships with just skill. If we have the mindset that we’re never going to be outworked, that’s going to take us far.”

Without one game of head coaching experience under his belt, Sheridan is already talking about championships, showing he expects his teams to continue Ohio hockey’s tradition of being annual national title contenders. After all, the Bobcats are coming off a season in which they won their conference and made it to the final four of the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Championship before falling to the tournament’s eventual victor, Minot State. Sheridan knows under his guidance, this is a team capable of winning it all, and his message of hard work cannot afford to fall on deaf ears, because his players have some massive shoes to fill after the departure of last season’s senior class.

But the reality is not one player can be expected to step up and produce at the rate Pilmore did. He is the all-time leading scorer of one of the most historic programs in the ACHA, and players like him do not just come around every other year. However, the Bobcats have a fair share of offensive weapons that when combined can become quite the arsenal, even without Pilmore.

Brett Agnew and Michael Harris are returning for Ohio, both of which were offensive leaders all season long in the 2012-13 campaign. Harris, who was only a freshman last season, led the team in goals, and Agnew racked up 49 points, the second highest total on the team, behind Pilmore, of course. In Agnew’s case, though, he had the benefit of playing on the same line as Pilmore and Rostek last season. This year, he will be relied on to create more opportunities on his own, but he has shown before that he has the strength and skill to do so.

While Harris and Agnew are valuable assets, they cannot be the only source of offense for the Bobcats. That’s where Tom Whetsel comes in. Whetsel recorded 14 goals and eight assists in his sophomore season last year, but will be looked upon to raise his offensive production if the Bobcats want to reach their goal of a national title come March.

“Last year, I think [Whetsel] struggled a little bit to find his spot,” Sheridan said. “As a coaching staff, we’re all expecting big things from him. We’re expecting him to produce, and I think he’s expecting the same from himself.”

The losses of Pietramala and Mazzarella are not so much troubling to Ohio’s task of putting the puck in opponents’ nets, but rather keeping it out of its own. Both were Ohio’s best penalty-killing forwards, and their absences may be a difficult one early in the season. Sophomore Nick Hudeck showed flashes of greatness when playing a man down last season, but not nearly to the degree of Pietramala’s penalty killing prowess. Hudeck’s playing style should thrive under Sheridan’s “hard work first” regime, but he will need to quickly adjust to fully understanding Sheridan’s system on the P.K., or else the Bobcats may have some special teams trouble.

The team’s defense, on the other hand, will not have to worry about filling any voids left by graduated seniors. Every member of the 2012-13 Ohio blue line is back for this upcoming season, including J.C. Gulch. Gulch, a smooth-skating, puck-rushing rearguard, was named a second-team ACHA all-star last season and can be expected to lead the Bobcats’ defense again this year. Shut-down types like Paul Sergi and Duncan Green may have more asked of them to help cut back on the number of goals scored around the Ohio net mouth, but overall, the Bobcats’ defensive corps is in good shape and should benefit from its stability.

Stability would be a much less frequently used word to describe Ohio’s goaltending situation, though. Neither of the team’s starting goalies from last year, Fedor Dushkin or Matt Michno, will play for the Bobcats this season. Michno, a grad student during the 2012-13 season has moved on, and Dushkin made “a man’s decision,” as Sheridan put it, to focus on a heavy academic load this school year and forgo the option to return for his senior season of club hockey. This leaves the starting job between the pipes wide open for Aaron Alkema, who joined the team at the start of the spring semester last year. Alkema has some competition behind him, though.

“Alkema’s going to be looked to carry a load,” Sheridan said. “But two new faces we’ve got, Scotty Boyd and Ryan Heltion, I think those guys are going to push the envelope trying to get in the crease for games… Both guys have a real shot at taking over the spot if one of them wants it.”

Boyd and Heltion are far from the only new faces to don the green and white this season. After tryouts, Sheridan expanded the roster to 32 players, making room for nine new skaters and two goalies. Of those new players, Patrick Spellacy is a recruit from the North American Hockey League, the same Junior A league that once saw Tyler Pilmore and the NHL’s most recent Conn Smythe winner, Patrick Kane, rule the ice. Sheridan expects an immediate impact out of Spellacy, along with Joe Breslin (recruited from the Central Canadian Hockey League, a junior league that frequently contributes players to NCAA Division I and Division III schools).

Ohio’s talented players, both new and old, will return to the ice for their first game Sept. 20 against John Carroll at Bird Arena. That game will officially start a new era of Bobcat hockey, an era post-Morris, post-Pilmore. The Jonathon Sheridan chapter of Ohio will begin, and his “hard work first” team will begin their quest towards a fifth ACHA National Championship.

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